From a philosophical perspective, the discovery of mirror neurons is exciting because it gave us an idea of how motor primitives could have been used as semantic primitives: that is, how meaning could be communicated between agents. Thanks to our mirror neurons, we can consciously experience another human being’s movements as meaningful.Perhaps the evolutionary precursor of language was not animal calls but gestural communication. The transmission of meaning may initially have grown out of the unconscious bodily self-model and out of motor agency, based, in our primate ancestors, on elementary gesturing. Sounds may only later have been associated with gestures, perhaps with facial gestures—such as scowling, wincing, or grinning—that already carried meaning. Still today, the silent observation of another human being grasping an object is immediately understood, because, without symbols or thought in between, it evokes the same motor representation in the parieto-frontal mirror system of our own brain. As Professor Rizzolatti and Dr. Maddalena Fabbri Destro from the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Parma put it: “[T]he mirror mechanism solved, at an initial stage of language evolution, two fundamental communication problems: parity and direct comprehension. Thanks to the mirror neurons, what counted for the sender of the message also counted for the receiver. No arbitrary symbols were required. The comprehension was inherent in the neural organization of the two individuals.”
Such ideas give a new and rich meaning not only to the concepts of “grasping” and “mentally grasping the intention of another human being,” but, more important, also to the concept of grasping a concept—the essence of human thought itself. It may have to do with simulating hand movements in your mind but in a much more abstract manner. Humankind has apparently known this for centuries, intuitively: “Concept” comes from the Latin conceptum, meaning “a thing conceived,” which, like our modern “to conceive of something,” is rooted in the Latin verb concipere, “to take in and hold.” As early as 1340, a second meaning of the term had appeared: “taking into your mind.” Surprisingly, there is a representation of the human hand in Broca’s area, a section of the human brain involved in language processing, speech or sign production, and comprehension. A number of studies have shown that hand/arm gestures and movements of the mouth are linked through a common neural substrate. For example, grasping movements influence pronunciation— and not only when they are executed but also when they are observed. It has also been demonstrated that hand gestures and mouth gestures are directly linked in humans, and the oro-laryngeal movement patterns we create in order to produce speech are a part of this link.
Broca’s area is also a marker for the development of language in human evolution, so it is intriguing to see that it also contains a motor representation of hand movements; here may be a part of the bridge that led from the “body semantics” of gestures and the bodily self-model to linguistic semantics, associated with sounds, speech production, and abstract meaning expressed in our cognitive self-model, the thinking self. Broca’s area is present in fossils of Homo habilis, whereas the presumed precursors of these early hominids lacked it. Thus the mirror mechanism is conceivably the basic mechanism from which language evolved. By providing motor copies of observed actions, it allowed us to extract the action goals from the minds of other human beings—and later to send abstract meaning from one Ego Tunnel to the next.
The mirror-neuron story is attractive not only because it bridges neuroscience and the humanities but also because it illuminates a host of simpler social phenomena. Have you ever observed how infectious a yawn is? Have you ever caught yourself starting to laugh out loud with others, even though you didn’t really understand the joke? The mirror-neuron story gives us an idea of how groups of animals—fish schools, flocks of birds—can coordinate their behavior with great speed and accuracy; they are linked through something one might call a low-level resonance mechanism. Mirror neurons can help us understand why parents spontaneously open their mouths while feeding their babies, what happens during a mass panic, and why it is sometimes hard to break away from the herd and be a hero. Neuroscience contributes to the image of humankind: We are all connected in an intersubjective space of meaning—what Vittorio Gallese calls a “shared manifold.”
Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of The Mind and The Myth of The Self.
Reality is not a fixed entity. It is a contingent interlocking of moving events. And events do not just happen to us. We are an integral part of every event. We enter into the shape of events, even as we long for an absolute in which to rest. It may be just this longing for an absolute in which our concepts might not have to be responsible for our percepts, and so indirectly our reality, that explains the hostility of our ordinary intellect to these shadowy modes of mind.
Our inherited representation, our world view, is a language-made affair. It varies from culture to culture. Edward Sapir, the linguist, called this idea of ours that we adjust to reality without the use of language an illusion. He claimed that the “real world” is to a large extent built up on the language habits of the group.
None of us exercises our logical, social thinking as a blank slate, or as a photographic plate, seeing what is “actually there.” We focus on the world through an esthetic prism from which we can never be free except by exchanging prisms. There is no pure looking with a naked, innocent eye. Even our most critical, analytical, scientific, or “detached” looking is a verification search, sifting through possibilities for a synthesis that will strengthen the hypotheses that generate the search.
Our world view is a cultural pattern that shapes our mind from birth. It happens to us as fate. We speak of a child becoming “reality-adjusted” as he responds and becomes a cooperating strand in the social web. We are shaped by this web; it determines the way we think, the way we see what we see. It is our pattern of representation and our response sustains the pattern.
Yet any world view is arbitrary to an indeterminable extent. This arbitrariness is difficult to recognize since our world to view is determined by our world view. To consider our world view arbitrary and flexible automatically places our world of reality in the same questionable position. And yet we are always changing this world view. We represent such changes as discoveries of absolutes in order to protect outselves from our arbitrary status, and to avoid the implication that human thinking is a creative process. We deny that disciplines of mind synthetically create; we insist we are but discovering “nature’s truths.” We possess an open-ended potential at considerable variance with contemporary nihilisms, but we must recognize and accept the dynamic interplay of representation-response if we are not to be acted on rather than fully acting.
It has been claimed that our minds screen out far more than we accept, else we would live in a world of chaos. Our screening process may be essential, but it is also arbitrary and changeable. We pick and choose, ignore or magnify, illuminate or dampen, expand upon or obscure, affirm or deny, as our inheritance, adopted discipline, or passionate pursuit dictate. At root is an esthetic response, and we invest our esthetic responses with sacred overtones.
Most people respond automatically to their given circle of representation, and strengthen it by their unconscious allegiance. Since their cultural circle is made of many conflicting drives for their allegiance, their lives are fragmented and ambiguous.
This centering of mind fills a person with power and conviction. It creates mathematicians, saints, or Nazis with equal and impartial ease.
We look on archetypal world views, those held by “primitive” tribes, and consider them archaic “survival” mechanisms. We have been taught that the real “out there” has been seen only dimly before, but with a progressively more realistic, aware, civilized eye, culminating in our viewpoint. (Alien world views can thus be exploited or even removed as threats to our true one, lending a religious sanctification to our culture destructions.)
Levi-Strauss, the French anthropologist, challenges our smug chauvinisms. He claims that archaic thought patterns were highly disciplined, intellectual structures, designed to give the world coherence, shape, and meaning. This is, in fact, just what all world views do. Primitive man “sacralized” his intellectual structure no more than we do ours. Neither system is any more true than the other. Ours is more esthetic-ally desirable to us, but is bought at the same price all selective systems are, the price of those possibilities sacrificed to keep a limited structure intact. The difference between Einstein’s relative universe and the Dream-Time cosmology of the Australian aborigine is not a matter of truth or falsehood, realism or illusion, progression or regression, intelligence or stupidity, as the naive realists have claimed. It is a matter of esthetic choice. Each system produces results unobtainable to the other; each is closed and exclusive.
Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg.