AlKhemy: Steampunk-Gypsy-Naiad-Acharya (thenaiadmuse) wrote in phil_of_mind,
AlKhemy: Steampunk-Gypsy-Naiad-Acharya

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Mirror Neurons and ToM

Hello! I just joined the community and thought I would share something that I posted in my own journal just the other day.

When I take Eden -the five year-old whom I am a Nanny for- to the park I usually end up playing with her for the whole time we spend there. I also manage to attract a large amount of the other park children (I seem to make their Play-Dar go off!) as well! Today however, she ran ahead and started playing without me so I sat down on the sidelines and just watched. I kind of liked just sitting there and observing the way she played. It gave me time to contemplate her.

Watching a child is like seeing the reflections of our world and our own actions. It also reminds me of an article I read over a year ago (and posted about- see my memories!) in regards to neuroscience and how children develop a theory of mind (ToM). In 1996 three neuroscientists found a curious cluster of cells in the premotor cortex, an area of the brain responsible for planning movements in the macque monkeys they were studying. The scientists noticed the cluster of cells fired not only when the monkey performed an action, but likewise when the monkey saw the same action performed by someone else. The cells responded the same way whether the monkey reached out to grasp a peanut, or merely watched in envy as another monkey or a human did. Because these cells reflected the actions the monkeys observed in others they were appropriately named mirror neurons. Later the research confirmed that mirror neurons also existed in the human brain and that these cells reflect not just observed actions, but sensations and emotions as well.

Since their discovery, mirror neurons have been implicated in a broad range of phenomena, including certain mental disorders such as autism. Mirror neurons may even be a way to help cognitive scientists explain how children develop ToM. This is how children begin to understand that others have minds similar to their own. Since the 1996 discovery, cognitive scientists have come up with a number of theories to explain how ToM develops. The "theory theory" and "simulation theory" are currently two of the most popular.

Theory theory describes children as budding social scientists. The idea is that children collect evidence (in the form of gestures and expressions) and use their everyday understanding of people to develop theories that explain and predict the mental state of people they come in contact with. I see this in Eden everyday. I see her reaching out trying to grasp an understanding of things. I watch her test for reactions in the things she does and ask questions as to how she may feel towards the things she puts out and takes in.

Vittorio Gallese, an Italian neuroscientist who favours the simulation theory -and one of original discovers of mirror neurons- has another name for this theory: the "Vulcan Approach," in honor good ole' Spock, who comes from the Star Trek alien race called the Vulcans. Vulcans were known to suppresses their emotions because they believed it hindered their ability to use logic. Because of this Spock was often unable to understand the emotions that underlie human behavior of his fellow officers. Eden, being as young as she is, does not always understand why people do the things we do- and frankly when I'm asked to explain certain things I can't give a good explanation either! I've just been conditioned to accept them over the years!

Adults have the advantage of our accumulated experiences so that when we walk into a new situation we will have at least an idea of the possible possibilities. As I watched Eden and the other children I saw them in their state of just trying to build the foundation of what wll become their experience. They are just starting and they have no expectations or preconceptions. They are just playing and doing. As I thought on this I heard an excited "Kimberleeeeiiiigh! Wanna make sand stew?!?" And so I jumped up and plopped myself down beside Eden and began to chop-up sand vegetables with my imaginary knife! ;o)
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So... this is an interesting anecdote, and a decent broad-brush illustration of a couple of interesting theories.

But... where's the philosophy? Which is the right theory? Or, at least, what's a good thing about one or both theories? Does the way a child forms a ToM have anything to do with what the mind actually is?