In this fascinating video, neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran gives a brief overview of the recently discovered mirror neurons, or what he likes to call “Gandhi neurons,” at a recent TED conference. As he describes in his talk, a mirror nueron is a motor neuron in your brain that:
fires when I reach and grab something, but it also fires when I watch Joe reaching and grabbing something. And this is truly astonishing. Because it’s as though this neuron is adopting the other person’s point of view. It’s almost as though it’s performing a virtual reality simulation of the other person’s action.
Ramachandran then describes another type of mirror neuron that works similarly with the sense of touch:
… In other words, if somebody touches me, my hand, [a] neuron in the somatosensory cortex in the sensory region of the brain fires. But the same neuron, in some cases will fire when I simply watch another person being touched. So, it’s empathizing the other person being touched.
So, most of them will fire when I’m touched in different locations. Different neurons for different locations. But a subset of them will fire even when I watch somebody else being touched in the same location. So, here again you have neurons which are enrolled in empathy. Now, the question then arises: If I simply watch another person being touched, why do I not get confused and literally feel that touch sensation merely by watching somebody being touched? I mean, I empathize with that person but I don’t literally feel the touch. Well, that’s because you’ve got receptors in your skin, touch and pain receptors, going back into your brain and saying don’t worry, you’re not being touched. So, empathize, by all means, with the other person, but do not actually experience the touch otherwise you’ll get confused and muddled.
Okay, so there is a feedback signal that vetos the signal of the mirror neuron preventing you from consciously experiencing that touch. But if you remove the arm, [or] you simply anesthetize my arm, so you put an injection into my arm, anesthetize the brachial plexus, so the arm is numb, and there is no sensations coming in, if I now watch you being touched, I literally feel it in my hand. In other words, you have dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. So, I call them Gandhi neurons, or empathy neurons.
Pretty wild stuff. The whole video is definitely worth a watch. Enjoy!