Wednesday, September 12, 2012

direct understanding of other minds

Today, at the annual convention of Japanese Psychological Association, there was a lecture on mirror neurons by Prof. Giacomo Rizzolatti. The title and the summary of his talk was as follows:

"The Mirror Neuron Mechanism and Its Role in Understanding Others"
Mirror neurons are a set of neurons that discharge both when the monkey executes a specific motor act and when it observes another individual doing a similar act. In the first part of my talk, I will review the basic functional properties of monkey frontal mirror neurons. I will describe first their motor properties. I will show that, as most neurons in the premotor cortex, mirror neurons code the goal of a motor act. I will review then their visual properties showing that mirror neurons represent mechanism that allows a direct understanding of what the agent is doing. I will present then evidence that also humans possess the mirror mechanism and that the anatomical location of mirror networks of the monkeys and of humans closely coincide. I will conclude discussing some clinical and social implications of these findings. (p.35 of the JPA2012 program)

As he quoted a related passage from Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, after the lecture I personally asked him about the possibility of direct understanding of other minds. As far as I understand, Merleau-Ponty seems to think that we understand other minds based on the direct perception of others' behaviors such as goal-oriented actions, or gestures and facial expressions in certain situations.

In today's lecture, Rizzolatti pointed out that the mirror neuron mechanism of humans serves not only for understanding intentions of others' actions, but also for understanding the others' emotional states such as pleasure, disgust or pain. He suggested the possibility of understanding the others 'from inside'. That's why I asked him about the direct understanding of other minds. His answer was very positive.

As is well known, about the understanding of other minds, there has been a debate between theory-theory and the simulation-theory and the mirror neuron mechanism has been interpreted as a kind of implicit or subpersonal simulation. He was negative to this kind of interpretation. He suggested the possibility of direct understanding of other minds, not being mediated by theoretical inferences or inner simulations, but by 'mirroring' through neurons. "It is not my idea", he said, "neuron says so".

I was so satisfied with his answers!