+ Mirror Neurons Fire Better at Close Range

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There is a newly discovered type of brain cell that may help us prep for social situations.

They are a special type of “mirror neurons,” which are thought to help us interpret the actions and intentions of other people.  Such neurons fire when you perform an action (picking up a book) but also when you watch someone else do the same thing.  This helps us understand what’s going on inside the other person.

Now researchers have discovered some mirror neurons that don’t just care about what another individual is doing, they also care about how far away he is when he’s doing it. 

And more importantly, whether it offers the potential for interaction.

A study published in the Journal Science, co-authored by Antonino Casile of the University of Tubingen, suggests that mirror neurons have an expanded role in social interactions.

According to Casile

This was very surprising for us.  The current view about mirror neurons is that they might underlie action understanding.  But the distance at which an action is performed plays no role in understanding what the others are doing.

These new findings suggest that certain neurons facilitate quick comprehension — but they may also help us instantly decide whether to respond and interact.

If a friend drops a glass, we’re ready to swoop in and try to catch it before it crashes and causes a problem.  More intimately, when a loved one wants to kiss us, we instantly lean in.

The researchers located mirror neurons (in the brains of two monkeys) which fired when the monkeys grabbed a small metal object and when they watched the experimenter do the same.

Unexpectedly, many of these neurons actually had a preference for where the experimenter was grabbing the object — about a fourth of the cells fired more rapidly when the action took place within arm’s reach of the monkey (its “peripersonal” space).

Over a range of distances, the closer the motion was to the monkey, the faster its peripersonal mirror neurons fired; the extrapersonal mirror neurons had the opposite response.

Distance shouldn’t make a difference for understanding or imitating a task, or for any of the commonly attributed functions of mirror neurons.  But distance plays a fundamental role in our decisions about how to respond to certain behaviors.

Marco Iacoboni, who researches human mirror neurons at UCLA, says “Our brain divides space into at least two major sectors — one in which we can do things, in which we can act, and one in which we can’t.  Our cognition, even fairly complex stuff like empathy, seems grounded in our body.”

The researchers who conducted the study also demonstrated that it isn’t mere distance that affects these neurons, but more specifically whether there is actual potential to act.

They did the same tests with a clear barrier between the monkey and the experimenter’s grabbing, eliminating the possibility of interaction.  Even though the monkey never tried to grab the object during any of the experiments, the barrier stopped some peripersonal mirror neurons from firing, even when the grabbing was very close to the monkey.  The extrapersonal mirror neurons, of course, stepped in and started firing. 

Casile thinks that these mirror neurons are analyzing actions both to understand what others are doing, and to decide what one could do in order to interact with them.  In addition, these analyses are happening simultaneously.  He says

We might be deciding whether and how to interact with an action not after understanding it but rather in parallel.

Says Iacoboni,

Mirror neurons may be very important for social relations.  These new findings truly speak to this idea.  The neurons may be encoding actions in a way that’s essential for cooperating with others, and very important for social interactions.

Citation: “Mirror Neurons Differentially Encode the Peripersonal and Extrapersonal Space of Monkeys,” by Vittorio Caggiano, Leonardo Fogassi, Giacomo Rizzolatti, Peter Thier, Antonio Casile.  Science, Vol. 324. No.5925. 

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