mirrors and making sense of another like oneself

The evocatively named “mirror neurons” have recently been attracting much discussion in the blogsphere. Mirror neurons seemed to be associated with hightened affective states and hyper-speculation in humans.

But they are not the only neurons with these properties. As early as 1993, two scientists found that a particular neuron in a cat’s brain responded to a wide range of auditory stimuli, but not when the cat’s eyes were closed or in the dark. After their work had been “interrupted by the inescapable late-night giddiness suffered (enjoyed?) by those who do electrophysiological experiments,” the scientists reached these conclusions:

we finally concluded that cats must be deaf at night. This, of course, began a string of other ridiculous conclusions: blind cats are probably deaf too; and on and on. [Stein and Meredith (1993) p. 108]

These are truly astonishing hypotheses!

Key images that mirror neurons evoke are probably biologically misleading. Mirrors produce representations of objects that have little relation to the physical form of the mirror. Mirrors do not adaptively tune to subjects of interests. Mirrors are typically part of a “one brain” circuit. Making sense of another like oneself is rather different from looking in a mirror.

The human brain evolved and develops in social circumstances – circumstances of living bodies communicating intensively with others like themselves. In game theory, the rules of the game are assumed to be common knowledge among the participants. In communication among conspecifics, the common structures of conspecifics’ bodies are rules of the game. The flesh-and-bone relations of whole living bodies are central to making sense of another like oneself.

Sensory tuning is an important feature of living bodies. One neuroscientist described this process thus:

every percept has two components intertwined, the sensory-induced re-cognition of a category of cognitive information in memory and the categorization of new sensory impressions in the light of that retrieved memory. Perception can thus be viewed as the interpretation of new experiences based on assumptions from prior experience — in other words, the continuous testing by the senses of educated hypotheses about the world around us. [Fuster (2003) pp. 84-5]

“Perceptual prediction” effects, such as representational momentum and the flash lag effect, suggest that the “sensory-induced re-cognition of a category of cognitive information in memory” can be highly decentralized and not dependent on traditionally defined cognitive and memory circuits.

Recently two scholars put forward a provocative proposal for motor involvement in perceiving conspecifics:

The various brain areas involved in translating perceived human movement into corresponding motor programs collectively act as an emulator, internally simulating the ongoing perceived movement. This emulator bypasses the delay of sensory transmission to provide immediate information about the ongoing course of the observed action as well as its probable immediate future. Such internal modeling allows the perceiver to rapidly interpret the perceptual signal, to react quickly, to disambiguate in situations of uncertainty, and to perceptually complete movements that are not perceived in their entirety. … Thus, what originally appeared to be a neurological extravagance – the activation of motor resources when no motor movement is intended – may instead be an elegant solution to a perceptual problem. [Wilson and Knoblich (2005) p. 468]

This proposal, while speculative, at least shifts attention from representations, meaning, and linguistic expression to presence, the real-time experience of making sense of another like oneself. The latter seems to me to connect more insightfully to developing biological knowledge about mirror neurons.

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Fuster, Joaquin M. (2003), Cortex and mind: unifying cognition (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Stein, Barry E. and M. Alex Meredith (1993), The Merging of the Senses (Cambridge: MIT Press).

Wilson, Margaret and Günther Knoblich (2005), “The Case for Motor Involvement in Perceiving Conspecifics,” Psychological Bulletin, v. 131, n. 3 pp. 460-73.

sensory economics: cheaper is better

Experimental studies indicate that persons rate images that they process more fluently as more aesthetically pleasing:

We propose that aesthetic pleasure is a function of the perceiver’s processing dynamics: The more fluently perceivers can process an object, the more positive their aesthetic response. We review variables known to influence aesthetic judgments, such as figural goodness, figure-ground contrast, stimulus repetition, symmetry, and prototypicality, and trace their effects to changes in processing fluency. Other variables that influence processing fluency, like visual or semantic priming, similarly increase judgments of aesthetic pleasure.

Speed of identification and categorization of stimuli indicate processing fluency. They are also plausible indicators of the bodily cost of processing stimuli. Thus an economic interpretation of these results is that, among images with a common (zero) external price, persons prefer images that they process at low bodily cost.

Processing fluency implicitly refers to some processing objective. A typical biological approach divides making sense into stages of sensation, perception, and cognition. Then perceptual fluency refers to processing through the stage of perception. Conceptual fluency would then be understood as adding additional meaning-related processing beyond the stage of perception. However, these stages are not biologically well-defined. Much evidence points to a more flexible and functionally organized process of making sense.

The experimental evidence on processing fluency might be better interpreted with respect to the subjects’ plausible goals in processing the stimuli that the experiments present. The experiments present to subjects individual images not related to a narrative or a personal encounter. For example, some experiments present subjects with random patterns of dots. The subjects are then asked questions about the image, such as “How attractive is it?” and “To what category does it belong?” The latter question clearly points to an information processing objective. The former question is an affective evaluation of the results of such an information processing objective. These experiments thus suggest that, given an information processing objective, persons prefer images that they process at low bodily cost.

These experiments point to much additional useful research. Recent work on multi-sensory perception and mirror neurons indicates that the body creates common effects from different sensory services. That suggests, as does other evidence, that sensory form affects stimulus processing fluency. Moreover, making sense of information, narratives, and persons probably has significantly different implications for stimulus processing. Experiments that incorporate multiple sensory dimensions and that more explicitly structure communicative objectives could make an important contribution to science and to the practical design of communication services.

None of these comments should be interpreted to devalue aesthetic pleasure in the here and now. Experimentally unifying figural goodness, figure-ground contrast, stimulus repetition, symmetry, prototypicality, and visual and semantic priming in a common economics of processing fluency and preference is a great scientific achievement!

Cited reference:
Reber, Rolf, Norbert Schwarz, and Piotr Winkielman (2004), “Processing Fluency and Aesthetic Pleasure: Is Beauty in the Perceiver’s Processing Experience?” Personality and Social Psychology Review, v.8 no. 4 pp. 364-82.

call to action to form a broad-based coalition of progressive organizations

Singles’ Party

Anyone lacking the career and family support traditionally provided by a “wife” is at a serious disadvantage in academe, evidence shows. — National Academies (2006)

How many women,
paying the full share
of their rent,
how many men,
surveying decaying
carrots in the frig,
have thought of having
a singles’ party,
a party for singles,
the single most oppressed
minority in America.

A single woman
is a witch or a bitch;
a single man,
a misanthrope or
a child molester.
And in our age
when everyone’s actions
come with no-fault
if you’re single

it’s your fault.
So half your food will
rot and you’ll pay double
for your apartment. And
the claim that your spouse
wanted to move
you can’t use
to explain
why you wanted
to change jobs.

Single people, rally
your votes!
Organize and mobilize!
Demand a deduction
for standing alone and vulnerable
on only health insurance.
Demand leave to care for
your inner child.
Demand two for one
social obligations, and
saints and hermits on
postage stamps. Demand
sympathy, understanding,
and respect.

Remember –
politicians tremble at
Cadillac drivers clutching
social security checks. You
must be focused, firm, and earnest.
Only in politics can you
assert your rights and
control your life.