Spindle and mirror neurons

Social science is growing; it is giving scientific meaning to our everyday lives by helping explain it in conceptual ways.  It helps us by building knowledge, as only science can, so that we can benefit from it, personally.  Growing in this direction also is biological science.  The discoveries of two types of cells that are within our brains, mirror and spindle neurons, help explain the intricacies of our lives, and most important, confirm our relationship with the world, the one we always knew we had.  These cells define for us in a concrete way how our feelings work and how we communicate empathically.


Mirror neurons provide a perfect example of what we mean by a social cognitive mechanism where there is neurophysiological activity in response to your own and another person’s action.  (Firth and Blakemore)

Mirror neurons 
Mirror neurons allow people to connect on a unique level by sharing emotions, just as Andrea's son connected with the crying doll in the television ad.  We link together on a significant emotional level through the senses, mostly through eye contact.  Mirror neurons also are important for helping us conceptualize complex ideas by bringing to life our learned information to our imaginations.  UCLA brain mapping scientists suggest that


"mirror neurons play a key role in the mental ‘re-enactment’ of actions when linguistic descriptions of those actions are conceptually processed.”   (Aziz-Zadeh)

The discovery is that it provides is proof that within human physiology is specific design to make humans interrelate emotionally; that a key component of human success is social interaction.  In many respects, the proof is of a political nature; there is nothing in the research that tells us anything that we didn't already know.  The research changes the playing field for those who refute the importance of emotions, and most important, those who refute a human relationship with nature.


"they reflect back an action we observe in someone else making us mimic that action or have that impulse to do so."   (Goleman)


Nature has granted us tools that help bring us together by having us communicate in ways that are beyond what we think of as normal communication: by sharing emotions.  We perceive emotions in others, as Andrea's boy did, and those emotions are reflected within us; we can emotionally relate to the experience of the other persons, beings, or even images.  What is even more significant is the natural need, or benefit, of such a facility.  Social interaction is so important in nature that such a facility would develop to perfection over many millions of years.


"mirror system facilitates action understanding, suggesting that we understand other people’s actions by mapping observed action onto our own motor representations of the same action. It has been proposed that the mirror system might have evolved to facilitate communication, empathy and the understanding of other people’s minds"   (Firth and Blakemore)



Mirror cells are found in nature

Mirror cells are found in great numbers in humans, but not exclusively so; they are also found in animals:


"The density of these cells is greatest in humans, but they are also prevalent in the great apes — bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, but not in monkeys."  (Nimchinsky)

Spindle cells: another discovery 
Another recent discovery of a specific and powerful neurological component is that of the spindle cell.  These cells promote empathy by helping humans experience self-consciousness, act cooperatively, and trust; therefore they are also important to social interaction.  They are described as connector cells, sending waves of brain-level information between parts of the brain important for analytic thinking and other parts which are more emotional, and hence social.  By combining efforts from different and specialized parts of the brain, spindle cells help us conceptualize.  They are large cells with only two extending tendrils-- unusual for a neuron.  They are found in greatest numbers in two areas of the mind, the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex, which are respectively associated emotion and understanding
Further research has found that the cells’ role in the brain is related to decision-making and other functions like learning, remembering, and recognizing the surrounding environment.


"Hominoids possess more elaborate control of their facial movements, greater number and complexity of facial expressions and perhaps even a neural basis for emotional representation and comprehension in the form of mirror neurons and spindle cells."  (Parr, Waller, and Fugate)

Scientists only discovered spindle neurons and their role in the brain in 1999, when it was discovered in some great apes and humans.  Most of the discussion on the Internet is about a new discovery; that spindle cells exist in humpback whales, and other species of cetecea.  A UCLA brain mapping team commented on the discovery:


"The scientists also believe that spindle neurons in whales could be responsible for a few of their human-like traits, such as forming social groups and complex communication."   (Hof and der Gucht)


The discovering scientists drew conclusions relating the importance of these cells in showing the universality of the meaning of these cells in the minds of humans and animals.


 “In spite of the relative scarcity of information on many cetacean species, it is important to note in this context that sperm whales, killer whales, and certainly humpback whales, exhibit complex social patterns that included intricate communication skills, coalition-formation, cooperation, cultural transmission and tool usage."  (Hof and der Gucht)

How mirror and spindle cells work together to create empathy

A trait that is used to describe human superiority to the other animals is self-recognition.  Because spindle cells are so important in helping create complex thoughts such as the idea of a self and our relationship with the world, it is being proposed that the ability of self-recognition and the recognition of others require spindle cells.  The concept of self-recognition is proved in a test by using a mirror to see if animal can recognize itself.  Elephants have shown self-recognition in the same ways primates and whales have, therefore leading scientists to see if they can find spindle cells in elephant brains.  (de Waal, Plotnik, and Reiss)


"presented three elephants at the Bronx Zoo in New York City with a mirror. They began inspecting themselves with their trunks while staring at their reflections. One elephant, called Happy, also repeatedly touched a mark painted onto its head.  The importance of the development of these facilities in animal brains leads quickly to the topic of evolution, as scientists quickly put dates on their initial appearance and their perfection."  (de Waal, Plotnik, and Reiss)

The relationships of these discoveries with the evolution of humanity, as well as comparisons of human evolution with the animals found to have these special cells, have captivated virtually everyone familiar with the discoveries:

"Spindle cells were long thought unique to humans and our closest great ape relatives, helping to define what makes us 'special.'   Now it seems that larger cetaceans have spindle cells too - and have had them 15 million years longer than primates. A beautiful case of convergent evolution, this finding also calls further in to question the ethics of whale hunting, and could change the way we think about our interaction with whales overall."    (Michael, Artiloop)


How these cells help create our concepts of fairness and goodness 
It is easy to see that these cells assist in the development of intricate human thought. In the light these discoveries, new techniques have been developed to assist our understanding of both animal and human intelligence.  What scientists are proposing and beginning to prove is that


"empathy, or emotional awareness, might have a neural basis in specialized cells in the neocortex, that is, spindle cells that have been associated with self-conscious emotions, and mirror neurons that have recently been shown to activate in response to communicative facial gesture."  (Parr, Waller, and Fugate)


Empathy as described by the scientists is natural to children; we are born with the tools of empathy within us, and we develop it early on. Studies show that through empathy children "instinctively" know right from wrong.

Even young children seem able to distinguish what is right or wrong in simple stories where conventional rules are broken, and those where ‘moral’ rules are broken (Smetana et al. 1999). These two kinds of rules are not usually distinguished explicitly. Yet, four-year olds can indicate that if permission is given it is all right to break a conventional social rule, talking in class, for example, but not all right to break a rule that prevents harm being done to others, such as hitting another child. Amazingly, even those children who had poor models around them and had themselves been maltreated were unerring in this judgment.  (Preston, de Waal)


We can see now from science how empathy integrates different parts of the mind, all of which have different functions.  Some parts of the mind are analytic, some assist our memories, and others help us form emotions.  Science is showing how mirror and spindle cells help these facilities work together to strengthen our understandings of the world around us.  Azar Nafisi, an Iranian writer living in the West, who writes in opposition to the controlled and war-like conditions in her native country, makes a most important contribution as she describes for us how these combined forces within our minds can extend our empathy beyond our senses to transcend distance and social differences.  She describes how the brain's most elegant constructs, empathic thought and imagination, naturally work together to create humanity's most noble reflections, and how necessary these reflections are.


No amount of political correctness can make us empathize with a child left orphaned” .. “Only curiosity about the fate of others, the ability to put ourselves in their shoes, and the will to enter their world through the magic of imagination, creates this shock of recognition. Without this empathy there can be no genuine dialogue, and we as individuals and nations will remain isolated and alien, segregated and fragmented.”  (Azar Nafisi)