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On Being MovedReview - On Being Moved
From Mirror Neurons to Empathy
by Stein Braten (Editor)
John Benjamins, 2007
Review by Roy Sugarman, Ph.D.
Jul 8th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 28)

The field of social cognition has begun to involve. While general cognition has dominated the field since the Stanford Binet, Goldstein, Luria and Vygotsky got neuropsychology defined and under way in the early 20th Century, the social brain has been investigated more effectively recently. Social cognition largely investigates attributional biases that predispose us, or reveal our predisposition to behavioral illness, as well as emotional intelligence and social skills.  Good emotional intelligence imparts emotional resilience, and includes empathy, intuiting, self esteem and self efficacy.  Empathy is however the offshoot of a more complex system, not just representing an intersubjective appreciation of other's emotion, but a response in the brain to observed activity in another, mirroring the motor process.

The editor presents in this volume, the proceedings of the Theory Forum Symposium on "Foundations of pre-verbal inter-subjectivity in light of new findings" in 2004. There were three previous publications.

The inter-subjective phrase here refers to early work with animals where monkeys observing food grasping or other motor sequences, 'mirrored' this activity before and during their own motor sequences.

Practitioners of personalized training in health clubs are now picking up on this for training.  Greg Yau in San Francisco for instance, notes that when carrying out a QiGong sequence with others watching, those in the audience become more stable after watching him perform, measured by pre- and post- viewing by sternum push.  He holds that the motor and premotor cortices are making connections with muscle pathways simply by watching, using the mirror neuron system, described as intersubjective above.

Mirror neurons sit adjacent to motor neurons, firing in an observer who is doing nothing but watch another person engaged in a motor sequence.  The visual information is thus mapped out into the motor cortex, in mimicry of what the observer would be using in carrying out the observed behavior.  In allowing us to learn skills by copying, the system is particularly sensitive to learning goal directed actions.

That was it for trivia: the book is a serious content approach to the subject.  The first section introduces what is described as the intersubjective matrix, and the multiple layers that make up intersubjectivity. Part two addresses the task of relating intersubjectivity in humans to the discovery of mirror neurons. Part Three tracks the history from preverbal to verbal intersubjectivity in child development, as part of the developmental trajectory by which children learn, using their immediately endowed visual mental tracking, and later, their verbal working memory.  This then forms the intersubjective matrix.  Part four then looks at the applications and therapeutic implications of the matrix. With relevance to social cognition, this synchrony or temporal coordination in Stern's words, implies we are each living in another's center, participating in an aspect of someone else's experience.  The emotional interpretation of this would then be empathic.

The editor, together with Colowyn Trevarthen examine how the shared movements of parent and child lead to simulation and conversation, a development of what they call cultural common sense.  Stern previously had objections to Trevarthen some 30 year ago, which tells you how long this field has been playing out.  Stern partially revised his opinion of the concept of primary intersubjectivity and the attributions made then, convincing him and these authors of the early existence of primary intersubjectivity.  This demonstrates perhaps what the science and discovery of brain mirror neurons has meant to this field, and its controversies.

In his own chapter, Stern, who is not Norwegian, but an American from both Cornell and Geneva Universities, asserts there must be mechanisms for what we regard as the domains of social cognition, including intrasubjectivity in general.  He demonstrates the neuroscience findings that support this contention, which finally led him to accord Trevarthen the confirmation of being right about infants and the primacy of their behavior related to intersubjectivity. 

Another oft-quoted phrase in these quarters is the Russian Doll model of empathy and imitation.  The doll is famously known for its layers, with one doll giving way to the next until a core is reached which was the primal entity, with nature using this to scaffold the next step in evolution.  Nature, like evolution "throws nothing away" building on each successive evolution with the past step still there in vestigial form.  De Waal, in his fashion, sees the old always remaining present in the new, believing this to be true of the debate of the origins of empathy and imitation, in a biologists eyes, where not only the newly evolved is on a pedestal.  At the core of the Russian doll model is that of perception-action mechanism, or PAM. This would include the capacity or tendency to match another creature's emotional state.  Cognitive empathy is thus emotional empathy combined with appraisal of the other creature's condition or situation, allowing then the tailoring of interaction to meet the needs of the other in a pro-social way.  This may include looking for clues in the other's behavior and situation, so: why are they crying or frustrated or sad etc, will lead to action to remediate that. Otherwise, we would be socially disconnected, using the Mr Spock kind of reasoning to find out what emotions are coming to pass.

Part Two deals with the origins of neurosocial support of pre- and verbal intersubjectivity and altercentricity.  Ferrari and Gallese, of the University of Parma, explore mirror neurons and intersubjectivity further.  They explore if mirror neurons and related mechanisms represent the neurobiological basis for the expression of at least some forms of primary and secondary intersubjectivity. This involves matching visual and other external input to sensorimotor systems to allow sufficient emotive connectivity.  This would involve the embodied simulation of the observed act or emotion in the observer, focusing on circumscribed neuronal systems.  From their view, social cognition is not only explicitly reasoning about the contents of some other human's mind, since embodied simulation actually gives us personal experiential information and insight into that other mind.  This goes further, allowing the final goal of the motor actions to be anticipated.  This would for instance allow a goalkeeper to position correctly in response to a challenge, anticipating the final goal of the movement. That is why a deflection taken by the missile after release is so difficult to anticipate and counter by changing motoric responses.

Riitta Hari from Helsinki addresses the issue of how we assess 'Mind' by reading brain and body during social intercourse.  They look at MEG data using the level of the 20Hz motor cortex oscillations at the university.  They discuss further the role of many different systems, which must cope with sensory and motor information. This complex network must also include cues on the origin of language necessarily, and Fadiga and Craighero similarly look at electrophysiological data on motor representations.  Mirror neurons thus act as the direct link between communicating individuals, made clear when we try and learn another language by listening to others, and then emulating both the signal and its intended meaning, which could be arbitrary otherwise. Theirs is thus a search for a non-arbitrary semantic link between communicating individuals.

In contrast then to the egocentric views of development proposed by Piaget and others, Braten looks at the altercentric model, a process of self-other resonance and mirroring of an externally directed focus.  In other words, if an infant tries to return the favor of feeding us, as he demonstrates, their mouths open as they direct food to us, their mouths close as they see ours close over the food.  Similarly, audiences may embark on various motor activities, reinforcing what happens on the stage or screen, especially if it is agonizing, such as a person trying to leap over an obstacle, or swerve or so on.  Again, multiple layers of intersubjectivity are conjured.  Vargha-Khadem and Ligeois work from speech to gene in their explorations, based on an exploration of the KE family, burdened with severe apraxia.  fMRI studies demonstrated the effect on the brains of the affected members, bilaterally.  Meltzhoff and Brooks return to intersubjectivity and language, concentrating on the pre-verbal sharing.  Interestingly, preverbal children will only usually point at an object when the other person is seen to be watching with eyes open. This allows them to experiment with blindfolding, and teaching groups and controls differently, so that the treated group realized the effect of blindfolding, and didn't act as if the blindfolded adult could still see.  This would mean that infants have a lot of capacity to draw on, with facile self-other mapping allowing for greater interpretation then envisaged by Piaget, Freud, Skinner and others.

Such interactions do respond to cultures.  Conboy and Kuhl suggest that the process of attunement to social information and a sharing of perception throughout the first year of life directs infants' attention to various types of relevant language stimuli, but only if the speakers are live, with much poorer results when the medium is video or audio-video.  Frones investigates social identity further, and Papastathopoulos  and Kugiumutzakis look at the special case of imaginary companions, namely the intersubjectivity of imagination.  This is viewed as a quasi-perceptual function, in other word not an actual exploration of the environs, but rather a simulated one.  Imaginary companions are here describes as the logical and natural of the intersubjective nature of development and the dialogical structure of the imagination.  These creatures function as playmates for the most part, as well as being capable of conversation. The kids are aware that the playmates are imaginary, and exist only in terms of the child's fantasy, but all of these children would prefer to play with other children, rather than alone, or with their fantasy friend alone.  The children with fantasy companions were more prone to negotiate intended directions of play rather than dictate them.  What is learned and achieved in imaginary interaction then is applied in real play with real companions.

Part IV deals with applications and therapeutic implications. Hundeide examines care that will either facilitate or block empathy development in the child.  This and the theories that emerge, as well as those from Braten and Stern earlier, are tested by Cabassi in the next chapter.  The term family disseminate archives is used, describing perturbing cycles of circular re-enactments in parent child relationships.  Two case vignettes are described, one in which the child has carried over his father's rough play style, which is then remediated, and another, where the bad marriages of the past are carried over in terms of interpersonal relationships that are polluted by the family disseminate archives.  The power of music in severely disabled children is examined by Kirkebaek, with the emphasis on shared interactions around the scaffold of the music, and with Schogler and Trevarthen producing work on singing and dancing together, meaning how music, sound and movement coordinate each other.  Braten returns with more on the circular re-enactment of care and abuse spoken about in the family disseminate archives by Cabassi earlier.  Braten's closing comments of a phenomenological and existential nature refer to the belief that the past can only exist in the intersubjective present.  His phrasing however is a little dense, stating that this

"past can only exist in the intersubjective present holding the promise of an emergent future that invites a re-definition of the past brought out in the open to be meaningfully contained in the intersubjective present shared with dialogical companions" page 312. 

All one can say to that is that it may not be therapy, but I will know it if I see it, I hope.

Braten's book is part of an emerging look at these non-conscious processes, limited in some ways by the technology available, and perhaps by those who came before, laying down elegant but probably flawed arguments, Freud, Piaget, others. The book indicates again and again the lack of integration in the approach, as multiple measures are not easily taken in exploring these events in the brain, or mind of the persons involved.  The experiments are interesting though, and the subject matter, usually young children, hard to work with.  The variables are many, and this book is a good start for most readers.

© 2008  Roy Sugarman

Roy Sugarman PhD, Director: Behavioural Solutions, Brain Resource Limited, Ultimo, Australia


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