Members one of another

You are sitting in a laboratory watching a monkey and a row of peanuts. The monkey is specially wired for sounds that denote brain activity. Each time the monkey pinches a peanut, its brain crackles loudly. No surprise there. But then a lab assistant enters the room and removes a peanut. And a strange thing happens. The monkey’s brain crackles with activity although the monkey is doing nothing but watching. It looks as though watching an activity causes the same brain response as is caused by performing the act itself. Strange – but important.

Important, because that accidental experiment was a clue to a central characteristic of human nature. Scientists call it “theory of mind”. All that can actually pass between human beings are the signals carried by the five senses, yet we have no difficulty in recognising the other as a person, and attributing to that person his own mind with its own intentions. And triggered by different clues we are able to make a good guess about what is going on in his mind. Sometimes we do this out of experience and sometimes we do this by assuming that the other person has feelings and reactions similar to our own. The capacity is present in the first year of infant life and becomes more sophisticated with time.

We can see immediately that this faculty is essential to our identity as human beings. Aristotle styled us as social animals, and you cannot be social without communicating as persons. Nor can you participate in a culture, or learn from tradition. You cannot love your fellows as human persons, or find any meaning in altruistic morality.

Before the lab assistant set the monkey’s brain a-ticking, we knew that we were affected by the emotions of others. It was not just that we recognised, say, a smile as an expression of happiness, we found ourselves inclined to be happier. Our sympathy for someone being struck by a fast tennis ball was extended by wincing as if we ourselves were hit. If someone in our proximity screwed their face up in disgust, we immediately became wary and our expression changed even before we knew what was disgusting. And when the funeral procession went by we sadly looked at the sad mourners and, for a moment at least, participated in their sorrow. While facial expressions vary across cultures to some degree, they are for the most part recognised universally.

The monkey’s brain crackle suggested to Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma, over 20 years ago, that there was a group of specialist brain cells which recognised the feelings of others and reproduced them in the onlooker. So the idea of mirror neurons was born – and has been studied for the last two decades. In 2010 they were first directly recorded in action, where it appeared that, in addition to mirror neurons, brain regions involved in vision and action were activated.

In fact the mirror system is in two related parts of the brain, and it reacts under two conditions: when you perform an action and when you watch another performing an action. Even hearing the word “run” can trigger the appropriate brain response.

The idea is intriguing. All at once we have a plausible mechanism through which we know the feelings of others, not as just so much information, but as feelings we ourselves experience. Before we love our neighbour we first experience our neighbour by mirroring his feelings in the most intimate of exchanges. We are truly members one of another.

As you would expect, the scientists disagree about many details. At this early stage in our knowledge the only point of general agreement is that mirror neurons are an exceedingly important clue to understanding our human characteristics, and that we are no more than on the threshold of understanding: the most important work is yet to come.

So here I am, shamelessly cribbing from a summary report published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, in August last year. I only add that, having followed this issue over the last few years, the summary appears to reflect well the work which has been done.

Mirror neurons play a lesser part in interpreting speech than was once thought, and the idea that they were a route to learning speech seems unlikely. But they would play a part, say, in a noisy room where we need visual clues to help us understand.

They certainly help us to understand actions, but they are at their best with unfamiliar actions – such as watching the Tiger Woods golf swing. Familiar actions are no doubt interpreted through memory. One of the most powerful roles suggested is the ability, as I have noted, to understand not only actions but minds and intentions. Whether mirror neurons help solve the problem of autism – where a central symptom is a reduced understanding of others’ feelings – is as yet disputed. But a recent study suggests that the problems may be elsewhere in the neural system.

An interesting study, earlier this year, provides some evidence that our capacity to experience the feelings of others through our mirror responses is related to our degree of empathy. That is scarcely surprising since we know that the ability to see things through the eyes of others is at the heart of empathy. It is marvellous to me that God not only gave us the gift of brotherly love, he also gave us brains well fitted to the task.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Spirituality and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Members one of another

  1. Vincent says:

    This raises an interesting question. Since the issue was started by the brain response of the monkey, do we in fact have a “theory of mind” for monkeys? Or, to work in more familiar territory, my pet spaniel. With experience I feel fairly confident about what’s going on in his mind. Indeed my reaching a hand out to his lead by the door triggers a range of extreme feelings and actions on his part.

    Am I just projecting a human attribute because I wish to. I certainly feel a connection with the dog, which I would describe as personal. yet somehow the level of this is different from meeting another human being (even though I may know less about his feelings) it seems to me to lack symmetry: we are not equals. But many people would claim that that was simply human triumphalism. So I dunno.

  2. Brian Hamill says:

    Thanks for this very interesting article, Quentin. When one watches Usain Bolt run the 100 metres, I am sure the roar of the crowd indicates their ‘joining in’ by means of these brain functions. It has occurred to me before that perhaps the reason why Heaven is so long(!) is that we have chance to actually experience each other’s lives. So ‘all the way to heaven will be heaven’ (Saint Catharine of Siena, I think), in that sharing with others, including Jesus. Our empathetic ability on earth is the first fruits of the life to come.

  3. Iona says:

    Vincent, – I think your dog’s response when you put your hand out for the lead is not mediated by mirror neurones, as he (she?) is not mirroring your feelings, but responding to a situation s/he’s experienced before and recognises.
    Interesting about the autistic people. I have heard of an autistic child who couldn’t learn to ride a bike except by having his legs physically moved for him on the pedals; then he got the idea, which he couldn’t get by watching others ride bikes.

  4. John Candido says:

    Empathic mirror neurones are an interesting facet of human brains. Without them, I don’t think mankind could have developed as quickly as we have. It is the shared problems in community that has been the engine of human progress. If humans could not successfully live together in communities, we might still be in the Stone Age.

    Simple agriculture, with keeping animals as part of a food supply or in assistance with farming work, the development of writing, language, record keeping, basic arithmetic, the printing press, the wheel, journalism and the mass media, and the continuing knowledge explosion since the age of enlightenment, which began in the seventeenth century, would not have been possible without the capacity of humans to live together cooperatively. Empathic neurones seem to be a very important part of human progress because empathy helps to make community and culture possible. A simple definition of culture that comes to mind is shared ways of living together.

    Another interesting aspect of the human brain, that most of us have recently become aware of, is the area of the brain said to be associated with the development of faith in God. I know nothing about neurological matters, but I wonder if atheists still insist that this disproves the existence of God? Has this discovery demonstrated that faith is nonsense on stilts? Or can this brain region be conceptualised not so much as the biological receptacle of faith, but its biological expression, rather like empathic neurones for empathy?

    I certainly don’t think that this area of the brain proves or disproves the existence of God, and nor do I think any other brain region can prove or disprove the existence of God. If anything I would have thought that the gargantuan complexity of the brain and its neurological system tends to suggest somebody must be behind its evolutionary development. That somebody is God.

    According to one source there are fifteen systems in the human body. Each system works in harmony with all other systems in order to make human life possible. On top of this we have individual physical differences, personality, intelligence, and consciousness to add to the mix of what is a human being. What are the probabilities of our present development through evolutionary processes being solely one of chance would be a germane question. The figure would probably be too large to make any sense of, or to be a credible explanation for the universal complexity of the created world.

  5. Rahner says:

    “It is marvellous to me that God not only gave us the gift of brotherly love, he also gave us brains well fitted to the task.”

    Surely it would be very odd if our brains were not well fitted to the task?

    • mike Horsnall says:

      Yes, I have exactly the same sense as Rahner in this…Human beings are made in the image of God are they not? What does this mean? Well there must be the implication that somehow ALL of us- body, soul,mind,spirit,toenail,elbow, emotion, apprehension, etc etc must somehow be of God. There is an implicit assumption on this blog that a human being is a living organism somehow tangentially related to ‘God’ and that the relationship between them is essentially of a wireless nature-transmitter/receiver model. Yet I would guess it more intimate than that. The best analogy I can bring out is of a fingerprint to a finger.

      Here is a disturbing sentence:
      ” All that can actually pass between human beings are the signals carried by the five senses..”

      If we have that as our baseline we won’t get very far.

      • Quentin says:

        Mike, I think that you and Rahner have a different sense of wonder from me. The very connection between body and spirit which you extol is a source of wonder to me. And when someone discovers the biological complement to some spiritual aspect of man, I marvel at God’s creation. Don’t you?

        If you and I met for a cup of coffee and a chat, what would pass between us other than via the five senses? Or, to take a more compressed example, if we have a conversation on the telephone, everything which has passed between us must have been able to travel by means of pulses of electricity or pulses of light. If as a result we are aware that we know each other and, I hope, have engendered a sense of friendship we are still left with the mystery of how this has come about when the only measurable connection has been through waves of sound.

      • tim says:

        I recognise the assumption you describe in how I normally think – so it is useful to have it questioned. But – a fingerprint with free will?

  6. Mike Horsnall says:


    “about when the only measurable connection has been through waves of sound”

    Thats precisely the point. If I you and I met for a cup of coffee what passed between us may be a universe of which we are part. What would also pass between us would perhaps be my unspoken and barely conscious apprehension of you and your life- you may desire to limit that perception to five senses…taste, sight, hearing, touch,and smell I assume you mean. As for myself , having had my arms around people several days a week for the past 20 years I am utterly amazed by what can pass between people, present , in the cafe or for that matter across a sea. I think you are applying a strict perspective here which is broadly materialist for the purposes of simple discussion. As to marvelling at God’s creation…Quentin, go look in the mirror!! you see before you something eternal, you see a being able to cooperate with God in bringing good into the world….marvelling doesn’t even come close.!!

    • Quentin says:

      Mike, I don’t think that I could have explained myself well. Of course many things pass between us over our coffee. The question is, how do they do this when the medium of passage is restricted to the five senses?. I think that the beginning of the answer lies in my latest post. That is, my visual and aural connection with you allows me through mirror neurons, or some such, to reproduce your feelings as experiences within me.

      Now I have the impression, through the comments made, that all of this was well known to everyone. That leads me to ask why the scientists think that this is an extraordinary leap forward in our understand of personal communication. Pace you and others, I still feel that it is remarkable that you and I communicate (in its most literal sense) by experiencing the same feelings — transferred from one to another via our senses. In that regard we really have become one..

  7. John Candido says:

    For those who like to pooh-pooh progress in general and such things as personal computers, the internet, and Google, should have a read about a fifteen year old boy from America who has recently discovered a better, more sensitive, and earlier way of testing for the presence of pancreatic cancer in humans. He did this on his own by using online scientific papers in Google. He arrived at his solution during a biology class. He has most sensibly taken out a legal patent for the pancreatic cancer test.

    Just think about it for a moment. Working substantially by himself, a teenager has used Google and discovered a much better test for detecting pancreatic cancer than the current gold standard. He has won the first prize at the 2012 Intel Science Fair and this alone will give him $75,000 USD. Astounding incidences such as this reinforces my confidence that future technology will have a similar effect of making individuals more powerful and resourceful. Utterly amazing!

    • tim says:

      Thanks for that link, John. Fascinating! Delighted to see also that the young man has applied for patent rights. If all goes well (often it doesn’t) this will make him some money to pursue other ideas: and also (paradoxically) make it more likely that his invention will actually be developed and made available for use. He says that it is 26,000 times cheaper than than known tests, but this can only become true when it is actually manufactured commercially – you cannot sensibly compare something that is available with something that isn’t yet.

      On your more general point, I sympathise too. I don’t think it sits well with any of our blog contributors to damn the Internet utterly, considering this is how we exchange opinions in the hope of mutual benefit (I’m not actually too sure that anyone has been taking such an extreme view, but let that pass). Scientific knowledge and research is immensely powerful, and offers extraordinary possibilities for improving life throughout the world. So far I am completely with you. But the downside is that this power can be used for evil as well as good. So we have horrifying porn on the Internet, as well as viruses, industrial espionage, home-made bomb recipes and so on. This applies in all areas – nuclear power and nuclear bombs, how to fight infectious disease and how to spread it, no need to multiply examples. So it comes back to morality – not just what can we do, but what should we do? This is where the hard questions arise – and here (I think) you may sometimes be too optimistic.

      Apologies if this has very little to do with Quentin’s original post!

  8. Mike Horsnall says:

    Tim…fingerprint with free will? Well yes of course-Free will comes from God alone does it not? Therefore , imprintied with Gods image as we are (hence the fingerprint analogy) freewill comes to us? Surely thats the point of being at the top end of things- our neuro biology can cope – at least a little – with the state to which our nature tends.

  9. Mike Horsnall says:


    One final bash at this though I suspect you will trounce me thoroughly. Have you ever had the experience of being in the presence of a person who you knew was Godly? No one announced it, the fact wasn’t present in the persons clothes, surroundings, office or in the signature of their trade. Somehow though you ‘knew’ this person ‘loved’ you though perhaps in a kind of objective way, you ‘knew’ there was more to them than met the eye.
    I have a friend, a good friend, who I see but rarely on account of them living in Ireland. On almost any day I can tell,I think, if they are happy or sad-when I’ve put it to the test I’m usually right. I would guess there is a huge raft by now of ‘evidence’ to suggest that what passes from person to person is not always sensate in the literal sense…yes/no?

    • Quentin says:

      I know the sort of experience to which you refer. And yes, our recognition of such a quality can certainly seem to us to be immediate. The difficulty is how we can be certain that our judgment is not influenced by experiences or genetic influences of which we are not aware. Clearly our response to anyone we meet is affected, at least to an extent, by all the other people we have met, and our judgment is made by comparing this to the information gained from this new person.

      If this is not the answer, what is? If we claim telepathy, that merely seems to be another name for immaterial transmission – which requires empirical support to be credible. If we claim material transmission, in what way does this or could this happen other than the sense impressions which are interpreted through our experience?

      Let me give you a couple of grossly over simplified examples.

      1) I find this man to be a kindly and comfortable person. Reason: the angle of his spectacles reminds me of my grandmother’s pince-nez. I am told that she looked after me as an infant, but I don’t remember her. She died before I was 2.

      2) I find this to be an attractive sort of person I instantly take to. Reason: his face is symmetrical. But I am not aware of the fact that we are attracted to the symmetrical through a primitive instinct which tells us that the physically symmetry is a sign of good health.

      I am not saying that you are wrong because it is always possible that some other explanation will satisfy the criteria. But I would claim that my explanation has merit. Can you do better?

  10. Mike Horsnall says:

    I guess Rahner might swoop in here and give us precise instructions on the careful deployment of Occams razor. Mine would simply be that human beings are larger than their skins , that they emit energy along some frequency or another which is picked up in some way we do not clearly understand and like, say ionic discharge, causes changes within our apperception. Sure you could bend this to be within the remit of the 5 senses and I wouldnt argue ovemuch-all a matter of definitions I guess. Trouble is Quentin, if you believe that Eucharist is what it is then you have to allow of us being ‘moved’ by the Holy spirit-probably not of the 5senses? Love is not one of the five senses …or is it?

    • Quentin says:

      Mike, nothing I have written here refers to what passes between the human being and God. When, for example, I pray I believe that I am communicating with God. Our quest is to analyse communication between human beings. I cannot dispute your suggestion of special energy, on the grounds of quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur.

      Let’s try a little imagination game. You are an apostle at the Last Supper. You completely trust in Jesus as filled with the power of God. (Your human trust is no doubt elevated by grace). When you see what Jesus does, and what he says, you interpret the meaning of these through your experience. So you accept the nature and need of the Eucharist. At no point does anything transfer between (man) Jesus and (man) Mike other than sound vision and touch.

      Of course I am speculating. But I would claim that my speculation fits the evidence.

      By the way, I often sit in the churchyard in Ockham. It is a very peaceful place. I understand that parts of the little church are old enough to have been known by William.

  11. pseudonym please Singalong says:

    As we have a member of the family with Aspergers Syndrome, we constantly wonder about the whole question of empathy and the theory of mind. I suppose there are many other states, stages of life and conditions where this is also an issue.

    • Vincent says:

      There are plenty of people who lack empathy for a variety of reasons. But I have always thought of Asbergers as a mental malfunction of a rather specific type. While sufferers may have difficulty with reading other people’s reactions, does it follow that they have no empathy with, say, members of their own family — with whom they are comfortable? But I daresay that there’s a good deal of variation in such a condition.

    • mike Horsnall says:

      What does it make you wonder about..? Have you come to any conclusions?

      • Quentin says:

        Mike asks what ‘pseudonym please Singalong’ is wondering about. I can make a guess. Aspergers refers to the section on the autism spectrum where the person combines a sharp mind with a lack of capacity to recognise the feelings of others. Naturally it would be supposed that the condition could be related to damage to the mirror neurons, and that it might be related to theory of mind. I suppose the safest answer is that no one as yet knows. There are far more questions around the autism syndrome than there are well evidenced answers. For example, there are plenty of anecdotal accounts of the successful management of Aspergers within the family, but there is not enough hard evidence to be able to lay down firm guidance.

  12. Mike Horsnall says:

    “…..Let’s try a little imagination game. You are an apostle at the Last Supper. You completely trust in Jesus as filled with the power of God. (Your human trust is no doubt elevated by grace). When you see what Jesus does, and what he says, you interpret the meaning of these through your experience. So you accept the nature and need of the Eucharist. At no point does anything transfer between (man) Jesus and (man) Mike other than sound vision and touch…..”

    Come on Quentin, you have completely dodged the issue!! The point of mentioning eucharist is as I’m sure you understood to bring in the possibility that something might be ‘full of God’
    On a more mundane plane you know there is not empty sterile space between forms, rather these forms are acted upon by invisible forces-gravity,sound waves, radiation to take but two. Much of the sensate nature of Man takes place physically inside the structure of his body rather than merely at the surface-pressure receptors for example. I don’t think it at all unlikely that we posess receptors whose function we right now barely guess at. On the other hand as far as we know there are only the five senses. But nerve structures as far as I am aware whisper and resonate with one another, circuit on circuit., Don’t panic, I’m not arguing for spiders from Mars, merely interested in the boundaries of your question.

    • cajetan says:

      I would have thought the point of mentioning the Holy Eucharist was quite other than to point to the possibility of something being ‘full of’ God, but rather that it is substantially God apprehended per accidens, the paradigm case of the sacraments, a particular divinely instituted form of signs, those physical empirical things which point beyond themselves to non-physical content, in the case of the sacraments of the Church effecting the grace which they symbolize. There is a beautiful theology of the senses in the extraordinary form of the anointing of the sick, in which all the sense are anointed as if they were the point at which the body touches the soul. I suspect some resistance to Quentin’s point might emerge from the fact that we moderns find it very difficult to ground knowledge in the senses without becoming epistemologically empiricist. Theologically, however, Mike might be on to something: we have to take account of the possibility of infused knowledge, and Christ’s possession of the Beatific Vision… but then let’s be Wittgensteinian, the ‘private’ can depend on the ‘public’, and grace builds on nature…

  13. Brendan O' Leary says:

    One thing struck me and that’s Quentin quite rightly praising God for the brains’
    extraordinary abilities in coming to our aid. This ” mirror neurone ” thing – sadly, is this an obvious difference between Blessed Teresa of Calcutta with say a more advanced “stage ” of empathy for human beings triggered by this part of the brain and a person with sociopathic/psycopathic tendencies who seemingly feels no remorse or gilt etc.? Which of course raises the question of culpability for ones actions.

    • Quentin says:

      Yes, the degree of culpability is a question which has the habit of coming up from behind and biting us. It would seem that the traditional criteria for mortal sin: full knowledge and full consent, are trickier than we might have thought.

      On the broad subject we are discussing, I think it might help if we looked more closely at what the experts have to tell us about the ability of the senses to carry secular information. In doing so, we may be able to see more easily how God, and godliness, is transferred. To use Cajetan’s remark, we would expect to find grace building on nature. So I shall look at the possibility of developing the subject in a further post.

  14. Singalong says:

    In response to Mike Horsnall, I wonder about what it is to be human, when such a basic characteristic as empathy is so lacking, and I have no conclusions.
    There is a theory that myths about changelings are based on autistic children, as an explanation for their strangeness.

    Our relative finds personal relationships very difficult as he leaves so many things out of the equation in human situations, but he has a very good
    understanding of justice and fairness in the more abstract, and he is noticeably concerned and understanding about the needs of pets and other animals.

    Of course, this is a spectrum, and we can all put ourselves somewhere on the scale. Quentin, It will be really interesting to see if further research will show
    if the lack of empathy in autism is related to mirror neurons, maybe their quantity or their efficiency, or to something else. I also wonder what is the connection
    with the attribute we call imagination. And I look forward to your future elucidation of the role of our free will. It seems so restricted by the working of our brains,
    that, more than ever, we must leave all judgement of individual culpability to Almighty God.

    • mike Horsnall says:

      This is something I wonder about too, though not in relation to autism. I ask the question about what it is to be human quite often of various people, from Crown Prosecutors to theologians! I am in a way captivated by pauls explaination in Romans Ch 12:

      Romans 9:19-24 you will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” 20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? 21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? 22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?

      It does seem to me that it is possible to walk on two legs and yet not be human in the fullest sense. I have read theologians who would argue that Christ himself was our model of full humanity….Its a good question.

      • Singalong says:

        Thank you so much to mike Horsnall for the reference to St. Paul, especially the quotation of verse 21, ” . . . . to make from the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for common use?” I find this thought really profound and helpful.

    • John Candido says:

      Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the fastest growing developmental condition for children in the western world. So far, there is no cure or a typical case of this disorder. It was considered a rare condition a mere fifty years ago. Its incidence is rising around the world as scientists bring their skills to bear on this troubling phenomenon in order to understand it better.

      One theory about the causes or aetiology of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is it is associated with colonies of harmful bacteria inside the gut of children. On the national current affairs television program called ‘Four Corners’ on the ABC, an episode called ‘The Autism Enigma’ discusses the controversial theory that links ASD with possible links to harmful bacteria in a child’s intestinal system. It sounds pretty crazy until you view the episode and see what has been uncovered by a select group of scientists.

      If you are going to view this report please do so promptly, as it will expire in several days’ time.

      When you go to the following link, click on ‘ABC iView’ on your right-hand side.

      • Singalong says:

        Thank you for your thoughts and the information, and to Vincent for his suggestions. We had heard about the digestion theory some years ago, and our son is nearly 50 now, so he is not part of a recent phenomenon. I think the interest here is the mechanism responsible for diminished empathy, which seems to be in the brain, and how that might be linked to faults in other parts of the body. I suppose that while we have to realise that no human being functions perfectly and that we await our complete fulfillment in the next life, empathy is a much more specifically human attribute than many others.

  15. St Anselm’s theory of mind – Monologion, 1076, Chap. 32/33/34 (on utterance)

    “For if the human mind were not capable of remembering or understanding either him or itself , it would in no way be able to distinguish itself from non-rational creatures or to distinguish him from all of creation by reasoning silently within itself, as my mind is doing now…
    …For it cannot be denied by any argument that when the rational mind understands itself by thinking itself, an image of itself is born in its thought. Indeed, that very thinking of itself is its own image, formed to its own likeness as by its own impress…
    …And so who could deny that in this way, when the supreme wisdom understands himself by uttering himself, he begets a likeness of himself that is consubstantial with himself…
    …Therefore , when that supreme spirit utters himself, he utters all created things. For before they were made, and once they have already been made, and when they are destroyed or in any way changed , they always exist in him, not as what they are in themselves, but as what he himself is. For in themselves they are a changeable essence created according to an unchangeable reason; in him, however, they are that first essence and first truth of existing, and the more they are in any way like him, the more truley and excellently do they exist. And so in this way it can reasonably be asserted that when the supreme spirit utters himself, he also, by one and the same Word, utters whatever was made.”

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