We’re lucky to have a time machine that let’s us look into our
distant past. Last week NASA reversed itself and announced
plans for a mission to extend the life of our best-known time
machine, the Hubble Space Telescope, which has extended our
reach back billions of years. Abraham Loeb, in an article in the
November Scientific American titled “The Dark Ages of the
Universe”, points out that virtually every day we use another,
simpler time machine – the mirror.
Looking in the mirror in the morning I don’t see myself as I am.
I see myself as I was 6 nanoseconds earlier. It takes that length
of time (6 billionths of a second) for the light to be reflected off
my face, travel about 3 feet to the mirror and then back to my
eyes. I’ve decided to ignore this when shaving, however. It
could be disconcerting trying to shave, realizing that the razor
isn’t where it seems to be!
You and I are pretty smart. We know that mirror image is our
own image, not that of some other guy or gal mimicking what
we’re doing. In the news last week there were reports that
Happy, a 34-year-old female resident of the Bronx, saw herself
in a mirror and came to the same conclusion. Normally, this
would not be newsworthy but Happy is an Asian elephant in the
Bronx Zoo in New York. One test for self-awareness in animals
is to place some sort of mark on the animal. Scientists reason
that if the animal sees itself in a mirror and recognizes itself, it
will point to or otherwise search for the mark on its own body.
In Happy’s case, Joshua Plotnik and coworkers painted two Xs
on opposite sides of her head. The paint used for one X was only
visible under black light but otherwise had the same consistency
and odor as for the visible X. When Happy saw herself in the
mirror, she repeatedly touched the visible X with her trunk. She
did not touch the invisible mark. Is Happy a uniquely perceptive
pachyderm or do all elephants possess this self-awareness?
Maxine and Patty, two other elephants at the zoo did not touch
their “Xs” but did show other behaviors indicating a possible
awareness that the mirror images reflected themselves. For
example, while standing in front of the mirror Maxine probed her
mouth with her trunk and also brought her ear closer to the
mirror with her trunk as though trying to see what was inside.
Elephants are intelligent and caring animals. Tales abound of
elephants helping other elephants in trouble or mourning the loss
of a fellow elephant. The mirror experiments show another facet
of their intelligence. Could our ability to interact and empathize
with fellow humans be related to mirrors of a different sort? In
another article in the November Scientific American titled
“Mirrors of the Mind”, Giacomo Rizzolatti, Leonardo Fogassi
and Vittorio Gallese of the University of Parma in Italy answer in
the affirmative. These neuroscientists say our brains contain
“mirror neurons” that explain our ability to anticipate actions by
others and to share the feelings of others in certain situations.
Take my putt on the last hole of our municipal golf course last
week. It was a 20 or 30-foot putt on a steeply sloping green and
I deliberately aimed at a spot 3 or 4 feet above the hole. I was
elated as the ball curved down the hill directly into the cup.
However, it then popped out to sit right on the edge of the hole.
I’m sure any of you golfers out there can empathize with my
feeling of disappointment when the ball didn’t stay in the cup.
Why? It’s probably those mirror neurons.
At least that’s what Giacomo, Leonardo and Vittorio would say.
They studied the activity of neurons in macaque monkey brains,
specifically neurons in a region of the brain’s motor cortex
associated with hand and mouth movements. They found that
certain sets of neurons were active whenever the monkey picked
up a piece of fruit. There’s nothing surprising about this finding.
What was surprising was what happened when one of the
researchers picked up a piece of fruit while the monkey was
watching. The same sets of neurons fired as when the monkey
itself picked up the fruit. These sets of neurons were mirroring
the act of picking up the fruit, independent of whether it was the
monkey itself or the human doing the picking up. I’m sure that
any of you golfers have had long putts that have gone in the hole
and popped out. If you were watching my putt, your mirror
neurons would likely have been firing in the same pattern as they
were when your putt popped out of the hole. If so, you felt my
pain more deeply than you might have thought.
If you have no interest in golf, you’ve never activated mirror
neurons in a pattern corresponding to a popped putt. I doubt you
could really relate to my missed putt. You might ask whether we
humans even have mirror neurons. The Italian researchers have
employed positron-emission tomography (PET) and, in
conjunction with workers at University of California, Los
Angeles (UCLA), functional magnetic resonance imaging
(fMRI), techniques allowing them to observe which areas of the
brain “light up” during their experiments. Their work and that of
others show that we do have mirror neurons.
The work with UCLA involved subjects watching video clips,
one of a hand picking up a cup using one grip and then using
another grip. A second set of clips showed a setting that
included a table set with a cup, a teapot, etc, - a setting indicating
a tea is imminent. The other clip in this set showed the same
setting with the components in some disarray as though the tea
was over and a cleanup was in order. The third set of video clips
showed a hand grasping a cup in one of the two previous
contexts – the tea was about to be drunk or the cup was about to
be removed for cleaning.
The activation of the mirror neuron system was different for the
drinking and cleanup situations, the intensity of the responses
being higher in the case of drinking than when cleanup was
indicated. The mirror neurons not only allow you to empathize
with another as in my putting experience but also allow you to
anticipate the actions of another, be you a monkey or a human.
For example, our mirror neurons have been exposed to enough
movies and TV that you know if a shady looking character
approaches you on a deserted street at night you should think
about evasive action. When that pattern of neurons fires in a real
situation, you don’t have to take time to analyze the situation but
automatically recognize the need to act quickly to avoid an
unpleasant experience. This mirroring in our brain is thought to
have been a valuable asset in promoting survival of our early
ancestors who needed to act fast to avoid dangerous predators.
Mirror neurons are believed to help in picking up on social cues
that prompt one to interact with others in a normal fashion.
Autism is a significant problem characterized by a withdrawal
from social interaction, including an inability to empathize with
others. One current theory is that the autistic individual has
deficient mirror neurons that don’t store and elicit appropriate
neural patterns. This could account for an autistic child’s
inability to relate to events and people with normal emotions.
For those with an interest in autism, the November Scientific
American also contains a relevant article, “Broken Mirrors. A
Theory of Autism”, by Vilayanur Ramachandran, a renowned
neuroscientist, and his graduate student at the University of
California, San Diego, Lindsay Oberman.
Superstition has a broken mirror associated with bad luck.
Perhaps this is one superstition containing a grain of truth.
Allen F. Bortrum