I invite you to listen to a tremendously exciting lecture by Vittorio Gallese from the University of Parma. And here is the Q&A. (I caught it in New york last October, but I'm just now getting round to writing about it.)

Vittorio Gallese

Gallese lecturing

Gallese is a key member of the Italian team that discovered mirror neurons. And mirror neurons have been called the most important discovery since DNA. Quite simply, they may tell us how we relate to other humans.

Mirror neurons map actions that we see others perform onto the viscero-motor and somatosensory representations in our own brains. And not just movements. We map the goals of others' actions onto our motor systems, and even the intentions and emotions accompanying these actions. And we map actions not only in response to seeing the actions but when hearing the noises that accompany them. Most important for fiction, we map on hearing or reading the words describing an action.

The phrase "mirror neurons" refers to neurons in the frontal cortex that fire both when you do something and when you see someone else doing it. Importantly, a subset of these neurons fires during your own action but inhibit when you just observe action. That way, the mirror neuron system signals whether the action in question is your own or somebody else's.

As for emotions, experiments show that my insula becomes active both when I feel disgust myself and when I witness someone else's facial expression of disgust. And that subset of mirror neurons inhibits my feeling disgust myself when seeing someone else's disgust. Paradoxically, I share the emotion but I do not feel it.

In short, mirror neurons provide us with an "embodied simulation" of not just the actions but the thoughts and feelings of others. We share them in our bodies. This automatic mechanism makes evolutionary sense. It gives us an effortless ability to understand the other bodies inhabiting our social world as goal-oriented the way we ourselves are. That's important. We humans live in what Gallese calls a "we-centric" space.

Now this idea of a mirror-mapping differs from the standard view of the way we understand minds in fiction. In a very fine article and then a book, Lisa Zunshine analyzed a complicated passage from Mrs. Dalloway to show how we consciously think our way into sharing the thoughts of a literary character.

Gallese calls this mindreading, and yes, we mindread, but, he says, something faster, deeper, more primitive also goes on, something pre-rational, something you can't express in a verbal, cognitive way. When we read fiction or see a movie or a play and even when we see a painting, we map these fictional humans' actions, emotions, and sensations onto our own brains' visceral, motor, and sensory representations. That accounts for our emotional experience, which comes before our cognitive experience.

In short, the discovery of mirror neurons explains why we respond to fictional characters as real even though we know they are not. It explains our emotional responses to scary movies or action movies even though we know "it's just a movie."

The upshot is, the more we understand mirror neurons the more we are going to understand our responses to literature and the arts.
Items I've referred to:

Freedberg, D., & Gallese, V. (2007, May). Motion, emotion and empathy in esthetic experience. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(5), 107-203. A particularly readable introduction to the research on mirror neurons and their relation to aesthetic experience.

Mukamel, R., E., A. D., Kaplan, J., Iacoboni, M., & Fried, I. (2010, April 27). Single-neuron responses in humans during execution and observation of actions. Current Biology, 27(8), 750-756.

Zunshine, L. (2003, October). Theory of mind and experimental representations of fictional consciousness. Narrative, 11(3), 270-291.

Zunshine, L. (2006). Why we read fiction: Theory of mind and the novel. Columbus OH: Ohio University Press

About the Author

Norman Holland

Norman Holland, Ph.D., specializes in the psychology of the arts. His latest book is Literature and the Brain.

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