A Bit of Philosophy on Movement, Motion, and the “Mirror Neurons”

One of my graduate students’ fathers was a Professor of Philosophy and in most Anglo-Saxon countries a doctorate, obtained in whatever subject it may be, is usually called a PhD (which stands for Doctor of Philosophy). You might call this a quirk of history, going back to antiquity when Greek mathematicians, scientists, healers and thinkers were all “philosophers”. Anyway, if you hope a conversation with a philosopher will help you find answers to questions you carry in your mind, you are likely to be in for a disappointment and may leave the philosopher with more questions in your mind than you had before. Perhaps that is the function of philosophy: to make you question what is real and what isn’t and to make you think what makes “you” to be “you”. Bonjour Monsieur René Descartes: Cogito ergo sum!

Anyway, my conversation with a philosopher dealt with movement and motion, which I thought was the straightforward action of something being in the process of changing its position from one place to another. But that assumes, so the philosopher, that a moving object occupies successive positions ever so briefly while it is moving. But it is impossible to ‘count’ such positions as there would be infinitely many. It’s not like an old movie, in which separate pictures in quick succession create ’movement’. If I’d argue that one could say an object decreases its distance from one place to another while “on the move”, the philosopher would argue that a moving object has no definitive starting point. Moreover he’d point out that while the Earth rotates, we all move all the time and he made me think of sitting in a moving train watching a fly flying from one seat to another. Motion is indeed “philosophy”!

However, biologically motion and rest, we agreed, are different modes of a moved body, but to visibly move a part of the body, muscle fibres need to be activated to contract by signals from a nerve cell: a neuron. Now imagine you wave to someone you don’t know, what happens? Most likely that person will wave back. A child, playing happily, upon observing another unrelated child cry is very likely to begin to cry too and attendants of a meeting in which the speaker repeatedly touches his ear may also begin to touch their ears. This copycat phenomenon is due to so-called ‘mirror neurons’ in the brain that were discovered by Di Pellegrino et al. and Rizzolatti in 1992. The mirror neuron system has evolved at seemingly different rates in and among species and involves hand and mouth visuo-motor and audio-vocal mirror neurons in different regions of the brain (more precisely for those who want to know: the superior temporal sulcus, the pre-motor cortex, the inferior parietal lobe). Interestingly, neurons of the premotor cortex apparently distinguish between hand-made movements (which they mirror) and tool-made movements (which are not mirrored).

The purpose for which these mirror neurons have evolved seems to facilitate communication between individuals of the same or at least related species (monkeys and humans, for example). It has also been postulated that mirror neurons play a role in the development of empathy and to imagine another person’s state of mind. Mirror neuron systems may be involved in dance routines, sports, speeches in which gesticulations are involved, etc. and it has been postulated that in sufferers of autism the mirror neuron system may be impaired. However, conflicting data on this hotly debated issue do not currently allow a definitive conclusion. Whether mirror neurons exist in insects and are, for instance, involved during the migratory phase of locust hoppers when the action of one individual jumping forward is followed by other nymphs nearby, is a possibility, but hasn’t yet been investigated. For mammals and birds, however, there is no doubt that mirror neurons are present and I wonder: Was that perhaps the reason why our dog always began to runaround when our children started running up and down our yard and the reason why our children were trying to lap up milk from a plate like our cats did?

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2021.
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