One of the recent discoveries in neuroscience is the existence of mirror neurones. Mirror neurons are neurons in your brain that fire when you act. But they fire also when you see someone else performing an action and by doing so these neurons reflect or “mirror” the other person’s action in your own mind. Therefore it is as if you place yourself in the other person’s position and as if you are doing his or her action yourself. The importance of mirror neurons is still a matter of much speculation for actually the research is yet in its early stages, but some neuroscientists consider it one of the most important discoveries in neuroscience and I think they are right.
Anyway, if it is really true that by means of mirror neurons it is possible to place yourself mentally in the position of the other, mirror neurons may be important for explaining some significant human phenomena, especially those that require imitative behaviour or imitative imagination. We can think of understanding someone’s intentions (s/he does what I would do in the same situation), empathy (feeling what s/he feels), language learning, gender differences, understanding why people imitate other people or follow them, and much more. Autism may be explained or partially explained by a defect in the mirror neurons.
I had heard several times about mirror neurons and I found them intriguing. So I read a book about it (Mirroring People by Marco Iacoboni) and much of the functioning of human behaviour and feelings became clearer to me: how and why we react to other people (in some circumstances) and the like. Two weeks ago I went to a performance of Puccini’s opera La Bohème, an opera that I saw live for the first time. The production and the singers were very good and the death scene at the end was very well brought and it was very emotional, so that I became emotional, too. Suddenly I thought: my mirror neurons are firing! In case I have such a thought that transcends my feeling or thinking, usually it is so that the feeling or thinking stops immediately and that emotionally I distance myself more or less from what I see or are participating in (which does not need to imply, however, that the event or scene I see or participate in becomes less meaningful or that it gets less value for me). But nothing like that happened now. Apparently my mirror neurons continued firing full out. I couldn’t stop the feeling in any way as if I was nothing but a robot.