Poets and mystics have always known that beneath the skim of the observable lies a schema, a web, an indefinable something, that ties us all together in ways that precede reason and our very “selves.” In other words, they have always known that the “autonomous self” is a phantom.
Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire uncovered more than a corner this “something,” and his eminent disciple and interpreter James Alison–Grow Mercy’s inspiration–gave us ways to speak of and begin to integrate this social-constructing-something, this unifying-like-principle-in-need-redemption into our faith.
Fields converge. Now, (giving scientific credence to Girard’s anthropological/psychological soundings) three Italian neuroscientists have lifted the hem high.
In 1996 it happened that a team of neuroscientists at the University of Parma, Italy, were studying premotor neuron dynamics. They had run electrodes into a few individual neurons in a macaque monkey’s premotor cortex (in humans, centers for pain, empathy, language) to monitor neural activity as the monkey reached for different objects. The eureka moment came when one of the scientists walked into the room where the monkey was and reached out and picked up a raisin. As the monkey watched, its premotor neurons fired just as they had when the monkey had picked up the raisin. They were astonished. What they had witnessed was a sort of sympathetic, observation-driven firing of neurons. It had always been held that these neurons fired only in action. But after replicating the experiment many times and many ways they realized they had discovered something new. The team, Giaocomo Rizzolatti, Vittorio Gallese, and Leonardo Fogassi later named these mirror neurons.
Much has happened in a decade and the research is finally filtering down.
Researchers, using brain imaging rather than electrodes, have found human mirror-neuron systems more robust and numerous than those of monkeys and existing not just in the premotor cortex. (i.e. The inferior parietal areas, the posterior parietal lobe, the superior temporal sulcus, and the insula. David Dobbs)
What is the relevance of all this? Here’s a thought from V.S. Ramachandran, professor of Neuroscience and Psychology and Director of Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California:
The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys, and their potential relevance to human brain evolution is the single most important “unpublicized” story of the decade. I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.
Of course mystics didn’t need proof, but neuroscientists may now be giving us cause enough to finally put the autonomous self out of it’s misery. And this is only one humanizing benefit coming out of this breaking discovery.
More to come…