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MIRROR NEURONS AND THE BRAIN IN THE VAT

"I am a brain, my dear Watson, and the rest of me is a mere


appendage." — Sherlock Holmes

An idea that would be "dangerous if true" is what Francis Crick


referred to as "the astonishing hypothesis"; the notion that our
conscious experience and sense of self is based entirely on the
activity of a hundred billion bits of jelly — the neurons that constitute
the brain. We take this for granted in these enlightened times but
even so it never ceases to amaze me.

Some scholars have criticized Crick's tongue-in-cheek phrase (and


title of his book) on the grounds that the hypothesis he refers to is
"neither astonishing nor a hypothesis". (Since we already know it to
be true) Yet the far-reaching philosophical, moral and ethical
dilemmas posed by his hypothesis have not been recognized widely
enough. It is in many ways the ultimate dangerous idea.

Let's put this in historical perspective.

Freud once pointed out that the history of ideas in the last few
centuries has been punctuated by "revolutions," major upheavals of
thought that have forever altered our view of ourselves and our place
in the cosmos.
First, there was the Copernican system dethroning the earth as the
center of the cosmos. Second was the Darwinian revolution; the idea
that far from being the climax of "intelligent design" we are merely
neotonous apes that happen to be slightly cleverer than our cousins.
Third, the Freudian view that even though you claim to be "in charge"
of your life, your behavior is in fact governed by a cauldron of drives
and motives of which you are largely unconscious. And fourth, the
discovery of DNA and the genetic code with its implication (to quote
James Watson) that "There are only molecules. Everything else is
sociology".

To this list we can now add the fifth, the "neuroscience revolution"
and its corollary pointed out by Crick — the "astonishing hypothesis"
— that even our loftiest thoughts and aspirations are mere
byproducts of neural activity. We are nothing but a pack of neurons.

If all this seems dehumanizing, you haven't seen anything yet.

Consider the following thought experiment that used to be a favorite


of philosophers (it was also the basis for the recent Hollywood
blockbuster The Matrix): Let's advance to a point of time where we
know everything there is to know about the intricate circuitry and
functioning of the human brain. With this knowledge, it would be
possible for a neuroscientist to isolate your brain in a vat of nutrients
and keep it alive and healthy indefinitely.

Utilizing thousands of electrodes and appropriate patterns of


electrical stimulation, the scientist makes your brain think and feel
that it's experiencing actual life events. The simulation is perfect and
includes a sense of time and planning for the future. The brain
doesn't know that its experiences, its entire life, are not real.

Further assume that the scientist can make your brain "think" and
experience being a combination of Einstein, Mark Spitz, Bill Gates,
Hugh Heffner, and Gandhi, while at the same time preserving your
own deeply personal memories and identity (there's nothing in
contemporary brain science that forbids such a scenario). The mad
neuroscientist then gives you a choice. You can either be this
incredible, deliriously happy being floating forever in the vat or be
your real self, more or less like you are now (for the sake of argument
we will further assume that you are basically a happy and contended
person, not a starving pheasant). Which of the two would you pick?

I have posed this question to dozens of scientists and lay people. A


majority argue "I'd rather be the real me." This is an irrational choice
because you already are a brain in a vat (the cranial cavity) nurtured
by cerebrospinal fluid and blood and bombarded by photons. When
asked to select between two vats most pick the crummy one even
though it is no more real than the neuroscientist's experimental vat.
How can you justify this choice unless you believe in something
supernatural?

I have heard three counter-arguments on the premise of this


experiment. First, the brain, as Antonio Damasio argues so
eloquently, is a natural extension of the body, not an isolated
computer sitting on your neck. True, but this "embodiment" plus
visceral and proprioceptive inputs can also be simulated. Second,
what if the vat isn't well maintained? What if it falls down and
crashes? This could happen, but such an accident can also happen
to the real you. Third, the simulation of Einstein and Gates (and
everyone else) can never be exact. This might be true, but it's not
relevant. So what if the simulation is only 98% correct? Your own
brain fluctuations from year to year are probably as great, if not
greater.

If you think this scenario is farfetched just look at what's going on


around you in the world; Cell phones, iPods, Palm Pilots, the
worldwide web, email, blogs, e-publishing, and virtual reality. We are
all slowly and imperceptibly approaching the brain in the vat scenario
where all functions will be literally at your fingertips as you become
dissolved in cyberspace.

What about "culture"? I think of homo sapiens as "the cultured ape"


because it is cultural diversity above all that defines us as a species.
Through the emergence and further elaboration of a group of neurons
called "mirror neurons" our brains have become symbiotic, or
parasitic, with culture (a child raised in a cave would not be
recognizably human.) Can we simulate cultural sophistication in the
vat? Will the world in the 25th century be hundreds of warehouses
with thousands of brains in rows and rows of vats? They could even
all be identical to each other to save time and effort programming.
Why not? No one brain would know it was the same as every other.

Iaccomo Rizzolati and Vittorio Gallasse discovered mirror neurons.


They found that neurons in the ventral premotor area of macaque
monkeys will fire anytime a monkey performs a complex action such
as reaching for a peanut, pulling a lever, pushing a door, etc.
(different neurons fire for different actions). Most of these neurons
control motor skill (originally discovered by Vernon Mountcastle in the
60's), but a subset of them, the Italians found, will fire even when the
monkey watches another monkey perform the same action. In
essence, the neuron is part of a network that allows you to see the
world "from the other persons point of view," hence the name “mirror
neuron."
Researchers at UCLA [1] found that cells in the human anterior
cingulate, which normally fire when you poke the patient with a
needle ("pain neurons"), will also fire when the patient watches
another patient being poked. The mirror neurons, it would seem,
dissolve the barrier between self and others. I call them "empathy
neurons" or "Dalai Llama neurons". (I wonder how the mirror neurons
of a masochist or sadist will respond to another person being poked.)
Dissolving the "self vs. other" barrier is the basis of many ethical
systems, especially eastern philosophical and mystical traditions.
This research implies that mirror neurons can be used to provide
rational rather than religious grounds for ethics (although we must be
careful not to commit the is/ought fallacy).

I previously suggested in my earlier piece — "Mirror Neurons and


imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward"
in human evolution" [2] — that the emergence of a sophisticated
mirror neuron system set the stage for the emergence, in early
hominids, of a number of uniquely human abilities such as proto-
language (facilitated by mapping phonemes on to lip and tongue
movements), empathy, "theory of other minds", and the ability to
"adopt another's point of view".

This resulted in the ability to engage in goal-directed imitation, which


was a crucial step in imitation learning. Once imitation learning was in
place it allowed the rapid horizontal and vertical propagation of
"accidental" one-of-a-kind inventions, which provided the basis for
culture, the most human of all traits. Evolution, you could say,
became Lamarckian rather than purely Darwinian. (In using the
phrase "accidental innovation" I do not mean to belittle those flashes
of inspiration, insight and genius that arise all too rarely when the
right combination of genetic and environmental circumstances
fortuitously prevail in a single brain.

My point is only that such innovations would be lost from the meme
pool were it not for mirror neuron-based abilities such as imitation and
language). Even that most quintessentially human trait, our
propensity for metaphor, may be partly based on the kinds of cross
domain abstraction that mirror neurons mediate; the left hemisphere
for action metaphors ("get a grip") and the right for embodied and
spatial metaphor. This would explain why any monkey could reach for
a peanut but only a human, with an adequately developed mirror
neuron system, can reach for the stars. This "co-opting" of the mirror
neuron system for other more sophisticated functions may have been
but a short step in hominid brain evolution but it was a giant leap for
mankind. I suggest this crucial step emerged 100 to 200 thousand
years ago in the inferior parietal lobule.

Of course, we must avoid the temptation of attributing too much to


mirror neurons — monkeys have them but they are not capable of
sophisticated culture. There are two possible reasons for this. First,
mirror neurons may be necessary but not sufficient. Other functions
such as long working memory may have co-evolved through parallel
selection pressures. Second, the system may need to reach a certain
minimum level of sophistication before primate cognition can really
get off the ground (or down from the trees!)

Intriguingly, in 2000, Eric Altschuller, Jamie Pineda and I were able to


show (using EEG recordings) that autistic children lack the mirror
neuron system and we pointed out that this deficit may help explain
the very symptoms that are unique to autism: lack of empathy, theory
of other minds, language skills, and imitation. [3] Although initially
contested, this discovery — of the neural basis of autism — has now
been confirmed by several groups including our own (spearheaded,
in part, by Lindsey Oberman in my lab).

Mirror neurons also deal a deathblow to the "nature vs. nurture "
debate (I like Matt Ridley's suggested replacement "Nature via
Nurture") for it shows how human nature depends crucially on
learnability that is partly facilitated by these very circuits. They are
also an effective antidote to sociobiology and pop evolutionary
psychology; the assertion that the human brain is a bundle of instincts
selected and fine-tuned by natural selection when our ape-like
ancestors roamed the savannahs. Even if you admit some truth to
this view I have never understood why the savannah is such a big
deal. Why stop there? We spent a much longer time as fish in the
Devonian seas 500 million years ago. One could argue that the
reason we enjoy going to aquaria is that our piscine ancestors spent
millions of year's time looking at and enjoying other fishes. If you
think this idea is silly, you should see some of the others that have
made it into print and clutter the literature. Yes, genes profoundly
influence behavior. No ape, even if educated at Eton or Harrow, will
ever speak with a proper public school accent. But, the notion that
human talents and follies are governed mainly by instincts hard-wired
by genes is ludicrous.

Thanks to mirror neurons the human brain became specialized for


culture, it became the organ of cultural diversity par excellence. It is
for this reason (rather than moral reasons or political correctness)
that we need to cherish and celebrate cultural diversity. To be
culturally diverse is to be human and that's a good enough reason to
celebrate. Indeed, mirror neurons may help bridge the huge gap
between the "the two cultures", the sciences and the humanities,
which CP Snow claimed could never be bridged. Based on all these
ideas, I stand behind my pronouncement that "mirror neurons will do
for psychology what DNA did for biology", a prophesy already starting
to come true. In fact when I saw Rizzollati at a meeting recently he
complained, jokingly, that my off-the-wall remark is now quoted more
often than all his original papers!

One could, I suppose, simulate mirror neuron-like activity in the brain


in the vat — even simulate "culture" in a culture medium. There is
nothing that logically forbids this but it would be virtually impossible in
practice because of the contingent nature of culture; the fact that it
depends crucially on the rapid spread of unique innovations, or
"memes".

Who could program the "culture" into the brains in the vats without
first having themselves discovered culture? One could also make a
strong case for the idea that you cannot program innovation given its
highly contingent nature and dependence on rare combinations of
fortuitous circumstances. It is conceivable, though, that one could
achieve a reasonable approximation of culture. Even if we could
generate "fake" culture and create a reasonable simulacrum in the
vat, the question arises: Would we ever want to? I confess I have a
sentimental attachment to my "real " brain even though I can't defend
my choice rationally. It may just be pure narcissism. But, under some
circumstances to which people are subjected, whether a starving
peasant in Bangladesh or a torture victim in a secret jail, I might
easily be swayed to choose the brain in the vat!
I will conclude with a metaphysical question that cannot be answered
by science. I cannot decide whether the question is utterly trivial or
profound. I call it the "vantage point" problem foreshadowed by the
Upanishads, ancient Indian philosophical texts composed in the
second millennium BC, and by Erwin Schrödinger. I am referring to
the fundamental asymmetry in the universe between the "subjective"
private worldview vs. the objective world of physics.

Physics depends on the elimination of the subjective: there are no


colors, only wavelengths; no frequency, only pitch; no warmth or cold,
only kinetic activity of molecules; no subjective "self" or I, only neural
activity. Physics doesn't need, and indeed doesn't acknowledge, the
subjective "here and now", or the "I" who experiences the world. Yet
to me, my "I" is everything. It's as if only one tiny corner of the space-
time manifold is "illuminated" by the searchlight of my consciousness.
Humankind, it would seem, is forever condemned to accept this
schizophrenic view of reality; the "first person" account and the third
person account.

But what has this got to do with brains in vats? Everything. It's a fair
assumption that the identity of your conscious experience (including
your "I") depends on the information content of your brain, "software"
representing millions of years of accumulated evolutionary wisdom,
your cultural milieu, and your personal memories; not on the
particular atoms that currently constitute your brain. You can't actually
prove this logically, no more than you can prove that you are not
dreaming right now, but it seems "beyond reasonable doubt" given
everything else we know. After all your actual brain atoms and
molecules get replaced every few months yet you wouldn't want to
insist you are existentially reborn each time and stop planning for
what (in such a view) would essentially be an identical twin in the
future.

Now imagine speeding up this replacement process so that I destroy


your present brain and replace it with a replica/simulacrum with
identical information. There would be no reason to believe your
conscious experience would not continue in that other brain (The fact
that exact duplication cannot be achieved is irrelevant after all your
own brain information fluctuates everyday!) But if you accept this
argument then why not replace your brain with five replicas in five
vats instead of just one? Would you then "continue" in all five? If so
you can be Einstein, Gates and Heffner in parallel? This seems
absurd because you can simultaneously subject one brain to pain
and another to pleasure and the notion of a single conscious being
simultaneously experiencing both seems impossible. But if this isn't
true and "you" continue in only one, then what. Or who decides which
vat you continue in? (Actually, this thought experiment isn't all that
different from one that has actually been achieved empirically; the
splitting of an adult human brain down the middle by severing the
corpus callosum. The procedure is done for intractable epilepsy and
divides what was apparently a single stream of consciousness into
two, as shown elegantly by Sperry, Gazzaniga, and Bogen.)

Bill Hirstein and I recently showed that the isolated left hemisphere
would tell you it is conscious, if asked directly. More surprisingly, we
showed that the right hemisphere in such a patient does indeed have
introspective consciousness, for we found it was quite capable of
deliberate lying when tested through non-verbal signing (and you
cannot lie without being conscious of yourself and others).

The possibility of multiple "minds" in a single brain is not as bizarre as


it sounds. It often happens in dreams. I remember having a dream
once in which another guy told me a joke and I laughed heartily even
though the "other guy" was my mental invention, so I must have
already known the joke all along!

The question of whether "you" would continue in multiple parallel


brain vats raises issues that come perilously close to the theological
notion of souls, but I see no simple way out of the conundrum.
Perhaps we need to remain open to the Upanishadic doctrine that the
ordinary rules of numerosity and arithmetic, of "one vs. many", or
indeed of two-valued, binary yes/no logic, simply doesn't apply to
minds — the very notion of a separate "you " or "I" is an illusion, like
the passage of time itself.

We are all merely many reflections in a hall of mirrors of a single


cosmic reality (Brahman or "paramatman"). If you find all this too
much to swallow just consider the that as you grow older and
memories start to fade you may have less in common with, and be
less "informationally coupled", to your own youthful self, the chap you
once were, than with someone who is now your close personal friend.
This is especially true if you consider the barrier-dissolving nature of
mirror neurons. There is certain grandeur in this view of life, this
enlarged conception of reality, for it is the closest that we humans can
come to taking a sip from the well of immortality. (But I fear my
colleague Richard Dawkins may suspect me of spiritual leanings of
"letting God in through the back door" for saying this.)

Will you choose the vat or the real you? This exercise might not
provide an obvious answer, but fortunately none in this generation or
the next will have to confront this choice. For those in the future who
are forced to answer, I hope they make the "right" choice, whatever
"right" means.

Think not existence closing your account and mine


Shall see the likes of you and me no more
The eternal saki has poured from the bowl
millions of bubbles like you and me, and shall pour

— The Rubiyat of Omar Khayam

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