TED Talk: Introduction

“The Neurons That Shaped Civilization” – Vilayanur Ramachandran,  PhD.



1) Video Transcript

2) Background Information

3) Defined Terms


Video Transcript


I’d like to talk to you today about the human brain, which is what we do research on at the University of California. Just think about this problem for a second. Here is a lump of flesh, about three pounds, which you can hold in the palm of your hand. But it can contemplate the vastness of interstellar space. It can contemplate the meaning of infinity, ask questions about the meaning of its own existence, about the nature of God.

And this is truly the most amazing thing in the world. It’s the greatest mystery confronting human beings: How does this all come about? Well, the brain, as you know, is made up of neurons. We’re looking at neurons here. There are 100 billion neurons in the adult human brain. And each neuron makes something like 1,000 to 10,000 contacts with other neurons in the brain. And based on this, people have calculated that the number of permutations and combinations of brain activity exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe.

So, how do you go about studying the brain? One approach is to look at patients who had lesions in different part of the brain, and study changes in their behavior. This is what I spoke about in the last TED. Today I’ll talk about a different approach, which is to put electrodes in different parts of the brain, and actually record the activity of individual nerve cells in the brain. Sort of eavesdrop on the activity of nerve cells in the brain.

Now, one recent discovery that has been made by researchers in Italy, in Parma, by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues, is a group of neurons called mirror neurons, which are on the front of the brain in the frontal lobes. Now, it turns out there are neurons which are called ordinary motor command neurons in the front of the brain, which have been known for over 50 years. These neurons will fire when a person performs a specific action. For example, if I do that, and reach and grab an apple, a motor command neuron in the front of my brain will fire. If I reach out and pull an object, another neuron will fire, commanding me to pull that object. These are called motor command neurons that have been known for a long time.

But what Rizzolatti found was a subset of these neurons, maybe about 20 percent of them, will also fire when I’m looking at somebody else performing the same action. So, here is a neuron that fires when I reach and grab something, but it also fires when I watch Joe reaching and grabbing something. And this is truly astonishing. Because it’s as though this neuron is adopting the other person’s point of view. It’s almost as though it’s performing a virtual reality simulation of the other person’s action.

Now, what is the significance of these mirror neurons? For one thing they must be involved in things like imitation and emulation. Because to imitate a complex act requires my brain to adopt the other person’s point of view. So, this is important for imitation and emulation. Well, why is that important? Well, let’s take a look at the next slide. So, how do you do imitation? Why is imitation important? Mirror neurons and imitation, emulation.

Now, let’s look at culture, the phenomenon of human culture. If you go back in time about [75,000] to 100,000 years ago, let’s look at human evolution, it turns out that something very important happened around 75,000 years ago. And that is, there is a sudden emergence and rapid spread of a number of skills that are unique to human beings like tool use, the use of fire, the use of shelters, and, of course, language, and the ability to read somebody else’s mind and interpret that person’s behavior. All of that happened relatively quickly.

Even though the human brain had achieved its present size almost three or four hundred thousand years ago, 100,000 years ago all of this happened very, very quickly. And I claim that what happened was the sudden emergence of a sophisticated mirror neuron system, which allowed you to emulate and imitate other people’s actions. So that when there was a sudden accidental discovery by one member of the group, say the use of fire, or a particular type of tool, instead of dying out, this spread rapidly, horizontally across the population, or was transmitted vertically, down the generations.

So, this made evolution suddenly Lamarckian, instead of Darwinian. Darwinian evolution is slow; it takes hundreds of thousands of years. A polar bear, to evolve a coat, will take thousands of generations, maybe 100,000 years. A human being, a child, can just watch its parent kill another polar bear, and skin it and put the skin on its body, fur on the body, and learn it in one step. What the polar bear took 100,000 years to learn, it can learn in five minutes, maybe 10 minutes. And then once it’s learned this it spreads in geometric proportion across a population.

This is the basis. The imitation of complex skills is what we call culture and is the basis of civilization. Now there is another kind of mirror neuron, which is involved in something quite different. And that is, there are mirror neurons, just as there are mirror neurons for action, there are mirror neurons for touch. In other words, if somebody touches me, my hand, neuron in the somatosensory cortex in the sensory region of the brain fires. But the same neuron, in some cases, will fire when I simply watch another person being touched. So, it’s empathizing the other person being touched.

So, most of them will fire when I’m touched in different locations. Different neurons for different locations. But a subset of them will fire even when I watch somebody else being touched in the same location. So, here again you have neurons which are enrolled in empathy. Now, the question then arises: If I simply watch another person being touched, why do I not get confused and literally feel that touch sensation merely by watching somebody being touched? I mean, I empathize with that person but I don’t literally feel the touch. Well, that’s because you’ve got receptors in your skin, touch and pain receptors, going back into your brain and saying “Don’t worry, you’re not being touched. So, empathize, by all means, with the other person, but do not actually experience the touch, otherwise you’ll get confused and muddled.”

Okay, so there is a feedback signal that vetoes the signal of the mirror neuron preventing you from consciously experiencing that touch. But if you remove the arm, you simply anesthetize my arm, so you put an injection into my arm, anesthetize the brachial plexus, so the arm is numb, and there is no sensations coming in, if I now watch you being touched, I literally feel it in my hand. In other words, you have dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. So, I call them Gandhi neurons, or empathy neurons.

And this is not in some abstract metaphorical sense. All that’s separating you from him, from the other person, is your skin. Remove the skin, you experience that person’s touch in your mind. You’ve dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. And this, of course, is the basis of much of Eastern philosophy, and that is there is no real independent self, aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world, inspecting other people. You are, in fact, connected not just via Facebook and Internet, you’re actually quite literally connected by your neurons. And there is whole chains of neurons around this room, talking to each other. And there is no real distinctiveness of your consciousness from somebody else’s consciousness.

And this is not mumbo-jumbo philosophy. It emerges from our understanding of basic neuroscience. So, you have a patient with a phantom limb. If the arm has been removed and you have a phantom, and you watch somebody else being touched, you feel it in your phantom. Now the astonishing thing is, if you have pain in your phantom limb, you squeeze the other person’s hand, massage the other person’s hand, that relieves the pain in your phantom hand, almost as though the neuron were obtaining relief from merely watching somebody else being massaged.

So, here you have my last slide. For the longest time people have regarded science and humanities as being distinct. C.P. Snow spoke of the two cultures: science on the one hand, humanities on the other; never the twain shall meet. So, I’m saying the mirror neuron system underlies the interface allowing you to rethink about issues like consciousness, representation of self, what separates you from other human beings, what allows you to empathize with other human beings, and also even things like the emergence of culture and civilization, which is unique to human beings. Thank you.


Background Information


About The Speaker

Professor V.S. Ramachandran is a mesmerizing speaker, able to concretely and simply describe the most complicated inner workings of the brain. His investigations into phantom limb pain, synesthesia and other brain disorders allow him to explore (and begin to answer the most basic philosophical questions about the nature of self and human consciousness.

Ramachandran is the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute. He is the author of Phantoms in the Brain (the basis of a Nova special), A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, and The Man with the Phantom Twin: Adventures in the Neuroscience of the Human Brain.

Source: http://www.ted.com/speakers/vilayanur_ramachandran.html

The Neuron

Neurons come in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending upon their function and specialized structures. However, in general, all neurons work in the same manner and resemble each other. And, in addition, our neurons look almost exactly like the neurons of a dolphin, a cat, or a squirrel!

Nerve impulses move in one direction through the cell. The ends of a neuron are separated into two parts. One is made of special extensions called “dendrites” which receive information and bring electrochemical signals to the cell body or “soma”. The other end of the neuron is a special extension called the axon which sends information away from the cell body. Neurons communicate with each other by electrochemical signals traveling from the axon terminal of one cell to the dendrite of the next then on and on. The actual linking sites where nerve cells communicate are called synapses and neuronal communication of information is called “synaptic transmission”.

Source: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/kinser/Nerve7.html


 Mirror Neurons

You see a stranger stub her toe and you immediately flinch in sympathy, or you notice a friend wrinkle up his face in disgust while tasting some food and suddenly your own stomach recoils at the thought of eating. This ability to instinctively and immediately understand what other people are experiencing has long baffled neuroscientists, but recent research now suggests a fascinating explanation: brain cells called mirror neurons.

Observing the same action, such as grasping a cup, in different contexts elicits different levels of mirror neuron activity in one area of the brain that belongs to the mirror neuron system (right posterior inferior frontal gyrus). This finding shows that the mirror neuron system does more than code the observed action (“that’s a grasp”). It also codes the intention behind the action (“that’s a grasp to drink” or “that’s a grasp to clear the table”).

Mirror neuron research, therefore, is helping scientists reinterpret the neurological underpinning of social interactions. These studies are leading to:

  • New insight into how and why we develop empathy for others.
  • More knowledge about autism, schizophrenia, and other brain disorders characterized by poor social interactions.
  • A new theory about the evolution of language.
  • New therapies for helping stroke victims regain lost movement.

Findings suggest that the mirror neuron system plays a key role in our ability to empathize and socialize with others, for we communicate our emotions mostly through facial expressions. And, indeed, studies have found that people with autism—a disorder characterized, in part, by problems during social interactions—appear to have a dysfunctional mirror neuron system. The more severe the symptoms of autism, the less active the mirror neuron system seems to be. Studies have demonstrated that children with autism have difficulties understanding the intention of others on the basis of the action they observe. In order to decide what others are doing, they rely on object meaning or the context in which the action is performed. To them, a cup means “drinking” even when others would intuit that the intention is to clear it from the table. Attempts are now being made to use imitative behavior to try to counter this deficit. Similar imitative training techniques are also being explored to rehabilitate people whose motor skills have been damaged by a stroke or other brain injury.

Among other intriguing mirror neuron research is the discovery that complex hand gestures activate the same brain circuits as the complex tongue and lip movements used in making sentences. Some scientists believe these findings suggest that spoken language evolved from hand gestures.

Do mirror neurons form the basis of communication and empathy? That has yet to be determined. But research into this intricate and pervasive neural system is providing fascinating new insight into the mechanisms by which we acquire social skills and communicate our innermost feelings and intentions to others.

Source: http://www.brainfacts.org/brain-basics/neuroanatomy/articles/2008/mirror-neurons

Word List


Ramachandran – The Neurons That Shaped Civilization


Word Definition
  • n. a small piece or mass of something
  •   n. the soft parts of the body of an animal or person
  • v. to view or consider with continued attention
  • adj. very great in size, amount, degree, intensity, or especially in extent or range
  • adj. existing or occurring between stars
  • n. unlimited extent of time, space, or quantity
  • n. reality as presented in experience
  • n. to oppose or challenge (someone) especially in a direct and forceful way
  • n. a cell that carries messages between the brain and other parts of the body and that is the basic unit of the nervous system
  • n. the number 1,000,000,000; a very large amount or number
  • adj. to make complicated, convoluted or complex
  • adj. happening in a way that is not planned or intended; to be on or by accident
  • adj. positioned from side to side rather than up and down; parallel to the ground; follows the x-axis
  • adj. positioned up and down rather than from side to side; going straight up; following the y-axis
  • v. to send or convey
  • adj. to be in line with the theory of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, stating that an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring
  • adj. to be in line with the theory Charles Darwin, stating that only the best characteristics of an organism are passed down genetically to offspring
somatosensory cortex
  • n. region of the brain that recieves and processes body senses
brachial plexus
  • n. network of nerves lying mostly in the armpit and supplying nerves to the chest, shoulder, and arm
  • adj. unable to feel anything in a particular part of your body
  • v. to cause to disperse or disappear

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