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Koji Kinoshita

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Modern Humankind and Mirror Neurons

Koji Kinoshita
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Theory of Language Acquisition and Learning

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The perspective of mirror neurons

My area of specialization, the theory of language acquisition and learning, has been strongly influenced by the theories of MIT linguistics scholar Noam Chomsky. His idea is that language is unique to human beings, and that a baby's brain is inherently provided with a language function in a default state called universal grammar, common to all languages, which is activated by voice data and becomes the baby's natural mother tongue. That is, native language acquisition is a human instinct and is directed by gene expression regardless of ability and culture. Of course things such as word use, expressive ability, and reading and writing skills are cultivated by the accumulation of learning and experience.

One factor in how the human race actually came to gain language was probably a growing individual self-awareness and need to communicate with one another as budding cultures and societies began to emerge. Of course this was enabled by a dramatic development in the brain. Ironically, however, modern humankind is at the mercy of language, which is permitted only to us, and we seem to have become increasingly anxious about communication.

This has made me think again about mirror neurons, sometimes referred to in Japanese as "monomane saibo" ["mimic cells"]. There is a hypothesis that these nerve cells are involved in empathy enabling us to understand the actions, intentions and emotions of other people, and may also have become the trigger for our acquisition of language. Empathy is essential to communication. So what do these unique cells suggest to us humans today?

Mimicking, empathy, language - the results of mirror neuron research

Mirror neurons were named by the research team of neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma in 1996. By chance, his team noticed that cells in the same region of the brain of a macaque monkey were activated when the monkey picked up its own food as when it saw an experimenter pick up some food. The subject's brain cells seemed to be responding in such a way that it would perform an action just by seeing that same action performed by someone else, like looking in a mirror, or mimicking. Rizzolatti had originally been conducting experiments on macaque monkeys in search of a method of healing human patients with impaired motor function caused by brain lesions.

Then, in 2005, Rizzolatti's colleague Leonardo Fogassi and his team demonstrated how the mirror neurons in rhesus macaques were activated differently depending on whether the monkeys saw experimenters picking up food and putting it to their mouth or picking it up and putting it into a container. The mirror neurons of the rhesus monkeys were activated much more strongly in response to the former than the latter, because the purpose or intention of putting something into one's mouth (that is, eating) is important to the monkeys, regardless of the kind of thing that is picked up.

Mirror neurons became a hot topic, and the same regions in the human brain were discovered. For example, Broca's area is the motor speech center of the brain which controls movement of the tongue, lips and throat, all required for speech, but it also processes syntactic information required for understanding sentences. Of particular interest is that the Broca's area is the mirror neuron in terms of its property that it responds to arm and hand gestures of another person that are suggestive of his or her thoughts or meaning. John Skoyles of University College London has advocated the development of communication by gestures into spoken language.

Regarding emotions that cannot be verified in monkeys, in 2003 Marco Iacoboni et al of UCLA proved that when subjects themselves expressed fear, sadness, anger, happiness, surprise, or disgust and when they saw those same emotions in another person, their mirror neurons and their amygdala, the parts of the brain that process emotional reactions, were activated at the same time via a link called the insula. The amygdala is included in the region called the limbic system which is concerned with emotion and memory.

Mirror neurons for modern humankind

In the end, mirror neuron research shows that we humans share the same experiences and social nature and that we identify with one other, that is to say, our empathy enables us to predict or understand the emotions and intentions of others. In a way, humans are not particularly creative but are susceptible to the influence of others or their surroundings. It would be an exaggeration to say that empathy starts with mimicking, but when a mother smiles at her baby, for example, the baby smiles back, which is a form of communication. Children copy adults, for better or worse, including their facial expressions, manner of speaking, gestures, and so on.

We human beings also convey and explain our feelings and intentions verbally. While enabling complex psychological descriptions and information transfer, language has also made communication more difficult. A slightly different choice of wording can change the nuance of what we say, or even conceal or fake our feelings or intentions. Differences in language and culture are even more of a nuisance. Language is a double-edged sword, and communication in ancient times must have originated from a much more direct and simple form.

In today's society, self-centered people with no capacity to empathize have become increasingly noticeable, as symbolized by "Monster XXX" (those who demand something unreasonable too much), "claimer" (chronic complainers), and so on. Rather than simply having differing values, such people are not interested in communicating from the very outset. The same can be said for those who hide their identity on the internet while aggressively venting their feelings and thoughts and slandering other people. Analog communication in which human beings face one another, greet and exchange words is a basic behavior by which we share and maintain our social nature. Mirror neurons seem to perpetuate the negative progression from mimicking antisocial behavior to the distortion of empathy, which is troubling. In spite of our advanced technologies, modern humankind still seems immature.

Koji Kinoshita
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Theory of Language Acquisition and Learning
Born in Osaka in 1961. Graduated the Faculty of Letters, Keio University in 1985. He obtained an MS in Linguistics in 1989 and a PhD in the same subject in 1993 from Georgetown University. He joined the Faculty of Commerce at Chuo University as a full-time lecturer in 1994, and became an assistant professor in 1996 and professor in 2002. His current research subject is the theory and practice of learning a foreign language, including a second language.
Major books: Co-editor of The latest English education based on research into second language acquisition [Dainigengo shuutoku kenkyuu ni motozuku saishin no eigo kyoiku], Taishukan Publishing, 1994; Kenkyusha Dictionary of Applied Linguistics, Kenkyusha, 2003; Current research into second language acquisition [Dainigengo shuutoku kenkyuu no genzai], Taishukan Publishing, 2004; Translator of Language Acquisition After Puberty, Shohakusha Publishing, 2001