Action replay, mirrors neurons and mentally “going through the motions”

A striking and unexpected paper in the FinancialTime about mirror neurons: neurons which are activated when mimicking the actions of others. They have been discovered by Giacommo Rizzolatti (at the University of Parma, Italy). The paper is much more focused on inferring other actions when carrying out a joint action like dancing (uh I use a bit too much the vocabulary of the CSCW/herbet clark's theory of action here!)

Research shows that when subjects watch films of ballet or capoeira (a Brazilian martial art), the same areas in the brain are activated as those used to execute the movements. When watching motion, the brain “moves” along every step of the way, so much so that it stimulates physiological responses - such as increased oxygen consumption - to the point where the weak-hearted might suffer a heart attack merely watching strenuous sports.

This is why mentally “going through the motions” is just about as good as rehearsing to improve a dancer’s or sportsman’s performance. To observe, then, is to dance. (...) This finely honed perception of human movement, the ability to read body language - and readily to perceive and express our own - is known as social intelligence. This capacity to navigate our social world means we can work out “where others are coming from” (are they angry or happy?) or “where they are going” (are they coming to yell at me or to ask for help?) so we know how to react accordingly.

To mirror others is to empathise, using the same mental rehearsal of the body language of others that allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Some of us fail miserably, while others can really “feel your pain”. It enables us to recognise a friend at a distance just by their gait and subconsciously to acquire the mannerisms of our spouse. And it is why, like yawning, dancing is contagious.

This is very interesting and relevant to our new project at the lab: we are stuyding mutual modeling: the psychological project involved when people do inference about others' actions/goals/purposes.