Monkey See, Monkey Do?

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Biology 202
2004 Second Web Paper
On Serendip

Monkey See, Monkey Do?

Lindsey Dolich

In the words of the 18th c. Poet Edward Young, "we were all born originals, why is it that so many die copies?" (1). Indeed, if the recent discovery of "mirror neurons" in monkeys suggests a similar pre-existing brain structure in humans for imitative behavior, the question becomes: what does it mean to emulate others to the extent that we adopt observable behavior as our own? How can we define imitation as a conscious or unconscious aspect of human behavior from both a social and neurological standpoint? Can human behavior ever resemble "true imitation?"

"Mirror neurons" are considered to be one of the most exciting and controversial new developments thought to have potentially widespread implications across the natural and social science fields. Mirror neurons were discovered in the Macaque monkey's ventral pre-motor cortex, which controls hand and mouth movements. Neurons in this area, labeled as F5, were found to fire when the monkey observed an action performed by another (perhaps conspecific) creature (seeing another monkey or human grasping a nut) and when the monkey performed the same or similar action (grasping a nut) (2). The implications of this discovery become even more meaningful because the F5 area is homologous to Broca's region, which is thought to be involved in speech control as well as pre-linguistic analysis of other's behavior in humans (2).

Mirror neurons imply that we may not have to physically execute an action in order to imitate, but rather our motor system becomes active (observing neural activity) as if we were executing that very same action we are observing (on an unconscious level). Clearly, we should not be so quick to translate the neural activity found in the Macaque's to our own neural behavior. Humans have a higher consciousness that implies we have the ability to imagine ourselves acting, or to internally stimulate a vision of this action. However, envisioning ourselves imitating others does not necessarily translate into the actual imitation of these actions. Perhaps this suggests, that unlike the Macaques, we can consciously choose to imitate, if and when we do. How do we then distinguish between actions/observations that become internally integrated (conscious processing akin to learning) and echoed (unconscious processing) in imitation?

First, let us define what we mean by imitation. Imitation is defined as "to be, become, or make oneself like; to assume the aspect or semblance of; to simulate: intentionally or consciously; unintentionally or unconsciously" (3). Another description from the psychologist Thorndike, who was possibly the first to provide a clear definition of imitation within a social context, is given as "learning to do an act from seeing it done" (4). In other words, he suggests that we learn new behaviors by copying others.

These definitions suggest that imitation is not merely an unconscious, automatic reflex as suggested by mirror neurons, but a mechanism that involves a certain amount of integration and perception similar to learning. Gallese theorizes that mirror neurons allow us to implicitly perceive an action as equivalent to internally stimulating it (2), however, in humans, imitation seems to be inextricably linked to our higher consciousness.

For some, imitation involves an exact copy of behavior that is most commonly found in animals (i.e. the Macaque monkey, bird song, etc. See (5) for examples). If mirror neurons constitute what Vittorio Gallese proposes as constituting a "neural mechanism [that] enables implicit action understanding," then we have the capacity to represent and recreate the mental states of others (Theory of Mind) as part of our behavioral imitation. This notion underlies that mirror neurons might also provide us with the ability to distinguish our self from others (6), which is relevant in a social context. If we follow this idea, a dysfunction of mirror neurons would not only interfere with our imitative abilities, but also with our awareness of our relationship to others around us on an observable level.

Patients experiencing Anosognosia deny not only their own paralysis but also the paralysis of others (7). This case suggests that an individual's lack of awareness of his or her own physical capability is intrinsically connected to a similar physical ability observed in another. Echopraxia is another example of a possible impairment of mirror neurons and the imitative reflex. This disorder is explained as the "impulsive tendency to imitate other's movements. Imitation is performed immediately with the speed of a reflex action" (8). In this case, imitation is involuntary and spontaneous, suggesting that it is a behavior autonomous from the I-function. Unlike echopraxia however, individuals with imitative behavior do not imitate the movements of the acting individual, but rather perform an action identical to the observed one. It is the goal rather than the movement" that is imitated in this pathology (8). Although these actions cannot be simply reduced to a defect in mirror neurons, there is a certain imitative aspect inherent in these behaviors that suggest an unconscious connection between mirror neurons and how we act.

Laughing and yawning are also given as examples of other imitative actions, although they are thought to be "contagious" behaviors resulting from a stimulus. We can suppress these actions voluntarily if we choose to, but we can't deny that the observation of these actions will often generate a similar response in others. Regardless, laughter and yawning are not examples of "true imitation" because they are innate behaviors, not actions that we have learned to execute by observing others.

Clearly, imitation involves a certain degree of intentionality and goal-orientation that is inherent to our I-function. On the unconscious level of our "copycat" behavior, mirror neurons are said to function as a recognition and representation of specific actions/behaviors between others and ourselves. In order to get it "less wrong then", let me suggest a hypothetical situation: if we isolate ourselves in a vacuum, it is likely that we lose the ability to regulate our mind and body (without input to inhibit the action potentials generated by the brain). Therefore, taking a different stance, it seems logical to me that imitation might on a larger, social scope act as a regulatory mechanism. Mimicry enables individuals to know what they are doing is "ok" because they are acting like and along with others, creating a bond (9).

Perhaps mirror neurons have evolved as an evolutionary behavior for humans in order to inhibit corollary discharges, serving as a reference point for the "correct behavior" in a negative feedback loop/homeostasis within a social context. Although my hypothesis may be reductionist, it might be helpful to think of mirror neurons as homeostatic because observation (input) seems to be directly related to performance (output) in neural activity.

Imitation occurs in all ages. It might be interesting to research imitative behavior as age-specific: if children imitate more than adults, this might provide more evidence that mimicry can act on an unconscious level since children are not endowed with the same cognitive processing as adults. We often see young children imitating their parents, integrating innate behaviors with their observations (walking, talking, etc). But we also see adults watching others, adopting similar behaviors. For example, I often observe those who may not have the knowledge how to properly lift weights observe, then copy others (although not always correctly). Imitation evidently serves as a quick way to learn a new behavior that might serve us well—by watching others first, we can assess how these actions will be accepted and if they "work" or not. Our choice to imitate and whether we actually correctly assimilate these behaviors in our understanding and interpretation of them may be questioned.

Returning to my original, and perhaps unanswerable question, can humans even truly "imitate" if we are subject to so many internal and social forces? Imitation allows us to both consciously and unconsciously ape other's behavior, although it seems to occur more commonly on a level of self-awareness. Mirror neurons may suggest a neurological explanation for mimicry, but until we can pinpoint its exact function in learning/adopting behaviors observed in others, whether consciously or unconsciously, we must be careful to draw conclusions about its capabilities. If indeed mirror neurons follow an involuntary "monkey see, monkey do" role, then we must alter our concept of brain=behavior, in that our behavior is more reflexive of our external perceptions of the world and our relation to those around us.



2)What Mirror Neurons Can and Cannot Do, a different take on Mirror Neurons

3)Online Version of the Oxford Classical Dictionary
; definition of Imitation

4)Imitation and the Definition of a Meme, Susan Blackmore

5)Animal Imitation

6)The Roots of Empathy: The Shared Manifold Hypothesis and the Neural Basis of Intersubjectivity, Vittorio Gallese

7)Ramachandran, Bio 202 lecture notes link

8)Shared Manifold Hypothesis from Mirror Neurons to Empathy, Gallese

9)Nature Magazine, an interesting link on "copycatting"

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