8 March 2012

Neural Imitation of Life

Filed under: Fiction, Language, Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:10 am

Recent neural imaging research has demonstrated that, when watching someone else perform a particular action, the viewer experiences neural firing patterns in the brain that are similar to those associated with actually performing the action. It has been proposed that these “mirror neurons” serve as the structural and functional underpinnings for mutual empathy, understanding, and imitation. In effect we unconsciously simulate others’ actions, and the intentions motivating those actions.

As a side benefit, mirror neural activity enables the observer to live vicariously through those they observe. It’s one reason why movies and TV are so engaging: what we watch characters doing on-screen we simulate neurally as if we ourselves were doing it.

It turns out that the mirror neurons are activated not only when watching. Reading works too.

Here’s the abstract from this 2009 article by Speer et al., informatively entitled “Reading Stories Activates Neural Representations of Visual and Motor Experiences” (emphases mine):

To understand and remember stories, readers integrate their knowledge of the world with information in the text. Here we present functional neuroimaging evidence that neural systems track changes in the situation described by a story. Different brain regions track different aspects of a story, such as a character’s physical location or current goals. Some of these regions mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities. These results support the view that readers understand a story by simulating the events in the story world and updating their simulation when features of that world change.

In the study, 28 native English speakers read excerpts from One Boy’s Day, a nonfiction observational account of the everyday activities of Raymond, a 7-year-old boy. In the four excerpts, ranging from 8 to 11 minutes, Raymond wakes up, plays before going to school, performs an English lesson at school, and participates in a music lesson. The text was displayed on an LCD screen. The experimental subjects were hooked up to a functional MRI machine, which recorded their brain activity while reading. And it turned out that the readers’ neural patterns changed simultaneously with their reading about Raymond’s activities changing. The subjects’ fMRIs lit up in the same areas of the brain that would be activated if they themselves had been performing the activities instead of textual Raymond. The study authors summarize their key findings:

These results suggest that readers dynamically activate specific visual, motor, and conceptual features of activities while reading about analogous changes in activities in the context of a narrative, while reading: Regions involved in processing goal-directed human activity, navigating spatial environments, and manually manipulating objects in the real world increased in activation at points when those specific aspects of the narrated situation were changing. For example, when readers processed changes in a character’s interactions with an object, precentral and parietal areas associated with grasping hand movements increased in activation. Previous studies of motor execution and motor imagery provide strong evidence that the portion of premotor cortex identified in this study performs computations that are specific to motor planning and execution (Ehrsson et al., 2003; Michelon, Vettel, & Zacks, 2006; Picard & Strick, 2001). These results suggest that readers use perceptual and motor representations in the process of comprehending narrated activity, and these representations are dynamically updated at points where relevant aspects of the situation are changing.

They conclude:

Overall, these data make a strong case for embodied theories of language comprehension, in which readers’ representations of situations described in language are constructed from basic sensory and motor representations (Barsalou, 1999; Glenberg, 1997; Zwaan, 2004). However, the use of perceptual and motor representations to guide story comprehension may be an example of a more general, fundamental principle of cognitive function. Brain regions involved in motor function are active when viewing another person execute an action (Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004). When viewing a movie, somatosensory and motor cortices increase in activity during scenes showing close-ups of features such as hands and faces (Hasson, Nir, Levy, Fuhrmann, & Malach, 2004), and similar correspondences exist between the regions involved in perceiving and later remembering auditory and visual information (Wheeler & Buckner, 2004). Thus, the use of sensory and motor representations during story comprehension observed in the current study may reflect a more general neural mechanism for grounding cognition in real-world experiences. Language may have adopted this general mechanism over the course of human evolution to allow individuals to communicate experiences efficiently and vividly.

Now doesn’t that just set your readerly and writerly neurons aquiver?


  1. My ass is indeed AQUIVER (that was great) when I think of the sheer magnitude of the scientists’ foolishness in taking several Millenniums to ”discover” something that animators have known since the Altamira caves!

    But sarcasm aside, doesn’t this dovetail neatly with Jonathan Beller’s eyeball-yanking theories? Sounds pretty logical.

    To answer your e-mail here, yes I’m aware of the precarious difference between a cognitive-behavioral and a cognitive. However, both the CB and the C take the identical (reductive) theoretical premise that the Unconscious either doesn’t exist, or is an irrelevant ”noise” among the more prestigious rational variables. Like in your text above: the scientists privileges the possible evolutionary function of recognizing each other’s experience, implicitly making the functionalist claim that adaption drives organisms before anything else. Ironically, the neurological discoveries that the brain functions like Freud said, suddenly created a BROWN SOIL on the CB and C’s otherwise pristine white agenda. Because the Unconscious doesn’t give a flying fuck about adapting – it just wants to fuck, as Frank Booth would have said, anything that moves.


    Comment by Center of Parody — 10 March 2012 @ 3:36 pm

  2. Well the cave people knew a lot of things: if you drop a rock it falls to the ground, it’s not good to let a cobra bite you, sweet things taste good, ganging up on a mastodon makes it easier to kill, etc. On the other hand, they didn’t know a thing about texts, which is the main focus of the study I cited here.

    Mostly I remember two things about Beller: (1) the idea that cinema, like capitalism, disguises the work behind producing an image; (2) spectators do unpaid work by increasing the fetish value of celebrities they watch. I don’t recall what he had to say about the unconscious attraction of spectators to the spectacle. But the study I cite here extends beyond the cinematic image to textual description, and I don’t recall Beller having much to say about texts. My memory could be faulty on both counts though.

    “However, both the CB and the C take the identical (reductive) theoretical premise that the Unconscious either doesn’t exist, or is an irrelevant ”noise” among the more prestigious rational variables.”

    This is just wrong: hopefully by this point you’re just pulling my leg with this sort of remark. The cognitive research cited in this post found that fMRIs show neural motor responses attuned to visual images or textual descriptions of people doing things: these are clearly unconscious responses. It’s certainly the case that there are those who would like to bring these unconscious responses under conscious control, perhaps in order to produce more cheerful and productive workers. But even Freud had that scheme in mind. And there are also those who intentionally attempt to circumvent consciousness and rational decision-making in order to trigger unconscious responses; e.g., in advertising campaigns. There’s no payoff to denying the unconscious; there is potentially big payoff in figuring out how the unconscious works.

    “the Unconscious doesn’t give a flying fuck about adapting – it just wants to fuck”

    Well that’s one thing the unconscious wants to do; it also wants to perceive the environment in which it operates, to find food, to be alert to danger, to empathize, etc. But WHY does it want to fuck? Insects want to fuck too: why?


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 March 2012 @ 4:56 pm

  3. hese are clearly unconscious responses.

    It seems it’s YOU who’s pulling my leg; I said clearly that this finding is PLUGGED into the same old boring story about evolution and adaptation.

    But WHY does it want to fuck?

    That’s just the point, the unconscious does not operate on any teleological, functionalist, adaptive, evolutionist, pragmatic, or reasonable, premise!!!


    Comment by Center of Parody — 11 March 2012 @ 9:14 am

  4. Girls just wanna have fu-un.


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 March 2012 @ 9:23 am

  5. “the unconscious does not operate on any teleological, functionalist, adaptive, evolutionist, pragmatic, or reasonable, premise!!!”

    This indeterminacy is integral to a Lacanian-Deleuzian metaphysics, isn’t it? “God is unconscious,” says Lacan — an immanent god moving in and through people, outside of their conscious awareness and control, spawning unpredictable emergent creativity. Freud was more deterministic and functionalist than that: there’s the stimulus-response animal brain that is the preconscious; and then there’s the repressed material of the unconscious, pushed out of consciousness as a self-defense mechanism.


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 March 2012 @ 9:54 am

  6. and then there’s the repressed material of the unconscious, pushed out of consciousness as a self-defense mechanism.

    Haven’t you found that, as time goes by, that this ‘repressed material’ comes up easily enough. The ‘self-defense mechanism’ was needed as long as it was used, and then the opposite occurs–you need to let the material in, and it’s very beneficial. If you’re not in urgent need of ‘outside help’, as it were, of course. But surely this happens with everyone, and if you are functioning at least reasonably well, it becomes very obvious, and not at all mysterious, when the ‘repressed material’ begins to be something you WANT. The clinical scene would be for when it’s so clogged and paralyzing that you’ve got to do something, and sometimes that may mean a kind of ‘nursing’ that the ‘skilled clinician’ is using very convincingly. I don’t know: My two brief experiences with professional psychologists were both interesting, but not until they became themselves subjects that could be seen within a context that made sense to me. The one in late 1985 that I saw was managing to create a sense of a world removed from the world, it was surreal and had its own sense of totally superior privilege from everything else. He later went crazy himself, and started carrying out his practice in the public library, it was startling. Can’t say he wasn’t dedicated, though. But he was in it for his ego UNTIL he went crazy. Since then, I see him as a kind of Upper East Side Fiction–and the huge fee he charged was a big part of the Twilight Zone sensation. I imagine he’s dead by now. He was very insulted that I left him after only 4 sessions, as had the previous (more lightweight) one been when I left him after 5–they both made a point of overtly insulting me for being so cavalier, the second almost begging me to stay, the first one deciding the way to Patrick’s heart would be to flatter him. Was interesting to see how petty they were, how their dedication to the profession was so obviously commercial that the ‘repressed material’ was precisely how MUCH you knew that the commercial aspect was primary, but couldn’t afford to realize this until years later (in the case of the second one, who had at least seemed very smart; the first one was also a Protestant minister, and he did not seem very smart, more just a eunuch, small and smug.) I think I mentioned these some years ago, both were right after my mother’s death, and I was in much denial of my own grief, so it’s obvious why I’d end up with them, as well as a horrible ‘ashram retreat’ with a scold-yogi-woman in between. 1985 was a HARD year for me.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 11 March 2012 @ 12:04 pm

  7. You have a very strong memory IDNYC, based on the contents of your books, as well as your strong ability to remember blog conversations. Do you cultivate your recall skills, or as you say do they just seem to bubble up for you? I believe I’ve mentioned that my memory isn’t very good. Long ago or fairly recently, good things or bad, they all seem to fade pretty quickly for me. It’s conceivable that I’m repressing, but I think it’s more an inability to remember than a desire to forget. I don’t think about my past very much: maybe if I gave it more attention then more would come back to me. If nothing else, an analyst would activate my associative network for the past. Doing the sort of writing you do would also prime that pump — maybe some day I’ll try writing a memory journal. I will say this though: I have some very clear memories of unhappy events that I would just as soon forget — maybe my ability to repress isn’t very strong either. Still, maybe for people with strong recall ability these bad memories are clearer and hence more debilitating.


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 March 2012 @ 5:32 pm

  8. Yes, I can see from what you wrote that it’s really different for every individual. I want to remember everything until the painful ones stop hurting, as it were–and you paradoxically do forget an aspect of those; you forget them in the form of pain, so I guess I do want to forget actual sensation of pain, that’s the point of healing, you’re not well until the pain is over, at least that’s part of it, unless someone thinks the pain is good ‘for the collective’ or something. So let ’em try to inflict some more, silence on personal matters can work wonders with ill-wishers. I mean, if I’d said things on the bleugs about certain things I’ve been through, I’d have never gotten to anything else, so determined are so many to alleviate their boredom with someone else’s suffering, just so long as it isn’t politically incorrect. Almost all the Socialist bleugers work that way–signs of guilt they can exploit and then use for their own Stalinist brand of coercion, while pronouncing it more ‘worthy’ somehow than anybody in the mainstream or capitalist or centrist or whatever; as such, I do not give a fuck what happens to them, looking everywhere for signs of weakness, and they will definitely use them if you throw them to them. The pleasant memories I never stop enjoying remembering, but I have no idea what any of this means, except that for the matter of the ‘repressed materials’. Even the pleasant ones are transformed, because we are always moving into new contexts with the time changing, whether or not the place does.

    My memory has always been strong. I think it may have to do with memorizing music from early age, and playing by ear from what my sister played from age 3. Reason I think this is, from 2001-2004, when I went back to the piano for three concentrated years, my writing started immediately changing. Early stories I wrote that later became Day of Cine-Musique bore this out. There’s one I wrote about the Jan. 2001 trip that I called ‘The Worship in the High Places’ that sounds like a grade-school essay compared to the one I wrote in early 2002, that I called ‘Pleasure Discharge in Lomita’. I wrote it about 6 months after I had started very rigorous practice sessions at Steinway, and the attention to detail was exponentially increased. That story became the basis of much of ‘Day of Cine-Musique’, but it was in a sense the rawer version. That’s because that trip was only 2 months after 9/11, the first time I’d gotten out of the city more than an hour or two, and the incredible tension which I could never put my finger on all spilled out. Evil smells I’d remembered from the last time I saw that piano teacher (a few weeks after 9/11, and she was exuding alcohol from her pores, having arisen at 3 p.m., and apologized for by her housekeeper) went away out there, it was palpable. Even at the time, I realized that the sensations during that week (including about 8 rolls of film) were so keen that there wouldn’t ever be a way of having that sense of Paradise and wonder in L.A. again, although to my surprise, some of it finally came back this year, and only this year. In the book, I also write about the 2002 trip, which was very mundane, the air was not beautiful, it was prosaic, as if I just went there every day. But that original manuscript of that magical Dec., 2001, trip I’m here talking about because of that specific element of detail, but as I try to explain it here, it may be the combination of continuing to practice (and I went back to the Steinway Rachmaninoff Room some 8 days after 9/11, they were closed for one week only), and the extreme relaxation I experienced (and realized that so many did not have that luxury, and it built up in them from not taking a break too) that was so accelerated because of the weird numbness after 9/11, which included, of course, that there was smoke you did smell in the streets for months. I’d still say it was from memorizing so much music, especially difficult 20th century works, but whether that’s also possible just because of having a good memory or a good ear, I’m not sure. I do forget in a sort of senile way, though, details of everyday life, forget to bring things with me, things like that, forget things I’m shopping primarily for even, have to go back, leave potatoes behind, etc.,

    Now, the LITERAL memory of the last time I really got DRUNK, back in 1999, and the pain I went through (probably nearly drank myself to death, that was the last time I was with Noel) is not something I either want to remember or can even. In that sense, one does repress certain kinds of memories, because it’s actually thoroughly self-destructive to remember them as they actually felt.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 11 March 2012 @ 6:08 pm

  9. Girls just wanna have fu-un.

    get right up like a smoking gun
    on the floor til the daylight comes
    gurlz they jus wanna have some fun!

    But there it is again – that tired cliche about the ”recollection of repressed memories”. Psychoanalysis ISN’T about that. It is about the TRANSLATION of incorrectly translated memories, which are still active and therefore NEVER HAVE BEEN RELEGATED TO THE PAST.


    Comment by Center of Parody — 12 March 2012 @ 1:02 am

  10. I’m sure that if I focused on it I would recall more of my past. But I’m reminded by someone who should know that Freud abandoned the idea of repressed memories at some point. I think because he decided it didn’t matter whether his hysterical patients’ fathers actually raped them as children or not. The supposed memory is, says Freud, a fantasy: she wanted her father to have sex with her. This is what must be dealt with in analysis: the desire, consciously denied but expressed in distorted translations in other relationships. At least I think that’s the idea. There was a big revival business in recovered memory a decade or two ago — the return of the repressed in clinical practice I suppose you could call it. All sorts of people were supposedly remembering sexual traumas perpetrated by their parents, siblings, neighbors, probably also some pet dogs. It’s been concluded that most of these were false memories implanted by therapists. At the same time, kids who spontaneously tell other people about being sexually abused are probably not bullshitting. I wonder if Freud conflated his patients’ true free recalls of trauma with the false memories he implanted in his zeal. There is something dangerous about a practice that regards as unimportant the distinction between childhood trauma and childhood fantasy.

    My tentative conclusion is that if I wanted to go in search of lost time I’d be better off avoiding the therapists and analysts and their hidden agendas, Instead I’d try to start writing a memory journal. Maybe someone like a writing coach could suggest prompts for triggering memories without presuming to be a healer.


    Comment by ktismatics — 12 March 2012 @ 7:30 am

  11. LOL, the last part.

    Yes, I certainly agree, and I do remember that revival, all full of Satanic fucking on Saturday afternoons in white trash locales. New Yorker Mag. even wrote it up.

    For me, it’s only the little nagging things that finally become so obvious you can’t ignore them–you’re saying to yourself ‘No, that’s no it’, but the nagging thing says ‘listen to me’, and finally you do and you can even deal with it as if it has equal rights with what you’re at home with in the daylight, and no more than that. You bring up an interesting point, though: It’s possible you’d like to do a ‘memory journal’, but that time you pointed out how your mother had ‘been a good friend’, but you weren’t quite so emotionally involved with her passing, and then you said ‘your family is a lot more like Anne’s’ was quite elucidating: People’s wizardry is just in different areas.

    Now, I have no memory for figures, but I am going to ask Northanger, whose Gematria I can now follow EXCEPT for the huge numerals, if doing those (and number always is part of them, even if words too) if it has made her have a memory for figures, or whether she already had one. My father was a mathematical whiz–and most vicious about it if he thought you were just stupid that way. Mathematicians often have that attitude naturally, and it definitely is a particular sort of intelligence. I was good at it as long as I could stay interested, but–I can’t stay interested, there just wasn’t enouigh time.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 12 March 2012 @ 11:44 am

  12. I wonder if Freud conflated his patients’ true free recalls of trauma with the false memories he implanted in his zeal. There is something dangerous about a practice that regards as unimportant the distinction between childhood trauma and childhood fantasy.

    Oh yeah and what’s ”dangerous” about it – you can’t run EMPIRICAL TESTS can you? I find that since not only Freud but many other psychologists agree that our parents are our first sexual objects, it is quite logical that people fantasize about doing it with their parents and therefore this confusion can occur. I think whether something is or isn’t abuse also depends on how you receive the message.


    Comment by Center of Parody — 13 March 2012 @ 7:11 pm

  13. Seriously? For a child to be fondled or fucked by an adult is to “receive the message”? I suppose the jail sentence imposed on the pedophile is also a “message.”


    Comment by ktismatics — 13 March 2012 @ 7:31 pm

  14. Empirical tests of child abuse? How about tonight’s news story from a few miles to the east of here?

    Wilkinson said when police asked her why she kept her son locked in the trailer, she told them he would “irritate me really bad.”

    I guess that kid got the message all right.


    Comment by ktismatics — 13 March 2012 @ 9:48 pm

  15. The empathy Affenlight felt for him surpassed anything he’d ever felt for a character in a novel.

    – a sentence from The Art of Fielding, a 2011 novel by Chad Harbach


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 April 2012 @ 5:38 pm

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