Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The brain: built for mimicry

The NY Times reports a study that strengthens the case of sociobiologists who argue that humans evolved for cooperation just as much as, if not more than, for individual promotion:
The most significant finding was the discovery of “mirror neurons,” a widely dispersed class of brain cells that operate like neural WiFi. Mirror neurons track the emotional flow, movement and even intentions of the person we are with, and replicate this sensed state in our own brain by stirring in our brain the same areas active in the other person.

Mirror neurons offer a neural mechanism that explains emotional contagion, the tendency of one person to catch the feelings of another, particularly if strongly expressed. This brain-to-brain link may also account for feelings of rapport, which research finds depend in part on extremely rapid synchronization of people’s posture, vocal pacing and movements as they interact. In short, these brain cells seem to allow the interpersonal orchestration of shifts in physiology.

Of course, these patters can also be used to outmaneuver and manipulate others for individualistic reasons, as documented among chimpanzees in Frans de Waal's excellent Chimpanzee Politics, and as documented among humans all the damn time.