Extra-Personal Neuroimaging, Mirror Neurons and Italo Calvino: associative thoughts firing at random it would seem

'Extra-Personal Neuroimage of (the fact or process of) Cognitive Dissonance'


‘How well I would write if I were not here! If between the white page and the writing of words and stories that take shape and disappear without anyone’s ever writing them there were not interposed that uncomfortable partition which is my person!’ ~ Italo Calvino, ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler’


Perhaps because I spend so much time alone with my own thoughts (reading and writing etc.), I often find myself ‘meta-thinking’ thought patterns, or trying to ‘imagine-as-image’ the process or pattern of associative firing that (I imagine) is going on in my head.

I remember the exact moment I started doing this actually – I was sitting at the café downstairs at the library at The University of Western Australia (the one surrounded by a moat so you can’t steal the books), reading a photocopied version of ‘A cognitive/cultural anthropology’ 1994, by Claudia Strauss and Naomi Quinn, included in Robert Borofsky, ed.’s, Assessing Cultural Anthropology, McGraw-Hill, New York, pages 284- 300, which, incidentally, I consider as important a piece of feminist writing as early Germaine Greer (this may sound strange but it’s true).

I often find myself imagining or drawing (what may be wildly inaccurate) analogies, between the cognitive processes I imagine going on, and ‘things’ or representations in the extra-personal world.

The photograph featured above, for example, I immediately ‘recognised’ as a perfect illustration (an extra-personal neuroimage!) of cognitive dissonance.[1] It is an image of me inside my head, inside the bathroom, inside the Prime Minister’s house (The Lodge), pulling a finger at myself (feeling angry and somewhat conflicted) for the fact of having found myself feeling angry and conflict inside my head, inside the bathroom, inside the Prime Minister’s house. Cognitive dissonance, surely, no?

Why was I thinking of all this today?

Because Marco Iacoboni kindly explained a few things to me about the nature and function of mirror neurons, and I immediately thought that mirroring is exactly like Italo Calvino’s novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (this may sound strange but it’s true). Attempt to explain how or why, as follows.

‘I’d say’, Marco wrote,

‘a mirror neuron is a cell that responds to the motor aspects of our own actions (motor in a broad sense, involving even the memory of the act) and to the perceptual aspects of the actions of others. The specific properties of each individual mirror neuron is dictated by the general properties of the neuronal system in which the neuron is embedded. Grasping for neurons in areas concerned with grasping, eye movements for neurons in areas concerned with eye movements (there is evidence for that), and even memories for neurons in areas concerned with memory.’

Explaining a bit about the history of the study or research of mirror neurons, he wrote in part (and I’m paraphrasing unless indented as a quotation here):

Mirror neurons were discovered in the premotor cortex, that part of the frontal lobe that is important for selection, planning, and preparation of movements. The region where mirror neurons were discovered contains premotor neurons that code for grasping actions, mouth actions, and hand-to-mouth actions, for the most part. Not surprisingly, mirror neurons in that premotor region do the same, except that they also respond to the perception of those actions.

After that initial discovery, scientists looked for similar cells in another brain region, in the parietal lobe. They did so because they knew that the parietal region was anatomically connected with the premotor region in which they found mirror neurons. Not surprisingly, the neurons in the parietal region also code for hand and mouth actions, and hand-to-mouth. Other studies have since found mirror neurons in many other brain areas for many kinds of actions. Notable and remarkable among these was the discovery of mirror neurons in the medial temporal lobe, in an area of the brain that is important for memory. Why remarkable? –

‘Because the medial temporal cortex is a brain region that is important for memory and for high level vision. Medial temporal neurons respond selectively to fairly complex visual stimuli (like places, or faces, or houses; that is, some ‘house’ neurons respond only to houses and not other visual stimuli; it kind of blows my mind every time i think about it) and to the memory of those stimuli.’

Ok, just a moment of ‘how amazingly cool is that.’

Next thing, Marco explains, was to come up with a plausible explanation as to why we have mirror neurons in an area of the brain that is important for memory.

‘What I think it happens is that when I grab a cup of coffee I have my premotor cells planning the movement, my reward dopamine cells anticipating the pleasure of drinking coffee, but I also have my memory cells creating a trace in my brain of myself making that action, going for coffee. Those memory traces form the narrative of my whole life. Then, when I see you grabbing the cup of coffee, I not only mirror your grasping action with my premotor and parietal mirror neurons, I also reactivate the memory trace of myself grasping the cup of coffee with my medial temporal neurons. The mirroring of your own actions that goes on in my brain is a very rich mirroring, involving even the memories of my own actions. I think it’s an incredibly cool mechanism for connecting minds, don’t you think?’

Think it so I do – what an amazingly intricate and beautiful mechanism of or ‘in’ the mind.

This is exactly (I thought at this stage of reading Marco’s explanation) like, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler! Consider, for example, the following excerpts which are taken directly from the novel itself – Calvino’s, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979), that is. With regard to the ever kind of newspaper-piling-up prosaic gestalt of the narration of the narrated self:


‘This is what I mean when I say I would like to swim against the stream of time: I would like to erase the consequences of certain events and restore an initial condition. But every moment of my life brings with it an accumulation of new facts, and each of these new facts bring with it consequences; so the more I seek to return to the zero moment from which I set out, the further I move away from it… ’


With regard to premotor cells planning the movement of our own actions (motor in a broad sense, involving even the memory of the act) and the perceptual aspects of the actions of others – here the character, Ludmilla, is describing ‘the novel she would like to read’, which is, of course, the novel that she is in:


‘“The novel I would most like to read at this moment,” Ludmilla explains, “should have as its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you, simply allowing you to observe its own growth, like a tree, an entangling, as if of branches and leaves…”’


With regard to general process of mirroring and thought-in-action:


‘I read in a book that objectivity of thought can be expressed using the verb “to think” in the impersonal third person: saying not “I think” but “it thinks” as we say “it rains.” There is thought in the universe – this is the constant from which we must set out every time…


And for the verb “to read”? Will we be able to say, “today it reads” as we say “today it rains”? If you think about it, reading is a necessarily individual act, far more than writing. If we assume that writing manages to go beyond the limitations of the author, it will continue to have meaning only when it is read by a single person and passes through his [or her] mental circuits. Only the ability to read by a given individual proves that what is written shares in the power of writing, a power based on something that goes beyond the individual. The universe will express itself as long as somebody will be able to say, “I read, therefore it writes.”


And in relation to intersubjectivity in general:


‘All places communicate instantly with all other places, a sense of isolation is felt only during the trip between one place and the other, that is, when you are in no place.’


And last but not least, consider, for example, this online introductory summary of Calvino’s novel (in which I’ve substituted a few key terms):


If on a winter’s night a traveller <Mirroring> is an extremely intricate and devilishly clever book <mechanism> which works on many different levels across many themes. The first and most obvious of these is the metafictional aspect, which questions [creates] our sense of reality and its relation to the fictional or “fake” [extra-personal] world. There are also many other aspects of the contemporary world, which inform this work such as questions of identity, questions of originality and intertextuality…


Underlying all of these themes there is a sense of ironic intelligence and in the end the work becomes a very clever self-reflexive game which the author is playing with us, the readers.’


I have now officially (b)reached the quota re number, combination and extension of metaphors that one is permitted to use or deploy in one day.




[1] I have always imagined cognitive dissonance as or ‘at’ moments when otherwise compartmentalized representations, thoughts or feelings etc etc. are, for whatever reason, triggered or experienced in association together, but that may be widely inaccurate also!


Filed under Anthropology, General personal writings, Incidental

7 responses to “Extra-Personal Neuroimaging, Mirror Neurons and Italo Calvino: associative thoughts firing at random it would seem

  1. Thank you to Marco for sharing such interesting info about mirror neurons and the brain! And also for putting up with my attempts to understand through analogy… 🙂

  2. I love your Calvino analogies. “Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore” is a great book. Couldn’t resist writing the italian title, it sounds so good! indeed, it sounds so good that it writes good too 🙂

    BTW, my favorite Calvino’s book is an early collection of short stories, entitled Difficult Loves, Amori Difficili. Very different from Se una notte… Highlighting transient moods, serendipitous connections…A beautiful small book about brief, magic encounters that linger in the soul

  3. Ahh, I haven’t read his early short stories but will certainly seek them out, thank you.

    I don’t know if you’ve come across the writing of poet-turned-anthropologist Michael Jackson but he draws beautifully on prose to illustrate qualitative-phenomenological aspects of social experience which are otherwise difficult to explain or describe. I have been ever impressed by his doing so, since reading the preface to ‘Existential Anthropology: events, exigencies and effects’, in which he draws on Virginia Woolf to evoke or illustrate what is at stake in the vicissitude(s?) or contingencies of affect-in-self-experience – a perfectly placed passage from ‘To the Lighthouse’ (forgive me pasting a link rather than typing): http://books.google.com.au/books?id=9H9ZeK4wJb0C&lpg=PP1&pg=PR13#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Kind Regards,

    • Ah, existential anthropology! Nicely mirrors (can I say that?) 🙂 one of the final sections of the last chapter of my book Mirroring People (shameless plug) in which I talk about existential neuroscience. Here is that section:

      ‘In my lectures on mirror neurons, I often conclude by saying that our research should be called existential neuroscience. I say this because the themes raised by mirror neuron research map well onto themes recurrent in existential phenomenology. The feedback from students and peers tends to be very positive on the phenomenology part of the equation, but much less on the existential part. I believe existentialism got a bad press at the peak of its popularity in the 1940s and 1950s, and it still gets a bad press now, probably because of the association with the ideas of dread and despair. The existential themes I am thinking about with mirror neuron research have nothing to do with dread and despair. If anything, they are optimistic and could be used to build a more empathic, caring society.

      Obviously, phenomenology maps well onto mirror neuron research because only by “going back to the things themselves” could my friends in Parma have found these cells in the first place. Even theoreticians who more vocally claimed the closeness/intimacy between the self and others never proposed a natural phenomenon like mirror neurons. Interestingly, the only scientists who had even a glimmer of a mirror neuron system before it was discovered were those who do not typically theorize or passively observe, but rather those who build things. The roboticist Maja Mataric at USC told me that while struggling to build robots that could learn from experience and imitate, she had thought of something similar to mirror neurons. Other roboticists also entertained such engineering “fantasies” that now turn out to be right on the mark.

      Existentialism, on the other hand, invites us to embrace meaning in this world, the world of our experience rather than identifying meaning on some metaphysical plane, outside of ourselves.156 Mirror neurons are the cells in our brain that make our experience, mostly made of interactions with other people, deeply meaningful. This is why I call the mirror neuron research an existential neuroscience of sorts. This definition may sound like an oxymoron, since the dichotomy between analytic and continental (including existential) philosophy traditionally assigns hyper-rational and scientific thinking to the analytic school and poetic, literary or more generally artistic “culture” to the continental and existential school. However, there is one lesson we should have learned from mirror neurons by now: to be suspicious of rigid dichotomies (remember perception and action?)157 The existentialists have constantly reminded us that what is worth understanding and knowing is our existence, the human condition. Mirror neurons are brain cells that seem specialized in understanding our existential condition. They show that we are not alone but are biologically wired and evolutionarily designed to be deeply interconnected with one another.

      There is also another existential theme that maps well onto mirror neuron properties. This theme goes back to who’s considered the very first existential thinker, Soren Kierkegaard. In “Fear and Trembling” Kierkegaard proposed that our existence becomes meaningful only through our authentic commitment to the finite and temporal, a commitment that defines us. The neural resonance between self and other that mirror neurons allow is in my opinion the embodiment of such commitment. Our neurobiology––our mirror neurons––commits us to others. Mirror neurons show the deepest way we relate to and understand each other—they demonstrate that we are wired for empathy, which should inspire us to shape our society and make it a better place to live.’

  4. I think existentialism also probably got a bad press because Sartre was a bit of a w&*$@*#… 🙂 His Existentialism and Humanism lecture was a pretty good defence re the ‘dread and despair’ characterisation though. In many ways think it’s actually the prospect of ‘absolute (personal) responsibility’ that terrifies people more than anything, such that they equate it with dread and despair!

    Anyhow, I like the idea of existential neuroscience. The idea of a phenomenology informed by current research in neuroscience is just ace – is there someone writing this flip side of the existential neuroscience coin?

  5. Marcoiac

    🙂 🙂 you are right, Sartre isn’t exactly the kind of guy that inspires excitement!

    You may want to check the journal Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Check it from your institution network. No open access 😦

    You’ll find many phenomenological papers that are informed by neuroscience. But:

    The neuroscience isn’t great. The phenomenology, I am afraid, isn’t great either. The authors are mostly philosophers of mind, not true phenomenologists. Indeed, I think that now the best phenomenology is probably done by people like you, trained as anthropologists.

    Anyway, still the closest thing to what you asked, Phenomenology and Cognitive Science.

  6. Thanks Marco!
    I will have a look-see through the aforementioned journal right now.

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