Mirror neurons or : Why compute when you can search about actions

[Added October 2006]
This article about mirror neurons has prompted in my mind the following ideas. In Computer Programming (I am a programmer) we use the following trick when we write programs: when some complex computation produces only a small set of results, we replace the computation with a search in the table of possible outcomes.It seems that the brain has done the same thing with mirror neurons.Mirror neurons are a set of neurons (the equivalent of the search table) that fire when we look another person doing something. So we have the neuron that fires when we see another person moving the hand forward to shake it with someone else. Another
neuron will fire if a person is moving the hand striking a nail head with a hammer, etc …, These neurons are extremely important to simplify the image
processing otherwise necessary to understand other people’s intents.
This can be understood seeing this task from a computer program point of view.
You have the images of an alien built in some strange ways, doing something. You have to infer from this stream of images what a person is doing.
A very complex problem indeed. But wait a moment!For us the “alien” isn’t an alien really: he/she is someone built like us and the possible outcomes
of a move are really very few. So you see why the brain prefers to hardcode these possible outcomes of our action in a “table” of a few mirror
neurons. So ,when the brain looks at someone doing something, it has only to search and choose which is the correct mirror neuron to fire.
Something it can do so quickly that we effortlessly understand what
other people are doing .

Another trick used by the brain is that
the mirror neurons for the action “drink from a cup of coffee” are
near the neurons that fire when we drink from a cup i.e. near the place where
are the neurons that start the same action in our body.In fact they are a subset of these neurons:i.e. the mirror neurons fire both when we drink a cup or see another drinking a cup. Mirror neurons were in fact discovered by chance by
Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues at the University of Parma monitoring the motor neurons of monkeys.

What is interesting in this mirror neurons system is that we have it in part hardcoded from the birth: this explains why newborn babies can imitate adults. If you stick your tongue out of the mouth in front of a newborn baby , he does the same! But the system develops and changes during all life as we learn to do new things. The hand movements of an expert piano player fire
completely different set of mirror neurons in an observer who is an expert player himself or someone who doesn’t know how to play piano!

People with autism seem to have a deficit in this system. To understand other peoples intentions they have to make a lot of effort : reason about the
images and try ,by comparing these with other images they have in memory, to decide what’s happening. Just imagine how scaring this is: this person coming toward you with raised hands is going to greet you , to hit you or what else… They have no clue. This information overload explains
why autistic people fear other people’s
eye contact. It is something similar to our ability to recognize people’s faces. Normally this is effortless
and you can assume that we must have in our brain a “table” of neurons each one connected to a well known person that fires when we see this person. But when we lose this capacity (
Prosopagnosia) then to recognize a person you must make an effort and try to use other cues . An experience that is both scaring and difficult.

Sleep and memory

[Added September 2006]
The last scientific result about memory and sleep :A daytime nap containing solely non-REM sleep enhances declarative but not procedural memory leads to the following reasoning. Why humans (and
animals) sleep? The obvious answer : to help our body recover is not an answer.
In fact it is enough to stay quiet without sleeping in order to recover from
stress. The evidence is mounting that the only purpose of sleep is to enhance
our memory. This explains also why childes sleep more (they have to learn a lot).

Expert’s memory

[Added September 2006]
Advertising about memory training courses often promises that you will get
instant success after following them.
Of course this isn’t true. No memory training will transform you in a
genius. But let’s go the other way around : let’s see what is the role
of memory in a genius. Since geniuses are difficult to find and study,
we can try to study experts in some well known field. This is
what scientists are doing since many years with
chess masters
. Chess experts are given a number (a kind of vote) that
reliably measures the degree of expertise in playing chess. The results are
very interesting and seem to point to a very important role of memory. What
makes the difference between the amateur and the master is that the expert is
able to recognize “patterns” where a novice doesn’t see anything.
This kind of high level memory is acquired in many years (at least 10)
of effortful practice. This contrasts with the idea that a genius
is born i.e. Mozart that effortlessly composes music. In fact Mozart too
has done his ten years of practice guided in his effortful practice by his father who was a musician. It seems that only practice in an environment that provides challenges (thus effortful) can provide this superior memory. So experts and
also geniuses are made not born and need proper motivation and environment.
The process of being able to recognize these high level patterns is similar to the well known process of information chunking .

Memory and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

[Added June 2006]
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) episodes are experimented by almost anyone
and consist in irrational worries that let you perform rituals to neutralise them. For example you have to return many times to check that the home door or a faucet is closed. In this case you don’t remember that you have
closed the door. So the author of this How to Remember Amazing Amounts of Information says that it was enough for him to imagine , everytime he closed a door,
some weird thing happening to the door and the key, This would make the action
memorable and cure the ocd symptom.

The way of the actor

[Added January 2006]
How do actors memorize all these lines?Trying to answer this question,
Helga and Tony Noice have found a surprising way to master cognitive
abilities that can be of great help to non-actors and to aged people.
The answer to their question is that actors don’t use rote memorization.
Instead they learn their lines by … acting. An actor would concentrate not
on the words, but on their meaning and divide the script lines in chunks
called “beats” or “intentions”.During each beat the actor has the same
motivations of the character. So the actor will rehearse his lines by going
from a “beat” to the next and trying to use any clue (physical, emotional)
to remember the lines involved.

What is interesting is that this strategy can be used by non-actors :for
example students, to improve learning. An example on how a student can
use this strategy, is by imagining to explain what is learning to other
people. (This is a technique that I use frequently myself: the best way to learn something , is to teach a course about what you are learning!)

Yet more surprising is the fact that engaging aged people in a four-weeks
course on acting, improved word-recall and problem solving abilities.

Unconscious memory

[Added August 2005]
It is by now a well known phenomenon that the same information inaccessible to
explicit (conscious) memory, may be accessible to implicit (unconscious) memory.
You can literally see something without knowing that you are seeing it.
This has some fascinating consequences. For example, I use a list of images
connected to the numbers 1,2,3,… to remember things. So, for each number
I remember an image. But remembering (becoming conscient of ) the image
usually requires some time (from a few seconds to a few minutes). It is
very well possible that during this interval of time my implicit memory has
already recollected the image. By using some adequate strategy, I can try
to use this implicit knowledge to improve my conscious recollection.
This tacit knowledge is connected to the amygdala and to the fast system
that helps us react quickly to dangerous situations. It perceives words and
numbers as global patterns and its main purpose is to decide if they
are dangerous or neutral.

The little voice in the head

[Added June 2005]
The voice in the head ,when we read silently, is indeed a voice! Experiments
have shown that we really hear the sound of a voice reading the text (i.e.
it is as if the brain runs an experiment simulating ourselves that read the
words in the text aloud and then understands the meaning of the written text).

The visual pattern of words plays no role in understanding. The Chinese
people also, when read silently , understand the written text because of the
sound heard and not because of the pattern of ideograms.

For the same reason deaf people have problems learning to read.

From the same fact comes a suggestion to improve learning of new languages:
when you read a text , always imagine hearing the sound of the words also if
you don’t know exactly the correct sound.

The more you know the less you see!

[Added June 2005]
When an adult sees a cat, in fact he doesn’t see it:he just thinks “big deal, it’s only a cat, why I should pay attention?”.
But what was the color of the eyes, the color of the fur, etc…If you ask him
later, he doesn’t remember because he has not paid attention in the first place.
Childs instead remember every detail of the cat.

But also the adult can remember a cat like a child . He has only to increase the attention level with some trick. For example giving the cat names of other
animals or objects. “What a lovely onion with wiskers!”
All this has been confirmed by an experiment.

11 steps to a better memory!

[Added May 2005]
An interesting article from New Scientist on 11 steps for a better brain is in fact mostly focused on ways to control the effects of aging on memory .

  1. Smart drugs.
  2. Smart food.
  3. Music listening. Playing an instrument.
  4. Bionic brains (computer stuff connected directly to the brain: in the next future).
  5. Mental workouts to improve working memory.
  6. Mnemonic tricks
  7. A good night’s rest
  8. Physical exercise
  9. The way of the nuns: i.e. a good lifestyle,the support of a community.
  10. Train to improve the concentration.Avoid causes of distractions.
  11. Biofeedback.