Mirror Neurons
Frank Wilson

If we are predisposed to learn how to do something skillful by watching somebody else do it and to imitate it, then a great deal of signaling of intentionality; what am I going to do next? resides in our ability to actually infer from the movements that somebody else is making, what it is that they are planning to do.

 

Well, let me just say something quickly about the issue of language quite apart from a long-running and a very interesting and rather technical debate about formal languages based on hand movements, by which I am referring to sign languages. There is now very good evidence that one of the ways that higher primates are predisposed to learned skills—this includes monkeys and chimpanzees and probably lots of other animals—is that we are neurologically predisposed, behaviorally predisposed to watch the hands of peers and adults who are skilled. There is a new body of research in what are called mirror neurons. These are neurons in the central nervous system that become active when I am observing you doing something with your hands. We learn to read each other’s hands. We learn how to imitate hand movements. We learn by . . . You watch any kid, you know, who looks at a pitcher, or any kid, more typically I think, watching somebody who’s laying licks on a guitar. Kids love to be able to do that. Air guitar, which now it’s a sport of its own; it seems like it couldn’t possibly be serious. But, in fact, the communication of a sort of musical sensibility just simply through bodily movements—and it isn’t just pelvis gyrations—it’s also do the hands really look like they are doing what they are doing? I suppose that’s born of the fact that rock music has become so loud that nobody actually hears it, anyway, because you go to a concert and you put ear plugs in. So, it is not that the music is really incidental, but apparently there is an ability to experience pleasure simply from watching the movements.

If we are predisposed to learn how to do something skillful by watching somebody else do it and to imitate it, then a great deal of signaling of intentionality; what am I going to do next? resides in our ability to actually infer from the movements that somebody else is making, what it is that they are planning to do.

Interestingly enough, there is a whole school of learning for gifted athletes that consists of their learning to disguise what they are going to do by not giving what poker players call a “tell.” You have to be able to actually deprive somebody of the information that they will get by, if you will, informed watching, intelligent watching.