The neurons that shaped civilization | VS Ramachandran

The neurons that shaped civilization | VS Ramachandran

I’d like to talk to you today about the human brain, which is what we do research on at the University of California. Just think about this problem for a second. Here is a lump of flesh, about three pounds, which you can hold in the palm of your hand. But it can contemplate the vastness of interstellar space. It can contemplate the meaning of infinity, ask questions about the meaning of its own existence, about the nature of God. And this is truly the most amazing thing in the world. It’s the greatest mystery confronting human beings: How does this all come about? Well, the brain, as you know, is made up of neurons. We’re looking at neurons here. There are 100 billion neurons in the adult human brain. And each neuron makes something like 1,000 to 10,000 contacts with other neurons in the brain. And based on this, people have calculated that the number of permutations and combinations of brain activity exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe. So, how do you go about studying the brain? One approach is to look at patients who had lesions in different part of the brain, and study changes in their behavior. This is what I spoke about in the last TED. Today I’ll talk about a different approach, which is to put electrodes in different parts of the brain, and actually record the activity of individual nerve cells in the brain. Sort of eavesdrop on the activity of nerve cells in the brain. Now, one recent discovery that has been made by researchers in Italy, in Parma, by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues, is a group of neurons called mirror neurons, which are on the front of the brain in the frontal lobes. Now, it turns out there are neurons which are called ordinary motor command neurons in the front of the brain, which have been known for over 50 years. These neurons will fire when a person performs a specific action. For example, if I do that, and reach and grab an apple, a motor command neuron in the front of my brain will fire. If I reach out and pull an object, another neuron will fire, commanding me to pull that object. These are called motor command neurons that have been known for a long time. But what Rizzolatti found was a subset of these neurons, maybe about 20 percent of them, will also fire when I’m looking at somebody else performing the same action. So, here is a neuron that fires when I reach and grab something, but it also fires when I watch Joe reaching and grabbing something. And this is truly astonishing. Because it’s as though this neuron is adopting the other person’s point of view. It’s almost as though it’s performing a virtual reality simulation of the other person’s action. Now, what is the significance of these mirror neurons? For one thing they must be involved in things like imitation and emulation. Because to imitate a complex act requires my brain to adopt the other person’s point of view. So, this is important for imitation and emulation. Well, why is that important? Well, let’s take a look at the next slide. So, how do you do imitation? Why is imitation important? Mirror neurons and imitation, emulation. Now, let’s look at culture, the phenomenon of human culture. If you go back in time about [75,000] to 100,000 years ago, let’s look at human evolution, it turns out that something very important happened around 75,000 years ago. And that is, there is a sudden emergence and rapid spread of a number of skills that are unique to human beings like tool use, the use of fire, the use of shelters, and, of course, language, and the ability to read somebody else’s mind and interpret that person’s behavior. All of that happened relatively quickly. Even though the human brain had achieved its present size almost three or four hundred thousand years ago, 100,000 years ago all of this happened very, very quickly. And I claim that what happened was the sudden emergence of a sophisticated mirror neuron system, which allowed you to emulate and imitate other people’s actions. So that when there was a sudden accidental discovery by one member of the group, say the use of fire, or a particular type of tool, instead of dying out, this spread rapidly, horizontally across the population, or was transmitted vertically, down the generations. So, this made evolution suddenly Lamarckian, instead of Darwinian. Darwinian evolution is slow; it takes hundreds of thousands of years. A polar bear, to evolve a coat, will take thousands of generations, maybe 100,000 years. A human being, a child, can just watch its parent kill another polar bear, and skin it and put the skin on its body, fur on the body, and learn it in one step. What the polar bear took 100,000 years to learn, it can learn in five minutes, maybe 10 minutes. And then once it’s learned this it spreads in geometric proportion across a population. This is the basis. The imitation of complex skills is what we call culture and is the basis of civilization. Now there is another kind of mirror neuron, which is involved in something quite different. And that is, there are mirror neurons, just as there are mirror neurons for action, there are mirror neurons for touch. In other words, if somebody touches me, my hand, neuron in the somatosensory cortex in the sensory region of the brain fires. But the same neuron, in some cases, will fire when I simply watch another person being touched. So, it’s empathizing the other person being touched. So, most of them will fire when I’m touched in different locations. Different neurons for different locations. But a subset of them will fire even when I watch somebody else being touched in the same location. So, here again you have neurons which are enrolled in empathy. Now, the question then arises: If I simply watch another person being touched, why do I not get confused and literally feel that touch sensation merely by watching somebody being touched? I mean, I empathize with that person but I don’t literally feel the touch. Well, that’s because you’ve got receptors in your skin, touch and pain receptors, going back into your brain and saying “Don’t worry, you’re not being touched. So, empathize, by all means, with the other person, but do not actually experience the touch, otherwise you’ll get confused and muddled.” Okay, so there is a feedback signal that vetoes the signal of the mirror neuron preventing you from consciously experiencing that touch. But if you remove the arm, you simply anesthetize my arm, so you put an injection into my arm, anesthetize the brachial plexus, so the arm is numb, and there is no sensations coming in, if I now watch you being touched, I literally feel it in my hand. In other words, you have dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. So, I call them Gandhi neurons, or empathy neurons. (Laughter) And this is not in some abstract metaphorical sense. All that’s separating you from him, from the other person, is your skin. Remove the skin, you experience that person’s touch in your mind. You’ve dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. And this, of course, is the basis of much of Eastern philosophy, and that is there is no real independent self, aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world, inspecting other people. You are, in fact, connected not just via Facebook and Internet, you’re actually quite literally connected by your neurons. And there is whole chains of neurons around this room, talking to each other. And there is no real distinctiveness of your consciousness from somebody else’s consciousness. And this is not mumbo-jumbo philosophy. It emerges from our understanding of basic neuroscience. So, you have a patient with a phantom limb. If the arm has been removed and you have a phantom, and you watch somebody else being touched, you feel it in your phantom. Now the astonishing thing is, if you have pain in your phantom limb, you squeeze the other person’s hand, massage the other person’s hand, that relieves the pain in your phantom hand, almost as though the neuron were obtaining relief from merely watching somebody else being massaged. So, here you have my last slide. For the longest time people have regarded science and humanities as being distinct. C.P. Snow spoke of the two cultures: science on the one hand, humanities on the other; never the twain shall meet. So, I’m saying the mirror neuron system underlies the interface allowing you to rethink about issues like consciousness, representation of self, what separates you from other human beings, what allows you to empathize with other human beings, and also even things like the emergence of culture and civilization, which is unique to human beings. Thank you. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “The neurons that shaped civilization | VS Ramachandran

  1. @mattghtpa Load of rubbish. You might be able to find a book by someone selling crystal therapies and snake oil who says they have prood of "human concious awareness" having "physical effects on mechanical and electronic objects and devices" but you won't find any serious research that corroborates this.

  2. I think the neuroscience is unremarkable on its own, as are the philosophical theories of collective conciousness. What I like about this is the attempt to unite the two and using science to answer traditionally philosphoical questions.

    The real neuroscience breakthrough, which many philosophers will argue is impossible (particularly dualists thinkers), will come at the discovery of the neural substrate of conciousness and knowing exactly how it works.

  3. Doesn't it seem logical that psychopaths, lacking empathy, must have mal-functioning Gandhi neurons? On the other hand, humans like Gandhi must have over-active Gandhi neurons.

  4. @theshermany. I thought the same thing, scrolled down, and saw that it was the first comment. I love the internet.

  5. There are ten times as many glial cells in the brain as there are neurons. The billion glial cells were long thought to be packing or padding for the neurons, since they surround each neuron, but have no electrical activity themselves. Recently it has been discovered that glial cells do communicate with each other, with a method called 'calcium surges'. Neurons comprise only one-tenth of our brain, what are the glial cells talking to each other about? The future will tell.

  6. Love this Guy !!!
    I am watching the mirror box being used in the stroke unit where my mother is .
    Vancouver Island , Canada .

  7. Say someone has an amputated left arm and the remaining right arm is squeezed. Will the left phantom arm feel anything or will there be a feedback signal from the right arm that will halt the phantom left from feeling anything?

  8. @jimmayl1 that would be weird because the brain would likely tell you that what u feel is in your right arm. but as he explains it, if you numb your left shoulder downwards, and see others touch their left arm you can feel the touch with the phantom arm..

  9. @jimmayl1
    if the amputee has a mirror to his left side, then his right arm looks like his left arm in the reflection…and then maybe if the patient watches his right arm being squeezed in the mirror, he might feel relief in his phantom left arm. there's another vid on youtube where dr ramachandran explains this…he's treated patients using this phantom box (with a mirror).

  10. I think he's Indian, but I had a question, if that's true then do people who lose a limb or a body organ in an accident experience what they watch happen to other people's limbs and organs ?

  11. its why for those that believe in the bible, pornography is wrong, because your brain is firing as if your having sex, that is why porn is stimulating. That is why it is adultery to God, for those that believe in God, is classified as adultery.

  12. its why for those that believe in the bible, pornography is wrong, because your brain is firing as if your having sex, that is why porn is stimulating. That is why it is adultery to God, for those that believe in God, is classified as adultery, because your watching others have sex.

  13. @TheAccurate1 Yeah, let's believe something clearly in the format of pseudoscience (CEC) and disregard the actual scientist. Mmhmm.

  14. Finally a video that explains the Trolls and Flamers on YouTube. NO empathy ! They are sub human! Now we can all feel sorry for their social retardation.

  15. @wacked0ne any enlightened person would know exactly how their body works. actually in the context of this video, an understanding of mirror neurons is the basis of any revelation. so probably someone or other involved in writing the bible knew about mirror neurons.

  16. i wonder if this results in one feeling higher empathy towards someone they resemble. or who they feel they resemble. up to clothing, way of dress and even social identity. physical and subconscious empathy could be controlled by some mathematics of bodily ego.

  17. Aside from the facts, I think some of his speculation & interpretations is BS; even animals can immitate, so its not something that has emerged in human population. Immitating a movement is something, but understanding the significance & the purpose of the movement is something else, without recognizing & interpreting other people's action, we wouldn't be self-awared. This neurons only function in immitating a movement, it is not the reason for the ability to learn, although it makes it easier.

  18. Gandhi neurons, so profound. No independent arising of phenomena. The correlation between neuro and contemplative traditions is so fascinating.

  19. @3877michael Eeeeeeeh, no. No that's kind of dangerous. You are being like a troll.

    The anonymity of the internet has the ability to disconnect humans; make us believe that the person on the other end isn't real. That disconnect, as well as dehumanizing one another, also gives us a sense of immunity.

    You are dehumanizing trolls. That's the last thing you should do, ever. When you refuse to consider others as people, you cut off any empathetic connections.

    This is how war starts.

  20. @TimothyStuartRiches It's kind of like some French people I know who can't pronounce the H in "home", but add an H to words like "even" and "odd" making them "heven" and "hodd"

  21. So… what if i haven't experienced something and i watch someone that the "something" i haven't experienced.. will is still feel it or experience it?

  22. Sooo good!

    Maybe that's how porn works on male humans. I wonder if we could maximize the pleasure by stunning our shlongs.

  23. I listened to another TED talk that claimed empathy, cooperation, and other sociological interactions (theory of the mind) are in mammals' dna. I don't know anything, but some of the things he said could come from these higher-level dna functions that were created well before us.

  24. Well the brain's anatomical and physiological blueprint (including these mirror neurons) is mapped out from the structure of animals' DNA. Differences in DNA lead to differences in the structure and function of the brain, including a lack of these mirror neurons which Ramachandran thinks could be the cause of autism. DNA designs these mirror neurons which modulate our feelings of empathy, cooperation, etc., so I guess it could be said that DNA ultimately controls them, although not in real-time.

  25. IBM is cool they actually invent tattoo numbers for Nazi prisoners as a service for Hitler and now in the city can drive only those who can afford that for rich is nothing and it keeps away poor people + full control who is in ore out ….

  26. So someone who has lost an arm will feel its loss again and again whenever he sees someone else losing it.. and the one fortunate enough to have his/her arm intact is incapable of feeling the pain of the one who lost it. The irony.

  27. Nice talk, but needs independent confirmation. I can't help but think that this guy has fudged some of his data to get such "nice" results. And he may overinterpret observations, especially when he talks about eastern philosophy and "connected neurons". And you can feel the other person's touch in your numbed arm? Why would the brain equate the total absence of signale from a numbed arm with an actual touch sensation signal?

  28. Most of the TED talks take place at conventions, and there are many people slated to speak on a given day. So you must make your point concisely, and then get off the stage for the next person.

  29. What a wild accent this guy has, the first syllable 'r' is rolled,and the middle and ending 'r' is American.

  30. check out his book the tell tale brain. goes into depth about this, the phantom limbs, and even how autism is caused by damage to mirror neurons. great read

  31. Well, there are some things he doesn't mention: those electrodes were implanted in primates and birds, not humans. So why didn't they make the great leap forward? And as far as I know, only in 21 epilepsy patients who had electrodes for other purposes, a small number of MNs were found.
    Most of the books and articles about MNs are based on fMRI studies, or on pure speculation. There's doubt that fMRI show MN at all, one datapoint is > million neurons. But it sells books….

  32. this explains why people watch porn! merely watch someone else having sex, fires neurons in your brain which would also fire when u have sex. of'course, because you're not part of that act physically, sadly you have to use your one hand to stimulate or simulate the throbbing genitals. interesting.

  33. how far will the mirror neurons detect another person, feet? miles? does walls or other materials interfere? Will it detect my brother from another country and if it doesn't will lets say a phone call let my neurons virtual simulate his point of view?

  34. Guys I have a question if there is really a connection among humans so why blind people do not feel this connection? .

    You will say because they can't focus on someone else if they can't see, but they actually can focus by hearing so why they can't share this ability with others.

    What I think is this just an emotional feeling.

    I'm sorry if I'm wrong. However I'm not a scientist but I don't believe in anything without analysing it.

  35. How do we know the neuron isn't firing in response to both your own action and the other persons action because it's percieving both actions as essentially the same– he suggests here that it fires to cause your action but in response to someone elses action.   But what is that conclusion based on?   Perhaps in both cases the neuron is firing in response to the action, regardless of whether or not you or someone else does it? Extraordinary claims and all that…

  36. He's a professor at UCSD I saw him a couple of times on campus he was always surrounded by students talking to him.

  37. There has been a great deal of ungrounded speculation about mirror neurons. Ramachandran has been at the head of the parade; however he has actually never done any research in this area. At least none that is regarded as credible by other scientists. For anyone who is interested in sorting out the science from the science fiction regarding mirror neurons they should read The Myth of Mirror Neurons (2014) by Greg Hickok.

  38. comment on the ad at the end on Stockholm congestion charge. rich can kill the planet, poor are forced of the road to save it, yh great system of equality you got going over there. the people who voted for it are the ones who can afford to pay the charge

  39. If i see anyone getting kicked in the private part immediately I feel a kind of pain and this sends spine chilling experience to my brain. I did not know what the reason is now I know. Mirror Neurons. Vera Level TedTalk. Thanks VS Ramachandran Sir.

  40. ici, la version sous-titrée française

  41. If I rrrrrrech and grrrrab and apple, I rrrrrrecord activity in the brrrrrrrain. Here’s a neurrrrrrron that firrrres when it rrrrrequires that I adopt the otherrrr perrrrson’s point of view. Love this dude’s accent. Adds so much flavor to the talk

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