I found a 2015 article that shows an important aspect of mirror systems in our empathizing, the lateralization of empathy and verbally directed attention, and the necessary neural (is there any other kind?) connection between context and intention: http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.0030079. Marco Iacoboni and colleagues, who first discovered mirror neurons back in the day, used a complicated experimental design to investigate mirroring systems in humans. The set-up is to show video clips to subjects undergoing fMRI and then examine and compare the different brain responses to different clips. Now these films were of a cup grasped either by the handle or by the whole cup with either of two contexts, either a table set for tea with cookies, clean plates, folded napkins, etc. or a table after tea with only cookie crumbs on plates, napkins in disarray, etc. The idea is to see what neural systems operate to identify the intention of the person grasping the cup, either to drink or to wash. They used variations so that they could subtract neural patterns from one another to see the effects of the different types of grasping, the effects of context without the cup being grasped, and context with the cup being grasped. All told, a very logical design that let them examine those factors and brain patterns.
Their motivation was to see if mirror neurons contributed directly to the apprehension of another’s intent or if other neural systems were used to mediate that process. Their results showed that the mirroring system does contribute directly to the viewer’s understanding of intent without other areas being recruited, that it was the mirrored action coupled with context that enabled the apprehension of the other’s intent, that the intent itself was processed especially in the right frontal lobe, and that verbal directions were processed more through the left sided attentional system. Another implication is that the mirroring system automatically processed the information about the intent no matter if the directions directed the subject to attend to that or distracted the subject to other features. Quite an accomplishment all this, I think.
I have maintained that right sided structures process the immediate concrete information while the left side deals more with displaced information. The reading of another’s intent from actions would be just such a current event, so the nexus of processing the intent to the right side makes sense. That the mirroring system does this as a matter of course also makes sense because monitoring another’s intention is critical to social interaction, specifically to interacting with social intelligence, and is usually done incidentally in an interaction.
Two thoughts to finish up here, one about when this mirroring system dysfunctions and one about how it culminates and fulfills its evolutionary mission. The first instance happens with brain damage and/or developmental deficits. Strokes etc. rarely damage just the mirror system but when it is included, patients have difficulty imitating or miming actions, reading and comprehending another’s intentions and feelings, and behaving in socially appropriate ways. Developmental deficits, such as those on the autism spectrum, result in deficient empathy and all that that entails. Several researchers, such as V. S. Ramachandran, think that mirroring deficits are at the core of the autistic syndrome, i.e., the person’s ToM (Theory of Mind as it is generally called, EC or Empathy Central as I like to call it) is deficient, i.e., Ramachandran calls it ‘a broken mirror system’. Without this precious knowledge a person experiences difficulty establishing and maintaining social connections.
What about when the mirroring system operates optimally and develops with appropriate experience? Over the past year I have come to understand that just as our symbolic capability makes human communication distinctive in the animal realm, so too does our empathic capability make human intimacy distinctive. Indeed, I think that our symbolic capability emerges from our intimacy (look back at recent posts to see this). Now intimacy is hard to study empirically yet it is critical to our humanity. Consider how important trust issues are and how destructive a breach is; we think we know our intimates well enough to trust them completely. When we meet someone who seems erratic we will constrain our trust and development of intimacy. Also consider how well married couples, e.g., old people, who are very intimate, know each other’s intent implicitly; they can readily read each other’s intents even in novel situations. It is as if they share one mind on some matters.
So the mirroring system functions as an initial phase in a crucial process that leads to intimacy if successful interaction proceeds on course. I have more to say about this but that will be in part 2. Travel on.