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The Role of Mirror Neurons in Origin of the Self Research Paper

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Sigmund Freud has said: “A path leads from identification by way of imitation to empathy that is to the comprehension of the mechanism by which we are enabled to take up any attitude at all towards another mental life” (S. Freud, 1921, p. 110). Psychoanalysis has always identified the body as the source of all psychological representations. Interestingly, some recent developments in cognitive neuroscience have emphasized the role of the acting body and of sensory-motor systems in constituting the way our mind represents reality, by shaping our cognitive schemas (Gallese 48). David Olds has explained that some recent neuroscientific discoveries are relevant to psychoanalytic theory and clinical practice. In particular, he emphasizes the possible role played by mirror neurons in building identity relations, implying that they could provide a sub-personal explanatory framework for intersubjectivity. Olds’ hypothesis is very important because it lays the foundation of a multidisciplinary exchange between psychoanalytic theory, clinical practice and cognitive neuroscience.

Main text

About ten years ago, a special class of premotor neurons was discovered in the macaque monkey that discharged when the monkey executed goal-related hand actions like grasping objects and also when observing other individuals (monkeys or humans)executing similar actions. Scientists labeled them “mirror neurons” (Gallese et al 1996: 593-609). Neurons with similar properties were later discovered in a sector of the posterior parietal cortex reciprocally connected with area F5 (PF mirror neurons) (Rizzolatti et al. 661. Through observing action, the same neural mechanism that is activated during action execution, is triggered. Hence it is suggested that this mechanism could be at the basis of a direct form of action understanding (Rizzolatti and Craighero 169). Several studies have shown that similar mirror neuron system that matches action, perception and execution exists in the human brain as well.

Moreover, the mirror neuron matching system for actions in humans is somatotopically organized, with distinct cortical regions within the premotor and posterior parietal cortices being activated by the observation/execution of mouth, hand, and foot-related actions (Buccino et al. 2001:400). More recently, it has been shown that the mirror neuron system is directly involved in the perception of communicative actions (Buccino et al. 2004a: 114), in processing action-related sentences (Tettamanti et al. 273), in imitation, and in basic forms of mind-reading. Allan Shore, Daniel Siegel, Shelley Taylor, Daniel Amen are all neuroscientists who have determined conclusively that brains are hardwired to connect: have mirror neurons that fire in response to the firing of another person’s neurons. There are parts of the brain that atrophy in isolation. Eisenberg and Lieberman’s work has shown that the centers of the brain that are activated when there’s physical pain are the very same centers of the brain that light up when there is social pain, pain of exclusion specifically. There is a need for connection to grow, and that isolation actually damages a person’s neurobiology.

Mirror neurons have been linked to empathy suggesting that it is possible to find mechanisms that underline the social bases of some of our emotions. Wicker et al (2003) (p. 655) found that the area of the brain called the insula was activated when a human participant saw someone else’s facial expression of disgust and when the participant experienced disgust. Singer et al (2004) found that areas of the brain such as the anterior insula and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex were activated both when a participant received an electric shock and when the signal was given that his or her loved one received the shock.

The researchers therefore conclude that the pain network is associated with the emotional aspects of pain and that this can be activated equally either when something happens to oneself or to someone with whom one empathizes. Gallese, Keysers and Rizolatti (2004) say that these neural mechanisms allow us “to directly understand the meaning of the actions and emotions of others by internally replicating…them without any explicit reflective mediation” (p. 396). They call these mechanisms simulations systems. Thus not only have neural processes been identified for understanding other people’s actions in terms of intentions that we ourselves might have, but also for empathetically understanding other people’s emotions in a comparable way. In a recent imaging study, the role of mirror neurons has been investigated in the context of understanding the intentions of others (Iacoboni et al 1). It has been proposed that mirror neurons may provide a neural mechanism for understanding the intentions of people.

The mirror neuron system for action is activated both by transitive, object-related actions, and also by intransitive, communicative actions. When a given action is planned, a blueprint for its motor actions is also forecast. This means that when we are going to execute a given action we can also predict its consequences. Given the shared neural mapping between what is acted and what is perceived– constituted by mirror neurons – the action model can also be used to predict the consequences of actions performed by others (Gallese 50). Both these predictions are examples of embodied simulation that is, modeling processes. The same functional logic that presides over self-modeling is employed also to model the behavior of others: to perceive an action is equivalent to internally simulating it. This enables the observer to use her/his own resources to experientially penetrate the world of the other by means of a direct and automatic process of simulation.

Embodied simulation automatically establishes a direct experiential link between agent and observer, in that both are mapped in a neutral fashion. The stimuli whose perception activates mirror neurons, all consist of the specific interaction between an agent and a target. It is the agentive relational specification to trigger the mirror neurons’ response. The mere observation of an object not acted upon indeed does not evoke any response. Furthermore, the agent-target interaction must be successful. Mirror neurons respond if and only if an agentive relation is practically instantiated by an acting agent, regardless of its being the observer or the observed. The agent parameter must be filled. The abovementioned recent brain imaging experiment on communicative actions shows that only stimuli consistent with or closely related to the observer’s behavioral repertoire are effective in activating the mirror neuron system for actions (Buccino et al. 655).To summarize, action observation constitutes a form of embodied simulation of action.

In a groundbreaking interdisciplinary synthesis titled “Affect Regulation and the Origin of Self”, Allan Schore has documented the neuropsychological transformation of the newborn infant into a stable self-regulating self within the first two years of life. The mother-infant dyad is a physiopsychosocial conduit that is the context for the origin of the self of the child. Through this dyad socio-affective information is exchanged, visually, by facially transmitted expressions charged with affective meanings. The infant becomes an independent autonomous social agent by 18 months of life. During the first year, the infant develops the capacity to tolerate increasingly higher levels of affective arousal. This in turn provides the biological energy the infant needs for social participation and autonomy. During this neuropsychological developmental process, the mother plays a critical role by stimulating and modulating the infant’s heightened affective states. “The child’s first relationship, the one with the mother, acts as a template for the imprinting of circuits in the child’s emotion-processing right brain, thereby permanently shaping the individual’s adaptive or maladaptive capacities to enter into all later emotional relationships.”(Schore 16)

First Nine Months: Mother-Infant “Mutual Gaze” Dialogue:

In the first three months, the role of the mother is mainly to help the infant survive by helping in regulating her infant’s vital bodily functions. She also facilitates the transitions and disruptions of the baby’s psychobiological states which ultimately are regulated by the autonomic nervous system. It is only by the second quarter that the occipital areas of the baby’s cerebral cortex develop enough to enable visual perception of emotional expressions. This opens up a visual communication channel through which mother and infant are able to exchange facially transmitted socio-affective information. A “turn-taking dialog structure” that can be compared to one that takes place among adults can be found in mother-infant interaction as early as four months (Schore 20).

The facial expressions of the mother, particularly the gleam in her eyes, are the most important visual stimulus in the infant’s environment. The eyes reflect the state of the mother’s central nervous system, the internal activity and state of her brain. By following her eyes, the infant and mother develop “mutual gaze” and there is effective communication. However, the mother must be “psychologically attuned” to the infant’s internal state for this to happen. She can attain this state by mirroring the baby’s resting state. She first looks at her infant’s eyes, catches its gaze, and activates its affective response. Engaging in mutual gaze interactions results in higher and higher levels of positive affect until the baby turns its gaze away. Kenneth Wright (1991) describes this as the “positively amplifying circuit mutually affirming both partners”.

When the baby averts the mother’s gaze, normally, the mother waits for the baby to recover before initiating another period of mutual gazing. The mother is able to control the affective state of the infant through the intensity and duration of her own affective transmissions (Schore 85a). Thus it is the mother who plays the role of the facilitator in the baby’s processing of psychosocial information. She does this by adjusting her stimulation to the baby’s affective state.

Mutual gaze “dialogues,” as Schore calls them, increase in both frequency and intensity, and expands to include the voice of the mother, her touch and body language during the second and third quarter of the first year (Schore 89-91). As face-to-face communication is almost instantaneous, there seems to be an unconscious communication channel. During the dialogue, both partners, the mother and the infant, increase their degree of involvement and then coordinate their periods of aversion. Thus, the basic framework for all kinds of social dialogue is laid within the infant. Schore in scientific terminology says: “a reciprocal process of synchronized socio-affective transmissions organized by mutual, ongoing regulations–is encoded into the infant’s developing brain”.

The mother and infant experience a dyadic matching of temporal and affective patterns that causes synchronous changes in both the infant’s and the mother’s internal state. “By moving together from a neutral affective state and low arousal to a state of heightened positive emotion and high arousal, they create an affect-generating merger state: a symbiotic experience of accelerating, highly pleasurable internal state of elation and euphoria” – Raymond Trevor Bradley. The synchronized symbiotic states of the mother and infant, provided by emotional and bodily communication between them, are critical in regulating the infant’s vital bodily needs (Schore 78).

As a result of the psychobiological attunement there is also attachment developed between mother and infant. The attachment bond is formed through an internal imprint process, during which the infant uses the output of the mother’s right cortex as a template for hard wiring its neuronal circuits in its own cortex (Schore 75). In this context, it must be remembered that the right cortex of the human brain is responsible for processing emotional, nonverbal and spatial information.

Biochemically, when the infant shows an interest in its mother’s face, high levels of dopamine and endorphins are released that act on the subcortical reward centers and create a sensation of elation in the infant (Schore 83). These chemicals regulate the production of neurohormones that indirectly play a role in the development of the infant’s brain through activation of gene-action systems[1]. As Schore notes, infants, for their developmental growth depend on older brains “to engage with mental states of awareness, emotion, and interest in younger brains” (Tucker 75)

Last Quarter of the First Year: Beginning Capacity for Self-Regulation:

By the end of the third quarter, the infant is semi-autonomous and has some self-regulation. The toddler now learns to explore the environment on his own. Socioaffective dialogue plays a critical role in this phase by stimulating infant’s growing capacity for self-regulation and autonomy. During this phase, the child uses the mother’s face to orient itself. It tries to establish eye contact during each episode of independent play and exploration[2]. When it returns to the security of the mother, the mother is able to assess the internal state of her child, and communicate her appraisals of the infant’s experiences. Thus, she is able to “microregulate” the child’s internal state of arousal, which modulates changes in metabolic energy and thus enables the “reenergized toddler to go back out into the world”[3]. During 10-12 months, there is development of the orbitofrontal cortex, which is responsible for social and emotional behavior and in the self-regulation of bodily and motivational states. Human bonding experiences directly affect the neuron circuits of the prefrontal cortex, an area fundamental to imprinting processes (Schore 102) – in fact, the orbital area of the prefrontal cortex is linked to the limbic system which is responsible for exciting and inhibitory emotions. The intense positive effects, generated by the dyadically amplifying reunion transactions between mother and infant, affect these areas within the infant’s brain directly and release dopamine and endogenous opiates that regulate further development of neural aspects aiding verbal communication.

The “delayed response function” is a neural function that enables the toddler to react to situations on the basis of stored representations rather than by responding to immediate perceptions. When this capacity is extended to socioemotional information, one finds that the child is able to maintain an aroused affective state even in the absence of the mother by recalling and responding to stored mental images of the mother’s face.

The cortico-limbic system is densely connected with the cortex and subcortex regions in the bran and therefore it plays a regulatory role that maximizes positive and minimizes negative effects in the representations of the socio-affective dialogue. These nonverbal internal models encode the infant’s physiological and affective responses to the attachment figure’s emotionally charged facial expressions. In Schore’s words “Indeed, at the end of the first year internal working models of attachment are first encoded. These… are… mental representations that enable the individual to form expectations and evaluate the interactions that regulate his attachment system”[4]. These internal mental models help the child to participate in the expectation of mutuality and reciprocity in social contact.

The child is able to match the affective state of the partner, as well as “participate in the state of the other”. All of this happens in the absence of the mother and can be used to evaluate social encounters in the physical and social environment. This allows the child to become gradually autonomous and “by the end of the first year the neo-toddler truly becomes a social being” (Schore 195). At this juncture, it must be noted that the dyadic organization of socio-affective interaction is not efficient during the first twelve months. Hence it is possible that the infant’s front cortex can suffer from pathological problems, which in turn can cause defective neurobiological organization, producing disturbances in attachment formation. Defective neural circuits can lead to further patterns of pathophysiological growth, leading thereby to psychiatric disorders and inability to form interpersonal relations (Schore 159-167).

First Half of the Second Year: Early Socialization and Emergence of a “Dialogical Self”:

At the beginning of the second year, there is a huge change in the socioemotional environment of the mother-infant dyad. The toddler for the first time begins to experience negative emotions such as stress due to shame. This is because the role of the mother changes from one of a caregiver to that of a socialization agent who imposes restrictions on various activities of the child. The mother begins to use facial expressions to express shame, disapproval or disgust. This interrupts the heightened levels of effect associated with the child’s pleasure of these activities. Schore characterizes shame as “the primary social emotion,” and notes that it is first experienced by the toddler at 14 to 16 months[5]. Face-to-face encounters with the mother now become intensely stressful and result in facial introversion, blushing, gaze aversion and postural collapse. Return to mother no longer had the positive effect of a reunion dialogue. The toddler does not expect the facially expressed disapproval from the mother as it is used to mental representations of positive affect. This leads to the toddler becoming more inhibited and avoiding attention (Schore 204).

There is a sudden change from a state of high elation, heightened arousal, and elevated activity, to an energy-conserving state of low elation, depressed arousal, and inhibited activity. The distressed state is mediated by corticosteroids that act reduce the levels of endogenous opiates (dopamine, endorphins, and corticotropin-releasing factor) in the brain. This reduction results in sudden decrease in the sensation of pleasure, which is replaced with deep distress (Schore 215).

The sudden change cannot be regulated by the toddler alone. Since long periods of shame can be dangerous, neurochemically, for the child, it is important for parents to intervene to re-establish a positive emotional state. The mother reinitiates socio-affective dialogue by reengaging the child in synchronized mutual gaze interactions. The dialogue recharges and psychologically reattunes the dyad with positive effect which induces an internal state of arousal in the child. In this way “shame is metabolized and regulated, and the attachment bond is reconnected[6]”. This reattuning process is developmentally significant as it is during this process that an individual acquires the capacity to adapt and easily shift between positive and negative affective states. Only by acquiring this capacity an individual can become psychosocially resilient and stable (Schore 245-48). These dyadic episodes of affective interruption and repair expand the child’s socio-affective experience and are encoded into the child’s right brain. Along with the interactive experience of being with a self-regulating other, these internal representations enable the toddler to self-regulate functions that previously required the mother’s external regulation.

Regulated and unregulated socio-affective parental interactions are thus imprinted and stored in early-forming procedural memory, in the orbital prefrontal system and its associated cortical and subcortical connections, as interactive representations (Schore 312). Representations of the parent and the self develop synchronously. The child’s memory representations consist of learning experiences from external world and internal reactions to changes to external environment[7].

The orbitofrontal system, which is considered as the thinking part of the emotional brain regulates the internal state, the temporal organization of behavior, and affective states. It is also responsible for monitoring and autoregulating both positive and negative affective states. This helps the individual to recover swiftly from negative effects and to integrate a sense of self across transitions of state so that he or she can have a continuity of experience in various socio-emotional contexts (Schore 365).

The orbital cortex matures by 18 months and enables the emergence of self-awareness. The onset of self-awareness marks the “psychological birth” of the individual. At this juncture, the average child has a vocabulary of about 15 words. By eighteen months, the child’s experiences of socio-affective interactions are internalized and stored as a symbolic representation. When the child is able to recall and mentally image these representations, a dynamic self-system that is both stable and adaptable emerges.

Schore defined self-regulation, as the ability to monitor and modulate behavior, in order to adapt to the demands of the social and physical environment. Self-regulation thus is dependent on representational thought and evocative memory, and emerges at 18 months. This capacity enables self-modulation, the child’s ability to evoke an appropriate psychobiological state for a given situation. This enables the child to maintain continuity of self across various situational contexts. And finally the “active self” emerges in which the toddler comes to see the self as an independent center for processing incoming information, organizing internal information, initiating motivational processes, and seeking to actively engage with other people socially.

The attainment of self-regulation is a developmental milestone in the growth of the child and this is based on the development of representational thought and evocative memory. Acquiring the ability to self regulate signals a neuropsychological transformation of the infant: the emergence of what Schore refers to as the “dialogical self”–the development of a self-conscious “active” self that can not only initiate and direct appropriate modes of relationship with others, by external dialogue, but can also adapt an inner state to the outside world, by self-reflexive internal dialogue. In short, by eighteen months, the infant has been transformed into an autonomous social being in which the core for a stable, self-regulating psychobiological self and the capacity for effective social communication, as a self-conscious, purposeful social agent, are both in place.

Thus, the transformation of a totally psychologically dependent infant to an active psychosocially stable self at eighteen months of age is an enormously complex, multilevel process. The transformation only be triggered and sustained by socio-affective dialogue with the mother involving interactions organized along two dimensions: the affective dimension involving the mother’s stimulation and arousal of her infant’s positive emotion and secondly, regulation, a control dimension by which the mother regulates the infant’s psychobiological states by adjusting and modulating her child’s affective responses. The dialogue stimulates and shapes the development of the infant’s brain, and also encodes the basic neurological templates for psychosocial function that are operative for life. With the onset of speech the child enters the adult social world. The adult social world continues to be significantly shaped by socio-affective dialogue that includes changes in facial expressions, posture, gestures and movements, voice intonation, etc.

Recently, psychoanalytic movement has been characterized by an interest in interpersonal relations and in the conceptualizations of the relationship between self and others.

Neuroscience provides knowledge that can be used also to better understand the personal level of description. The mirror neuron systems in the brain mediate between the personal experiential knowledge and the implicit certainties held about others. According to the theory of mirror neurons, there is an instantaneous mapping from self to other and from other to self, verifying biologically that innately the self-and-other is a unit, a oneness that exists from the start. Individuals are always responding directly and unconsciously to the perceived qualities of another’s intentionality. These findings on mirror neurons carry extraordinary implications for theories of emotional conditioning in early empathic attunement and of projective identification as a proto-communication in psychotherapy and life.

While discussing the unconscious affective dimensions of intuition in gambling and personal relationships, as well as the effects of subliminal cues and stereotypes in prejudice, Gladwell concludes that, in general, people do not know themselves very well. “[W]e can learn a lot more about what people think by observing their body language or facial expressions or looking at their bookshelves and the pictures on their walls than by asking them directly.. “ (p. 155). This is because of the role played by mirror neurons in the development of self.

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