Autism and Mirror Neurons

Autism has been my latest lens for learning about neuroanthropology. It started with reading claims that autism is linked to mirror neuron disfunction. Mirror neurons are currently used to explain how the brain understands the intentions and emotions of others. Researchers suggest that lack of brain activity in mirroring areas of the brain found in autistic children could explain deficits in social interaction and empathy. A related article on the site links the mirror system to the study of culture: Culture Influences Brain Cells: Brain’s Mirror Neurons Swayed By Ethnicity And Culture. A study compared reactions of subjects to both American and Nicaraguan hand gestures, measuring differences in mirror neuron activity in the brain depending on who was giving the information and whether they were a member of their own ethnic group or a different group.

“We believe these are some of the first data to show neurobiological responses to culture-specific stimuli,” said Molnar-Szakacs. “Our data show that both ethnicity and culture interact to influence activity in the brain, specifically within the mirror neuron network involved in social communication and interaction… An important conclusion from these results is that culture has a measurable influence on our brain and, as a result, our behavior. ” “We are the heirs of communal but local traditions,” said Iacoboni. “Mirror neurons are the brain cells that help us in shaping our own culture. However, the neural mechanisms of mirroring that shape our assimilation of local traditions could also reveal other cultures, as long as such cross-cultural encounters are truly possible. All in all, our research suggests that with mirror neurons our brain mirrors people, not simply actions.”

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this article—it seems as if it would be a given that culture impacts behavior so am not sure if they discovered something new so much as found a more scientific way of measuring it. Could this possibly be a tool that would indicate whether someone would suffer from culture shock? And linking it back to the first article, would this imply that autistic people would have equal trouble picking up on social cues regardless of who they are with while for others it would depend on whether they share the same cultural background?

The Brains of Conductors

The BBC News carried a story recently about research done on the brains of orchestra conductors and band leaders and how they responded to a complicated listening task. The researchers played two tones for the subjects very closely together, fractions of a second apart, and the subjects were asked to tell what order they were played in.

The most interesting finding was that all subjects, untrained controls and experienced conductors alike, demonstrated a decrease in activity on fMRI scans in the ‘visual areas’ (I presume the visual cortex) when asked to do this difficult listening task. As the BBC headline reads, ‘Brain “Closes Eyes” to Hear Music.’ The more difficult the researchers made the task, the more activity in the visual regions was decreased. As the BBC article puts it:

As the task was made harder and harder, the non-musicians carried on diverting more and more activity away from the visual parts of the brain to the auditory side, as they struggled to concentrate.

However, after a certain point, the conductors did not suppress their brains, suggesting that their years of training had provided a distinct advantage in the way their brains were organised.

The implications of this in terms of brain ‘enculturation’ are several, and I want to highlight a couple.

Firstly, the testing itself suggests that brain activity is task dependent, both in positive and negative terms. That is, ask the brain to do some things and not only do particular regions associated with the task get very active, but other, possibly competing or distracting neural activities, get suppressed. I’ve been thinking about the senses a fair bit lately (more on that soon), and this would seem to be one way in which the senses are not independent. Instead, the senses are linked together, even if it is in suppressive links, the heightened attention or concentration along one channel sometimes suppressing others. For culturally influenced patterns of sensing, it could mean that what we don’t sense is as important as what we do.

Second, these sorts of links between expertise and the effectiveness of sensing are variable phenomena, not necessarily existing at all levels of task demand. I find this interesting because it might not show up in every experiment, depending on the difficulty of the experimental task. In the case of the conductors, you don’t really notice the difference in their performance on the task until the difficulty is greatly increased.

Third, the ‘enculturation’ is very much a skill-dependent brain change. That is, it’s not a blanket, shared-by-all cultural trait, but one that’s only shared by a specialist group within a ‘culture.’ This makes more sense to me in a lot of ways because I work with elite athletics, but I suspect that many ways in which the brain is ‘encultured’ are not shared throughout what anthropologists typically think of as ‘cultures.’ Moreover, because the brain likely responds to similar demands by using similar mechanism, another elite practitioner of a parallel skill (like a musical leader in capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art I’ve worked on) might have an ability that looked a bit like the conductors’. How these abilities differed then — not only in terms of their meaning, acquisition, and the like, but also in terms of the neurological dynamics — would be an interesting set of research questions.

One could write a lot more, but I’ll leave it at this for now.