Monday, February 14, 2005

Wishbones And Cartoon Frogs

I just watched an episode of NOVA Science Now, and the first and last segment had me quivering to share what I'd seen.

I should probably wait a few days for the thoughts to settle down and become more lucid. But for some of us, time doesn't guarantee lucidity, and I want to write about this while it's still fresh.

Two topics: Mirror neurons, and the kinetic sculpture of Arthur Ganson.

The first is the recent discovery of neurons that seem to be responsible for empathy. For example, if you pick up a glass, certain neurons fire. If you watch someone pick up a glass, the same neurons fire. As far as your mind is concerned, you're picking up a glass.

If you watch a football game, you're running with the ball. If you watch a soap opera, you're dealing with evil twins.

There are many qualities that distinguish humanity, but empathy might be the greatest. It informs nearly everything we do. We explore, we build, we teach, we assist. And empathy for the human condition is the common link.

What amazes me is that such a fine quality of the mind could have a physical root. I've always assumed that we did what we did -- forged the Golden Rule, created the social security system -- because intellectually and emotionally it rang true. But the notion of mirror neurons suggests that it runs deeper than intellect or selflessness. We can empathize with someone's plight, feel it in our bones, because it's a reflection of our biological machine and how we interpret what we see.

Why do we respond to pictures of cute kittens? I don't mean, "Look, there's a cute kitten," noted in the tone of a census taker. I mean, "Look, there's a cute kitten," with a pang in the chest. I know it's partly the ativistic kickstart of genes prompting us to love and protect babies. But why does it feel so real? So personal?

Because we're built that way.

The host ducked into an MRI machine and had his brain scanned while he looked at a series of photographs: people grimacing or smiling. He was asked to mimic the pictures, and his brain activity spiked in the usual fashion. He was then asked to look at the pictures and think about them, keeping his face immobile. His brain sparked and fizzed as if he were grinning or scowling.

It's as if we're natural mirrors. We reflect what we see, and we learn from what we see. Put two mirrors face-to-face and you've got more than a dizzying illusion of infinity. As the images bounce back and forth, between the moment of doing and the moment of observing, you're creating society and culture.

I've always been amazed by the trick of cartoons: you can look at a smiley face or a cartoon frog and feel that you're contemplating something true and complex. And when you read about Spot, an imaginary two-dimensional character, trying to scrounge up a dime for his rent, it feels familiar: you know what it's like to pay rent, so watching Spot do the same feels real and immediate. Mirror neurons are firing and the connection is made.

To illustrate the power of this mirror system, the program sequed to a short video of a walking wishbone. It's a marvelous and dramatic contraption. A wishbone is wired to something that looks like the skeleton of a clock tower, with sundry gears keeping their private time. Compared to the little wishbone, it's huge. And the wishbone is pulling it. The artist/engineer writes that the animation was inspired by his memory of saddle-sore cowboys. To my mind it looked like the wishbone were yoked to a giant plow, and while the machine whirred -- or so I imagine, since the film was silent -- the stolid wishbone dragged it along.

A piece of bone. No face. No arms. No body. And I guarantee that when you watch the video in its final few seconds, when the camera pulls back to show a wide view, your mirror neurons will click, and the wishbone will transform into flesh-and-blood.