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« Geertz and the Axis of Horganism | Main | Francis Crick, Steven Pinker and Mysterianism »

Autism and “Mirror Neurons”

Until he died two years ago, Francis Crick and a posse of other neuroscientists in Southern California used to meet periodically for lunch and a lecture at a faculty club at the University of California at Irvine. On May 19, 1998, Christof Koch of Caltech, a participant, invited me to sit in for a lunch-time lecture by Giacomo Rizzolatti, a suave, white-haired, moustached Italian neuroscientist.

He had discovered neurons in monkeys that fired both when the monkey picked up an object and when it saw someone else—a monkey or human—pick up the object. Rizzolatti showed film of the monkeys, wires emerging from their heads, picking up raisins or watching other monkeys or humans do so; neural firing was represented by a ratatatat that sounded like a Geiger counter.

I wasn’t sure what to make of all this, but the formidable Crick listened intently to Rizzolatti’s presentation and peppered him with questions, which Rizzolatti fielded smoothly. By the end, Crick and others seemed to give credence to Rizzolatti’s claim that these “grasping neurons” might offer clues to language and other cognitive mysteries.

That was my first encounter with “mirror neurons,” now one of the trendiest topics in brain science and the focus of two articles in the November Scientific American. In “Mirrors in the Mind,” Rizzolatti and two colleagues present the now abundant evidence for mirror neurons in primates—including humans--and discuss the neurons’ relevance to the theory-of-mind capacity, empathy, imitation, learning and language. In “Broken Mirrors,” Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Lindsay Oberman hypothesize that malfunctioning mirror neurons may cause autism.

Mirror neurons seem a bit frail to hold up all the theoretical weight neuroscientists have heaped on them. But they are obviously a lead worth pursuing, and this month’s Scientific American articles provide a pat-worthy introduction to the topic.



Did you ever get a chance to look at Jon Allman's research on Von Economo neurons? His claim is that these neurons are very important in social situations. There mainly for quick, intuitive decision making. They appear late phylogenically and ontogenically, so migration problems during gestation are not uncommon. This may leave VEN's just shy of their proper destinations(anterior cingulate cortex and fronto-insula cortex), which happens in autistics.

Andrei Kirilyuk

Autistic Brain Science

By all evidence we deal here with another case of that self-absorbed, “autistic” and “post-modern” brain science which can only demonstrate, once again, “how the human brain defies replication, medication, and explanation”. It is enough to cite the concluding phrases of the mentioned Scientific American article on connection between “mirror neurons” and autism: “Further experiments are needed to rigorously test these conjectures. The ultimate cause of autism remains to be discovered. In the meantime, our speculations may provide a useful framework for future research”. [So until now they were just “amusing” at taxpayer's expense!] No, just the reverse, there is TOO MUCH of those really ARBITRARY, vain speculations, where everything “resembles” everything else, etc. The very idea of cutting out a particular NEURON GROUP of the holistic brain DYNAMICS and mechanistically attribute to them a variety of functions (or even any single brain function), is evidently and completely wrong from the beginning, it's but a form of “scientific autism” (broken links!). Any brain function or property results from its dynamics as a whole, where one may naturally have a myriad of changing particular accents and patterns, but everything remains connected to everything else all the time and that what makes the result so “magic” and “inexplicable” in terms of straightforward positivistic cutting. If EVEN THIS and even now is not clear to official science lords, then their thinking autism is really incurable.

That autism is due to some broken/disordered links in the system of brain neurons is clear without any study, it's the well-specified details that can be useful. But those mirror neuron “studies” just confirm that very general idea, without any useful refinement. Apart from autism, the fact that connected actions provoke similar reactions in brain neuronal circuits is also an evident and very general brain property, only confirming the wholeness of its dynamics, nothing more, nothing less. By contrast, that specific formulation in terms of some particular, “magic” neurons, rather than brain connection dynamics, produces a misleading impression (especially in lay public attitudes) that one can now have a “simple key to complex problems” and progress essentially in their solution. In that way, they are not without selfish, rather disgraceful fraud, those vain “speculations”. In fact, the “key” in question was discovered already fifteen years ago, which is quite a solid age for a generously supported, “successful” idea of technically powerful official science. But the RESULT is always the same, empty speculations and “further research is necessary”. All those “sophisticated” measurements of signal correlations in brain neuron connections are NOT the result, they can mean anything one wants of them within a currently fashionable “interpretation”. How many other “fashionable” brain fields or properties were “elucidated” (and generously sponsored!) in that way in last decades, without any essential progress? They change exactly as those idiotic diets around various kinds of products that one should or should not eat. The only, and quite essential, result are growing profits of lying “sages” on the background of progressing body problems or brain disorders. It's quite evident that even straightforward “sanitary“, preventive, educational efforts based on “general logic” are much more useful than such kind of tricky “science”.

And finally, what happens with the Axis of Horganism, is it being deformed into a vicious circle of post-modern official science without issue? It inevitably will, if one does not promote and realise another way of doing science, creative, critical, and oriented to final, well-specified result, as opposed to technical “measurement” details tacitly replacing their expected result, CONSISTENT UNDERSTANDING as the unique genuine purpose of science. In particular, something should be changed essentially in science presentation to and interaction with the general public interests and support. The current mode of totally biased, unbalanced “publicity” of professional science results to “unaware” (and permanently duped) public by self-interested scientific clans, almost exclusively practiced by “conventional” science (and general) media, becomes not only inefficient but really dangerous, for both public and science. With all variety of opinions and disagreement we may have, it should be more or less evident to everybody that we have definitely passed to the epoch of (big) change, in science and beyond, while the media and science journalism remain basically the same as in the previous, now definitely finished epoch of apparently prosperous, “sustainable” science progress. So if there is a growing recognition of that situation, why not to initiate another kind of popular science media based on critical attitudes, creative approach, essential progress in problem solution and consistent reality understanding as a major purpose of science? The activity of this blog could be a starting point, but one needs also something in the form of POPULAR SCIENCE MAGAZINE of a NEW kind (at least on line, but why not also in a hard-printed version), and then growing, much more concentrated presentation in other media, TV, internet sites, etc. I am talking about full-scale, professional creation, rather than only self-made “revolutionary” or “amusing” web sites appearing here and there. Now there should be enough of both potential “writers” and “readers” for such NEW kind of SERIOUS public-science interaction, where public and professional but VARIOUS (not only “official”) opinions will play a much more active role (at least as it happens for “general” problems in general media) and one will obtain much more interactive, developing results for all participating sides. It's enough now to have only those “great sages” descending from their “ivory towers” to inform the public “herd” that pays dutifully all their “mind games” about how great and ever greater they are (without any real progress but quickly growing real, unsolved problems – we know that!). I do want to hope that the exception of Horganism can be extended in that way because this is a really necessary kind of development, whether the overfed, parasitic part of professional science herd wants to understand it or not.

don Emigh


You bring up some good points, and we might add one more : Other than "just for the hell of it" or "because it's there," what's the purpose and the reason for doing science?

The underlying justification for doing science is to help us in our understanding of nature. In the process of this understanding, we make our lives easier and (theoretically, except for such things as poison gases and nuclear bombs--but who worries about such as these) we bring our lives into harmony with the natural environment.

But here's a dirty little not-so-secret: Scientists, for the most part, turn their backs on "understanding nature" whenever they run across anything in nature that isn't reducible through mathematics.

Aren't our lives--all of us, the whole of humanity, all that we are and do--in nature, of nature and a part of nature? That would include the vast psychological arena of our everyday lives. So, reducible by mathematics or not, our psychological world should be of tremendous interest to scientists, if they are at all serious in their attempts to "understand nature."

But this isn't happening. Psychiatrists and psychologists are interested merely in propping up the wounded here and there, without inquiry into deeper issues, such as the root causes--the generic causes--of mankind's basic problems, which are psychological in nature. These issues await the really serious scientists, and the application of the scientific method.

Andrei Kirilyuk

I agree with your comment, don Emigh. Understanding the unreduced complexity of our internal “selves” would be a good example of a genuine scientific progress, which is only waiting for a start, because it can hardly start within that inevitably esoteric approach of now standard, positivistic science. The number of various “measurement data” (as well as related “classifying” models and numerical simulations) just diverges to infinity (think also about genomics and biochemistry), but “understanding” as such does not seem to progress, we rather feel increasingly the true, “insurmountable” power of unreduced nature complexity in face of its mechanical split into simple, “sequential” kind of order within the artificially imposed approach of scholar “modelling”.

The case of “psyche” is especially interesting in this context because, in fact, the truly “ultimate” purpose of science (and everything else, finally!) is not even “better understanding” in itself, but our own related development, i.e. essential, qualitative growth of human consciousness level (rather than only quantitative information accumulation, however “practically useful” it may seem). So in the case of psychological world understanding, we are trying to study the ultimate purpose itself of all studies and our existence in general and simultaneously “use” it for real progress towards that ultimate purpose. Needless to say, such level of approach is “slightly” beyond official science ambitions, they are just “differently oriented”. One of essential distinctions is that the above purpose of OUR consciousness progress involves par excellence not only or specifically professional “scientists” but any “interested”, even “massive” person. Therefore, THAT kind of science SHOULD be “generally” understandable, certainly by “special” efforts (no progress without it!), but accessible, in principle, to every seriously attempting person. The difference with the “inbred” esoterism of now dominating form of knowledge is evident. In this sense the latter can NEVER be truly progressive, it only tries to imitate the necessary HUMAN progress by advancement of practically convenient technology (which leads eventually to massive human REgress, as it becomes increasingly evident today!). This is an easy, fundamentally undeniable way to see why conventional, scholar science is but a very special form of knowledge severely limited from above (and now it has actually attained its limits, starting from around the middle of the twentieth century).

Don Emigh


I've often wondered what it is that holds us back so forcefully, that keeps us going along in the same old way that all of our apparently stupid forbears followed. Why is it that after thousands of years our world is still such a mess? Why is it that we can't say that mankind has not made any real psychological progress since the dawn of civilization?

We may be sophisticated and filled with centuries of accumulated knowledge, but psychologically we're still the same old jealous, fearful, greedy, violent, dangerous, hate-filled, self-centered people the cavemen were--look at our lives, and the world around us. Why has there been no progress in resolving these issues?

I think it's because nobody really gives a damn. The pressure of heritage and environment is too powerful. "Go away," everyone says. "Leave me alone. Let me get through life as my parents did, and my peers are doing. It's too difficult to change. Go away!"

James McWilliams

Hey Don,

Well perhaps I'm just an optimist, but it's probably a little unfair to tar everyone with the same brush :D There have always been good people, though it may not always seem that way.

Don Emigh


Certainly there have always been good people in the world, people of intelligence and understanding--in the best meaning of those words. But the few of them, the few here and there and far between, by no means represent the prevailing human condition throughout the world. The world's human condition is a peculiar form of nearly universal stupidity and lack of love that has kept us involved for millenia in unending wars, in genocide, and in the starvation and degradation of millions. Sad to say, there's no end in sight.

I'm suggesting that scientists might see this as a legitimate problem, and look into it. Why are we the way we are? Why do we find change so difficult? I woud hope we would not retreat behind that old cop-out, "Well, you can't change human nature."

James McWilliams


Yeh thats true. I guess my limited perception on what might be a (at least in part) the cause of problems in the world is in many cases down to insecure/unhappy people.

It seems to me that people who do terrible things to others are always very unhappy about themselves.

Bullying, jealousy, genocide, murder, whatever. It could be argued that the easy way for someone to 'vent' is to blame others and to take it out them. And thats why it happens so much :D

I don't think a change in human nature is required as you say, it's probably more about how people are raised. I mean, the adults teach all thier insecurity's and prejuduces to the kids. I doubt anyone is genetically predisposed to it in any irreversible way. Though I guess many people do tend to want to stick to thier own beliefs regardless. (which probably comes down to ego/insecurity again).

I don't think we'll find a 'cure' for all the problems in the world. It's likely too complex for that. Still, it's probably worth a try.

My prefered path for humanity is inspired by good ol' Freddy Bastiat, simply: freedom for all.

Back to the article: I find it kind of ironic that these scientists are trying to cure autism, yet some of the greatest scientists were autistic. :D

Andrei Kirilyuk

Indeed, what Don says is not that there were (or are) no “good people”, but that there is no progressive change with their number and/or quality during the same, long enough time when we had an essential progress in e.g. living conditions, our understanding of the world structure, education, art, etc. (see also my another comment, ). One even feels an effective decrease of “goodness” in the world, though it may concern not its absolute, but relative value, as estimated with respect to fantastic, ever continuing growth of various practical possibilities. I think it is that today's contrast between unprecedented and real possibilities to “make the world better” and dominating opposite tendencies of degradation that is so striking and inevitably related, in fact, to the “inner world” (human consciousness) factors. Before our epoch we had a different situation because there were “rough”, inevitable occupations of “life and death”, such as “real” (rather than today's “political”) wars, fierce fight between competing social systems, hard economic problems, etc. Today it becomes too evident, for the first time in history, that there remains only internal conflict in “human dimensions”: “it could be heaven for everyone”, but the world does not want to go in that direction because of some truly “subjective” reasons that can be summarised as “acute mental deficiency”. It's not about a particular ability to “calculate”, “think logically”, acquire new knowledge, etc. There is no problem, in principle, with such particular abilities in large enough, and actually dominating, parts of the world. But it is the same, “developed” parts of the world that are characterised by progressing stagnation of genuine consciousness development and even quite visible degradation (because where you don't have the former for some time, the latter appears inevitably, that's a general development law!).

We can see very strong examples of that “surprising” mental deficiency just in science because things like “education level” or any formally defined “intelligence” (IQ, etc.) are certainly not missing here, but the “moral” climate and other “higher” intelligence qualities, as measured by real science practice and related science progress, are practically inverse to high “technical” abilities of those apparently best, most intelligent representatives of Homo sapiens. So the situation is not as simple as “there are always some good people and bad people”. For example, what is the sense for other, less “developed” parts of the world to follow the same way (as they are constantly prompted to do) if it has such severe problems (practically a fundamental impasse!) even in its best existing realisation? And we can see very real damage and dangers of that dominating “brain deficiency”, as well as artificially hampered realisation of truly fantastic possibilities, existing problem solution, etc. That's very far from an “idle”, “philosophical” talk.

I think that problems become evident and really “pressing” just when they come to the practical foreground of life, become really most important in the (always big) hierarchy of all possible problems. And by all evidence, the problems in question have become most important just now, that's why they are felt as concrete, not “general” ones today. Before one could always find a “suitable”, at least seemingly “serious” justification for being occupied mainly with one's selfish, narrow interests (recall the canonical “forgive them for they know not what they do”). But there can be no such justification starting from now: it would be simply grotesque to assume that today's world elites or even massive middle class fellows may “know not what they do”. They know perfectly what they do, all those fraudulent science priests transforming multi-billion investments into their private profits (and “glory”) in the evident absence of any real (including fundamental) problem solution, instead of favouring real science progress (i.e. explicit problem solutions though maybe within other approaches different from “theirs”). The worst is that unaware taxpayer's money is used effectively to SUPPRESS the highly needed science progress, by quite deliberate, explicit actions. So it's not about any subjective “optimism” or “pessimism”, we do have a situation of big, qualitative change and respective collisions and challenges, sort of “big exam” for humanity, where the difference between “passing” or “failing” it is as big as that between further essential progress or catastrophic, already quite visible regress.

There is a very popular idea (especially here in Europe) of “knowledge-based society”, but it is invariably used to justify new investments in absolutely fruitless, parasitic “programmes” and what we can see in real life, including science practice in most “advanced” places, is the same old kind of “profit-based society” mixed with a quickly growing portion of “deception-based society”. For example, there is practically no more difference in R&D programmes between “publicity” and “premeditated lie”, i.e. explicit fraud, “money for nothing”. They do it all the time, the topmost elites, and the more they're on top, the stronger is their deviation from elementary truth. All of it is very easily verifiable and even widely discussed in special scientific and general media, which also shows that we are rather far away from unawareness or a business-as-usual situation. It would be very stupid and dangerous to measure such things by external material prosperity alone and remain inactive unless the problem emerges explicitly in an acute form. Needless to say, the “wise leaders of humanity” choose just that most “advanced” approach, even when such truly “inertial” system as planetary climate (let alone more rapid human factors) changes at a rate exceeding that of our individual life changes! What remains in that situation is to be very optimistic, indeed!

In any case, either we take the challenge and pass the exam, practically, or we continue to degrade and disappear, assisting ourselves by various, “optimistic” or “pessimistic”, appeals...

Mike Cook

Gospodin Kirilyuk, I was in Ukraine (eastern part)for a few weeks in 2003 and must say the women are all that you claim. Also passed through something like atheistic communism's form of a cathedral at the Kiev war memorial. Also visited a brand spanking new huge cathedral on a hill outside the city that the Ukraine government apparently has built for the Russian Orthodox church as a kind of bribe. There were lots of weeds in the parking lot. Perhaps a good example of how to produce a "wise man" was practice of sealing oneself up in a monastery cave for months in almost complete sensory deprivation. Food would be passed through a 6" hole and wastes removed. Such extreme hermeticism was thought to produce altered consciousness and advanced prophetic ability, which made the hermit on re-emergence to the world of light a valuable commodity who could sell advice to the worried elites. Not too different from the Temple of Delphi, actually, except the person wanting the answer had to endure all the discomfort and the priestesses merely had to think of something to say both vague and clever using their own network of geo-political intelligence. Come to think, reminds me of a lot of blogs.

Have you ever tried reading Aristotle by just mentally substituting the words "gas" for air, "liquid" for water, "energy" for fire, and "matter" for earth? It will amaze you at how much more insightful the ancients become in your eyes. I have become as skeptical as Socrates about the possibility of a socially decayed or spoiled democracy having any luck at recognizing wise advice when it is presented to them. On the other hand, scientific socialism had a propensity to get downright weird in its scientific enthusiasms.

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