Day 044 - Mirror neurons and the foundations of civilization

Submitted by Sam on 3 July, 2011 - 21:36

VS Ramachandran identifies a point of significant development in the course of human evolution about 75,000 years ago, when we suddenly and rapidly acquired and spread a great number of skills, which were unique to our species. The development of tool use, the use of fire, shelters, language and the ability to read someone else's expressions and interpret their behaviour can all be traced to the sudden emergence of a sophisticated mirror neuron system, Ramachandran argues.

The very rapid emergence of these skills occurred with no significant change in the size of the human brain, which stabilized almost three or four thousand years ago. Mirror neurons constitute only a very small part of the brain, and so their emergence 75,000 years ago is certainly a possibility in this regard.

As we have seen, mirror neurons allow for virtual simulations of other people's behaviours and emotions, and so their development would have allowed accidental discoveries made by individuals in a group (such as the use of fire) to be emulated and imitated by others, allowing skills to spread throughout the population rather than remaining isolated with their discoverer. In this way skills would rapidly accumulate, propagating vertically across generations, enabling a new kind of social evolution whereby a child can learn complex skills from its parents in ten minutes that otherwise might take hundreds of thousands of years to become evolutionarily encoded.

Below is Ramachandran's TED talk from 2009 in which he discusses the implications of mirror neurons for human development.

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