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The Empathic Brain Paperback – Import, 2 Nov 2011
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Christian Keysers in this book does a great job in teaching the readers that mirror neurons play a significant physiological and neurological role in creating the connectedness between humans.
As one of the pioneer researchers on discovering and understanding mirror neurons, Keysers does a great job providing general readers with interesting insights into the fallacies of the belief that each of our minds are completely separate. This book does a great job utilizing recent studies along with his own personal stories to convey two main points: 1). Mirror neurons are responsible for preparing our bodies to carry out actions that we witness others doing. 2). The insula is the part of the brain that becomes activated when we respond to other people's emotions, thus suggesting a mechanism behind the reason as to why people can become overwhelmed by other people's emotions.
A synopsis of the book:
Introduction of book
Christian Keysers begins the introduction of the book by accounting his experience of almost losing emotional control during his wedding. He describes how this emotion ended up resonating through all of his friends and family in attendance. Keysers immediately hooks the reader into the topic by beginning in this way. He continues to utilize his own personal accounts and anecdotes throughout the book to display the emotional relationships that occur between humans. Although some of the stories may be unnecessary for gaining a good understanding on the subject, the vast majority of them are very interesting and do a good job illustrating his points to the general reader.
The book also provides acceptable amounts of detail into the mechanisms and the neuroscience behind human emotions and their relationship to mirror neurons, thus making it easy to digest. It covers a variety of regions of the brain and identifies the different neural activities of those who show higher amounts of empathy as well as those who fall into autistic or psychopath category.
The first part of the book is on the discovery of mirror neurons. These chapters are used to explain the significance of mirror neurons by using them to answer questions such as "why is it hard to be on a diet when we see others eating things we should not?" I though this was an excellent way to introduce the concept of mirror neurons, because it allowed me to see new possible answers to some everyday questions. I felt that the first part of this book really helped me understand how the mechanism and science of the neurons connects to how we perceive and think. Also, by describing the difficulties of studying these phenomena without knowledge of mirror neurons, the author was able to illustrate how gaps of knowledge were filled with their discovery.
The next several chapters (majority of the book) describe human mirroring by looking into the neural activations of our bodies after we witness actions by others. It uses the concept of mirror neurons to challenge "the classical view that our motor skills should have limited and indirect influence on the perception of other people's behaviors." It also builds from there to look at human language and social interactions. He tries to explain how we interact with other people and why this may have contributed to making humans the dominant species on Earth. Furthermore, he talks about why we react strongly to stories and movies, how we learn from watching others, and why we feel empathy. I believe that the second part of the book was also a very interesting read, especially because Keysers incorporates a lot of anecdotal details into scientific studies, which makes a dry topic much more interesting. I found that the author's tone and willingness to include his personal details makes this part of the book much easier to retain. His examples are fairly descriptive and they allow uninformed readers to easily grasp the science behind studies.
In the last part of the book, Keysers poses an interesting thought, "does autism occur due to deficiencies in mirror neurons?" He first sets this question up by looking into the restricted interests and lack of care for the social world by autistic people. He then attempts to explore how mechanistic issues with the shared circuit may be the key, due to the fact that autistic people imitate less. The author goes on to use more scientific backing to show that autism is more complex than just a "broken mirror," however there are possible therapies that my help. Keyser attempts to finish the book by trying to relate this subject matter to our ethics. He suggests that the "shared circuits are our moral voice." He then connects this theory to compassion as well as moral feelings and learning. What I found interesting was that he took it a step further and attempted to utilize the theory of deficiencies in mirror neurons as a possible mechanism for psychopaths. I thought the last part of the book provided less scientific information and dwelled a lot more on the topics of ethics and social behaviors. I felt that although this was used to connect the science to our everyday lives, I feel that the author's lack of expertise in the field of ethics and social behavior may have left these chapters with some deficiencies. However I will give him some props for finally suggesting that mirror neurons are not only for positive social behaviors and learning, but rather they (even in perfect working conditions) can play significant roles in nefarious purposes.
An interesting passage from this book that I think shows a very over arching theme is:
"Empathic people activate their insula very strongly and may be overwhelmed by the vicarious emotions that movies trigger in them. Other people activate their insula only weakly, needing much stronger stimuli to trigger their own feelings."
Overall this book was well written with a general audience in mind, and therefore it did an effective job on delivering scientific knowledge to readers. I think the best part about reading this book was that it allowed me to learn details about the scientific studies that would not be included in scientific papers, thus transforming the current research into a live tangible event that engages and encourages me to understand the real life implications of this subject matter. However, I don't think this book would be suitable for people who are looking for in-depth and advanced information since the book tries to simplify the information with personal experiences that may seem to be superfluous reading for a knowledgeable reader.
What is worse, at least in the Kindle edition, is that it is peppered with typos, as if the editor gave up on his task. Errors like "close" (for "clothes") and "obay" for "obey" and many more show how this was sloppily written. It wasn't scanned badly as these are phonetic, not graphic errors.
First discovered in macaque monkeys, mirror neurons are so-called because they fire when an individual performs or observes an action, and when she experiences an emotion herself or observes that emotion in someone else. When you see somebody doing something, you unconsciously run a sort of internal simulation of their behaviour, using some (not all) of the neurons in your pre-motor cortex you would use if you were performing that action yourself. And when you witness another person's emotional state, some of the same neurons in your emotional centres are activated, as would be if the emotion originated within yourself.
A variety of experiments furnish evidence for mirror neuron activity in humans. Keysers and his colleagues think the results explain much about human powers of intuitively understanding the minds of others, and our ability to engage in the complex social interactions which have made us the dominant species on this planet. Through simulation, we internalize, and hence understand, other people. Mirror neurons promise to explain much about how we learn from others, why demonstration has a greater pedagogical value than narration, how we come to be so proficient with language, and why we are engaged by stories and theatre, finally answering Hamlet's question, "What's Hecubah to him, or he to Hecubah, that he should weep for her?" Keyers also explores the question whether autism and related disorders may be caused by a failure of the mirror neuron system.
Although the tide of evidence keeps rising, the mirror neuron theory is far from universally accepted. Interpretations of the evidence go far beyond the established facts, and in the case of mirror neurons, the devil lies not in the details but in the generalizations. The famous neuroscientist VS Ramachandran was so taken with mirror neurons that he called them "Ghandhi neurons--because they dissolve the boundaries between self and other." Keysers is not so incautious, and takes pains to point out that mirror neurons are not "magic"; despite them, people often misunderstand one another. But Keysers is most definitely a champion of mirror neurons, and if his book has a shortcoming, it may lie in failing to give serious consideration to critics. Neuroscientist Gregory Hickok and philosopher Patricia Churchland are two who have charged that the bolder claims about mirror neurons made by Keysers, Ramachandran and others are overblown. Keysers makes no serious attempt to answer such criticisms. Nonetheless, The Empathic Brain is perhaps the best introduction available to the positive claims of the mirror neuron theory, and should hold the interest of anyone who is seriously interested in what we are.