How do I build a tight body

The close connection between body and mind

The Review Journal
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A review by Stephan Freißmann

Rizzolatti, Giacomo; Sinigaglia, Corrado: Empathy and mirror neurons. The biological basis of compassion. Translated from the Italian by Friedrich Griese. Frankfurt a.M .: Suhrkamp, ​​2008 (edition unseld 11).

This volume by the neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti and the philosopher of science Corrado Sinigaglia offers an overview of areas of neurology and cognitive science that directly relate to the coexistence of people as a social system and their communication, whereby the volume also touches on fundamental questions of the humanities. The focus is on understanding the space in which we live and acting in it, understanding actions in general and the emergence of language. The authors attribute these phenomena largely to a close interlocking of brain areas that have a perceptual function with those that have an action-controlling function, as well as the fact that neuron systems exist that activate both when observing and when performing an action show the so-called mirror neurons.

For a long time, the idea that perceiving and acting were strictly separate phenomena dominated. While what is actually cognitive about brain activity, namely thinking, is based on perception, action means a relatively banal direct control of the body through areas of the brain that are connected to the perceiving areas of the brain, but do not overlap with them. In other words: In the classical picture of perception and thinking, the physical dimension played no role, the modeling of cognitive science was limited to purely intellectual processes, which is made explicit in the famous Turing Test, which was supposed to separate the intellectual abilities of an individual from physical factors, to prove artificial intelligence. For some years now, the picture has been changing that thinking as a purely intellectual process in the brain can be viewed separately from the function of acting body control by the brain and that the former is also a more important and interesting object of investigation than the latter.
A major contribution to this debate comes from the research group led by Giacomo Rizzolatti, who discovered the so-called mirror neurons in the 1990s, neuron systems in the brain that both when performing an action and when observing the execution of this action Showing activation by third parties or merely thinking about this act. These neuron systems, which were initially localized in animal experiments on macaque monkeys, can also be assumed, with modifications, in humans. In the present volume, which has been available in German translation at Suhrkamp since 2008, two years after its Italian first publication, Rizzolatti argues together with the philosopher of science and spirit Corrado Sinigaglia that there is a close "intertwining of perception and action" (p. 56) . The authors pursue the implications of the existence of mirror neurons for three areas in particular, namely for the understanding of space and acting in the space that surrounds us, for the understanding of actions and for the emergence of language. The paramount importance of physicality for these cognitively controlled phenomena becomes clear again and again.

With regard to the human understanding of space, the authors write that the brain grasps the space surrounding an individual according to the possibilities of active intervention, and not through mere looking. They prove this claim through the close interlinking of visual and somatosensory neurons. Some of these neurons are even bimodal, i.e. they react to visual and somatosensory stimuli (pp. 65-68). The brain encodes the space in relation to the body and the potential contact with the body, not in relation to an abstract coordinate system that arises from pure intuition. The authors see the reason for this in the fact that an individual moves in space with the aim of actively intervening in the space and being able to reach objects, which in turn presupposes that objects are localized. At this point it becomes clear how much the embodiment determines the perception, because according to these findings the space appears as "a system of coordinated actions" (p. 83), not as a "merely [...] indiscriminate set of points" (p . 89). The topography of action is thus already inscribed in the perception of space.

Action is the main domain of mirror neurons, as they owe their discovery to the observation that in monkeys certain neurons are activated both when they are performing an action themselves and when a third party is performing an action. Originally this observation was made in relation to hand movements (p. 95); but mirror neurons are also activated when the mouth is moved, in particular during "ingestive", that is to say with the ingestion of food, and "communicative" acts (pp. 95-100). This suggests that the monkey mirror neuron system is primarily important in nutrition. In contrast to the ape, the human mirror neuron system is also activated "if the action is only simulated" (p. 131) and no objects are involved. The decisive factor in the involvement of mirror neurons in action is that they make use of the body's "motor knowledge" (p. 142) beyond a purely visual channel for understanding action, which "enables the observer to be included in the first person [ leads], which allows him to experience it [a motor event] directly, as if he himself would be the performer and fully understand its meaning. "(p. 143) The decisive added value of the assumption of mirror neurons lies in the fact that, because mirror neurons allow, beyond a postulated one theory of mind, the intuitive empathy with and identification with the observed other.

Finally, the observation that mirror neurons are also activated during the perception of communicative acts leads the authors to assume "that the origins of language are less to be found in the primitive forms of vocal communication than in the evolution of a system of gestural communication that is derived from the lateral cortical areas [i.e. the areas of the brain in which the mirror neurons are located] is controlled. " (P. 161) According to this description, the progressive development of the mirror neuron system has decisively favored the emergence of language.
The authors' considerations on the evolution of language and its embedding in human evolution (pp. 164-165) sometimes appear rather speculative - a concession made by the authors themselves (p. 167) - and are based more on plausible assumptions than on empirical ones archaeological findings. It remains to be seen whether such an empirical underpinning of the hypothesis presented will ever succeed. The path from the gestural to the vocal communication system outlined by the authors, however, seems entirely plausible and should be a serious contribution to the debate about the origin of language.

Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia interpret the experimental results consistently in the direction of an integration of the intellectual with the motor skills of humans. In doing so, they make a consistently stringent contribution to a holistic understanding of the human being, which focuses on the networking and mutual dependence of body and mind, an understanding that has been booming in cognitive science with the so-called situated approaches for several years. According to the authors, the body has a much larger share in the mind than has been assumed in general thought.
By adopting this title in the edition unseld series, which has been running since 2008, Suhrkamp Verlag has once again succeeded in being at the forefront of discussions that go beyond the boundaries of scientific disciplines. Only the dialogue between the natural sciences and the humanities, which the series is actually striving for, has not become desirably clear in this volume, which refers almost exclusively to experimental results and hardly evaluates them explicitly with regard to an image of man that is also significant for the cultural sciences. Still offers Empathy and mirror neurons Particularly stimulating reading for anthropologically oriented cultural scientists, as the volume shows how deeply the foundations of culture - the mutual understanding of actions and communication - are rooted in the human body and brain.


Rizzolatti, Giacomo and Corrado Sinigaglia: Empathy and Mirror Neurons: The Biological Basis of Compassion. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, ​​2008 (edition unseld 11). 230 p., Carton, € 10.00. ISBN-13: 978-3-518-26011-1


Table of Contents


Acknowledgments 9
Foreword 11

1 The motor system 17
A coffee cup 17
The organization of the frontal motor fields 18
The parietofrontal circuits 27
A first conclusion 32

2 The brain in action 35
Movements and Acts 35
Visuomotor properties 40
The circuit of grasping 46
The ways of seeing 51
The Dictionary of File 56
Seeing with the hand 61

3 The space around us 65
Things reach 65
The coordinates of the body 68
Near and far 72
Poincaré's duel 78
For a dynamic conception of room 83
The different scope of actions 87

4 Action and Understanding 91
Canonical Neurons and Mirror Neurons 91
Ingestion and Communication 95
The connections with the superior temporal groove and the inferior parietal lobe 100
The function of mirror neurons 102
Visual representation and motor understanding of the action 107
The "melody" of the action and the recognition of the intentions 113

5 The mirror neurons in humans 122
The first clues 122
Brain Imaging Studies 125
Mutual understanding of actions and intentions 130
Vocabulary Differences 137

6 Imitation and Language 144
The Mechanisms of Imitation 144
Imitation and Learning 148
The Gestural Conversation 155
Mouth, hand, voice 162

7 Empathizing Emotions 174
The role of emotions 174
Disgusted in the island 178
Empathy and Emotional Coloring 184

Notes 193
Bibliography 201
Glossary 228

The Close Connection of Body and Mind

In the present volume, neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti and philosopher of science Corrado Sinigaglia give an overview of realms of neurology and cognitive science that directly concern the sociality and communication of human beings - and therefore also touch upon basic issues in the humanities. The central points are the understanding of and acting within the space of everyday life, the understanding of actions in general and, finally, the emergence of language. To explain these phenomena, the authors attribute great importance to the close interlocking of brain areas that function in perception with those that function in controlling action, as well as to the existence of neural systems that are activated both in observing and in executing an act ( so-called mirror neurons).


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