What can mirror neurons teach us about consciousness, mental health and well-being?


The study of mirror neurons is converging to unite the emerging scientific study of consciousness  with the field of cybernetics, to bridge the gap between the mechanistic models of brain function, with the knowledge of ourselves as a lot more than just our brains.

Mind and brain

Human beings cannot be defined by their physical body or brain alone – just as electricity cannot be defined by the nerves through which it travels. The human brain is in fact, a system in constant flux. This distinction between the brain and the mind – that man is not a machine but has and uses a machine – the brain – is critical in our understanding of how we as humans learn and evolve.

Brain inputs and outputs

Cybernetics 030913

This illustration shows that different circuits are called upon in the brain for gathering information from the world around us (i.e. input from the five senses) and for acting on the world (output though thought and action).

We are more than just our brain circuits

In this way the human brain is a system that takes in sensory data to create new nerve connections that are to be used in interactions with the external world. Feedback from the external environment, in turn, is used to enhance subsequent communications with it. This can be described in cybernetic terms as a ‘virtuous loop’ of control, communication and feedback is the key feature of a servomechanism that needs to arrive at a preset goal.  An understanding of consciousness is of particular interest to cybernetics which questions as to how psychological/cognitive functions are produced by brain circuits.

Mirror neurons which mirror neurons which mirror neurons, etc., = consciousness


In a provocative video Douglas Hofstadter argues that mirror neurons – cluster of neurons that help connect us emotionally to other people, respond sympathetically towards others and allow us to anticipate others intentions – have an additional function as part of an internal ‘vortex of control, communication and feedback’ that arrives at the preset goal that we call conscious self-awareness. He goes on to argue that the more self-referentially aware a mind is – the more it self-mirrors – i.e. the more conscious it becomes.

The cybernetics of happiness

Happiness is a matter of attention – of choice – and most important to the dynamic of happiness is – the what, the target/goal – rather than – the how, the path. The frontal lobes of the brain focus attention on what is to be learned while the subconscious mind in part located in a deeper brain structure called the midbrain delivers the drive to achieve it. The idea of focused attention together with the discovery of mirror neurons in the brain is radically altering our understanding of improving self-regulation by providing new opportunities to learn how brains pay attention in real world settings and acquire healthy habits to reduce or prevent needless suffering not only in others but also in ourselves.

Mental health and well-being

In his bestselling positive psychology book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life Martin Seligman insists that in order to protect yourself from being swamped by failure you must have a compelling goal, something that drives you forward. While this may sound obvious and not particularly insightful, goal-setting involves overcoming some very natural inclinations. When you have clear goals in mind defeat cannot be seen as permanent or in any way a reflection on you as a person.  Most problems we have are temporary and external but too often failure is taken personally. This is why having a compelling goal is so important to mental health.

Choose your goals carefully

The choice of goal is also important as mental health and well-being is facilitated when people ‘self-mirror’ with noble, self-empowering goals involving kindness, generosity and courage. Too often in life people set goals such as the accumulation of wealth/possessions, status and/or the pursuit of pleasure only to find disappointment. Pleasure is of the senses and leads to emotional exhaustion while happiness is a by-product of focussed attention on a compelling and self-empowering goal.

It is important to develop the skill of goal setting and apply it to all aspects of your life.

In the end the happiest person is someone who has become their goals.


What Is Neuroplasticity?

Not so long ago many scientists believed that the brain didn’t change after childhood – that it was hard-wired and fixed by the time we became adults – but recent advances in only the last decade now tell us that this is not true. The brain can and does change throughout our lives. It is adaptable, like plastic – hence the term “neuroplasticity.”

Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses which are due to changes in behavior, environment and neural processes, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury. Learn more about neuroplasticity in this short video.

Weekly Neuroscience Update


Keeping mentally active by reading books or writing letters helps protect the brain in old age, a study suggests.

The rate and extent of damage to the spinal cord and brain following spinal cord injury have long been a mystery. Now new research has found evidence that patients already have irreversible tissue loss in the spinal cord within 40 days of injury. The study, published in the journal Lancet Neurology, used a new imaging , developed at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging (UCL). This enables the impact of therapeutic treatments and rehabilitative interventions to be determined more quickly and directly.

UCSF neuroscientists have found that by training on attention tests, people young and old can improve brain performance and multitasking skills.

Researchers are striving to understand the different genetic structures that underlie at least a subset of autism spectrum disorders. In cases where the genetic code is in error, did that happen anew in the patient, perhaps through mutation or copying error, or was it inherited? A new study in the American Journal of Human Genetics finds evidence that there may often be a recessive, inherited genetic contribution in autism with significant intellectual disability.

A specific brain disruption is present both in individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia and those with bipolar disorder, adding to evidence that many mental illnesses have biological similarities.

Weekly Round Up



Is the internet changing the way we think?

In this week’s round-up of the latest discoveries in the field of neuroscience – the evolutionary nature of the brain, how blind people see with their ears, the neuroscience of humour, and how the internet is changing the way we think.

Interesting post on the evolutionary nature of the brain here

Scientists say they have discovered a “maintenance” protein that helps keep nerve fibres that transmit messages in the brain operating smoothly. The University of Edinburgh team says the finding could improve understanding of disorders such as epilepsy, dementia, MS and stroke.

Neuropsychologist, Dr. Olivier Collignon has proved that some blind people can “see” with their ears.  He compared the brain activity of people who can see and people who were born blind, and discovered that the part of the brain that normally works with our eyes to process vision and space perception can actually rewire itself to process sound information instead.

A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that we have much more control over our minds, personalities and personal illnesses than was ever believed to exist before, and it is all occurring at the same time that a flood of other research is exposing the benefits of humor on brain functioning. Nichole Force has written  a post in Psych Central on Humor, Neuroplasticity and the Power To Change Your Mind.

And finally, is the internet changing the way we think? American writer Nicholas Carr believes so and his claims that the internet is not only shaping our lives but physically altering our brains has sparked a debate in the Guardian.

Sign your name across your brain

THE LATEST OECD survey reveals that almost one-quarter of Irish 15-year-olds are below the level of literacy needed to participate effectively in society. How can this be after unprecedented investment in Irish schools in the past decade?*

Research in neuroeducation – the brain science of learning  suggests that something is lost in switching from book to computer screen, and from pen to keyboard. Neuroeducation may help to explain the reported decline in literary – particularly writing – skills observed in students over the past decade.

When it comes to learning – the pen is mightier than the keyboard

Do you remember that diary you so assiduously kept or that pen pal you wrote to? Little did you know then, but the mere act of picking up a pen and writing makes you smarter.  The answer may be that reading and writing involves a number of the senses. When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of manipulating the pencil to form words on paper. This nerve activity is significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard. This explains why a written signature carries so much weight in the legal and business world – because it reflects the wiring unique to that brain.

The knack to learning is – learning by doing

The trick to all learning is to create an enriched physical learning environment by employing as many of the five senses as possible – seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling – in your learning.  Thus, when writing by hand, the movements involved leave behind a kind of motor memory in the sensorimotor part of the brain, which helps us recognize letters. This implies a nerve connection between reading and writing, and suggests that the sensorimotor system plays a role in the process of visual recognition during reading. This nerve connection is weak or absent in keyboard typing.

Work it out – with pen and paper

In addition, writing involves more ‘doing’ than that observed for keyboard typing and the ‘doing’ actually reinforces the learning process by helping us focus on the task at hand and strengthening the nerve connections. Furthermore, brain scans of avid writers show an activation of Brocas area – a language centre within the brain – while little or no activation of this area is observed in those who had learned by typing on keyboards.

Awaken the living roots in your head – with your pen

The poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney – a master craftsman of the written word – was not far off the mark in his poem ‘Digging’. The poem takes the form of a promise from the poet to his father and grandfather, whose lives were, spent literally digging the soil. In this short poem Heaney acknowledges that he is not a farmer, and will not follow their vocation. But at the start of his career, he vows to translate their virtues into another kind of work:

 The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.


 *Irish students drop in rankings for literacy and maths, Irish Times, Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The neuroscience of emotions

Google Tech Talks
September 16, 2008


The ability to recognize and work with different emotions is fundamental to psychological flexibility and well-being. Neuroscience has contributed to the understanding of the neural bases of emotion, emotion regulation, and emotional intelligence, and has begun to elucidate the brain mechanisms involved in emotion processing. Of great interest is the degree to which these mechanisms demonstrate neuroplasticity in both anatomical and functional levels of the brain.

Speaker: Dr. Phillippe Goldin

Stroke recovery boosted by Prozac

Stroke is the third biggest killer disease in Ireland – over 2,000 people die per year – causing more deaths than breast cancer, prostate cancer and bowel cancer combined. Up to 10,000 people will suffer a stroke in Ireland this year and one in five people will have a stroke at some time in their life.

An unexpected new finding for antidepressant drugs and a very important one.

Findings from the largest study of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and stroke report that giving stroke patients the antidepressant drug Prozac soon after the event helps their recovery from paralysis. A total of 118 French patients were involved in the study. The beneficial effects of the drug – more improvement in movement and greater independence – were seen after three months – helping patients gain independence. This finding suggests that this already licensed drug – also known as fluoxetine – could have a dual benefit in the treatment of acute ischemic stroke – that’s where blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain are impaired.

Antidepressant drugs can help neurons to grow

One theory about how antidepressants may help brains recover more quickly from stroke is that they encourage neurogenesis – the creation of new neurons – in particular in the hippocampus – a brain region implicated in emotion especially anxiety – an emotion which can wear down even the most resilient person.

The ability of antidepressant drugs to increase neuron growth and connections – brain plasticity – is a promising pathway for treatment of patients with ischemic stroke and moderate to severe motor deficit. It’s a controversial theory and so far it only appears to hold true in young mice. In middle-aged and older mice, no such neurogenesis was observed – so there may be another mechanisms operating. 

One thing is for sure – it’s an important finding and I hope we’ll see more work on this.

The neuroscience of music

I am interested in ongoing research focusing on the effects of music training on the nervous system, and have given some talks on the subject over the past few years. It is also very interesting to note from recent studies that music training has implications for neuroeducation.

Research from Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory strongly suggests that an active engagement with musical sounds not only enhances neuroplasticity, but also enables the nervous system to provide the stable scaffolding of meaningful patterns so important to learning.

According to Northwestern’s Professor Nina Kraus, director of  Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory “The brain is unable to process all of the available sensory information from second to second, and thus must selectively enhance what is relevant,” Kraus said. Playing an instrument primes the brain to choose what is relevant in a complex process that may involve reading or remembering a score, timing issues and coordination with other musicians.”

Again, I am most interested to note that in Northwestern’s research shows that children who are musically trained have a better vocabulary and reading ability than children who did not receive music training.

Furthermore Professor Kraus says that “Music training seems to strengthen the same neural processes that often are deficient in individuals with developmental dyslexia or who have difficulty hearing speech in noise.”

Professor Kraus argues for proper investment of resources in music training in schools: “The effect of music training suggests that, akin to physical exercise and its impact on body fitness, music is a resource that tones the brain for auditory fitness and thus requires society to re-examine the role of music in shaping individual development. ”

“Music training for the development of auditory skills,” by Nina Kraus and Bharath Chandrasekaran, will be published July 20 in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience.