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

mirror-neuron1

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

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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

hofstadter

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.

 

University of Limerick medical graduates conferred

Pictured with Dr. Neasa Starr at UL Medical Graduation

Last Tuesday, 14 June, was an historic day in the life of the University of Limerick Graduate Entry Medical School  (GEMS) in which I am Foundation Head of Teaching and Research in Physiology.

Four years ago on September 10th we welcomed 32 students, from a variety of degree disciplines, to Limerick to study at Ireland’s first graduate entry medical school. Last week those students, who came from backgrounds as diverse as music, engineering, science, and education, were conferred with their Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degrees.

Last week’s conferring ceremony for students marks a number of firsts – the first medical school to be founded in Ireland in over 150 years, the first graduate entry medical school in Ireland, and the first to integrate problem based learning techniques into its four-year curriculum.

I join with all my colleagues at GEMS in wishing this cohort of new doctors every success in their future careers.