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Books of Giacomo Rizzolatti

I Know What You Are Doing

The Acting Brain and Mirror Neurons

di Giacomo Rizzolatti, Corrado Sinigaglia

publisher: Raffaello Cortina Editore

pages: 226

In the early 1990’s, while studying the activity of single neurons in the premotor cortex of monkeys, Giacomo Rizzolatti and his coworkers at the University of Parma discovered that some neurons of this area (today known as mirror neurons) had a surprising property. They respond not only when the monkey performed a given action, but also when the animal observed the researcher (or another monkey) performing that same action. In the following years, many monkey experiments specified the mechanism of mirror neurons and their possible functions. In addition, brain imaging and other non-invasive techniques demonstrated that a mirror neuron system is present also in humans. These results had a deep impact on cognitive neuroscience. In essay written on the occasion of the beginning of the new millenium, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran predicted that “mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology”. The unexpected properties of these neurons have not only attracted the attention of neuroscientists. Many sociologists, anthropologists and even artists have been fascinated by mirror neurons. The great director and playwright Peter Brook stated that mirror neurons throw new light on the mysterious link that is created each time actors take the stage and face their audience.  The present book provides, for the first time, an accessible and systematic overview of the theoretical issues and experimental work behind the extraordinary discovery of mirror neurons. From the first pages, the reader will discover how certain areas of the brain – traditionally labelled “motor” areas – have much more complex properties than believed in the past. The motor system – or, as the authors prefer to call it, the acting brain – plays an essential role in perceiving and understanding the objects that surround us. This  “sensorimotor understanding” is very different from conceptual and linguistic knowledge. Nevertheless, it plays a fundamental role in cognition and represents the basis for a variety of cognitive skills. The view that perception, action and cognition cannot be considered as separate entities is clearly shown by the properties of mirror neurons. When we see someone grasping a piece of food and bringing it to his or her mouth, we immediately know what that person is doing. We do not need to resort to reasoning. Our mirror system automatically codes the visual information from the scene in terms of action, and because that action is part of our motor repertoire, we immediately grasp its meaning.  In other terms, we perceive the observed action as if we were doing it. This is also true for actions that require particular motor skills, such as those of a pianist or a dancer. The sight of an artist playing or dancing activates in the brain of the observers the same areas that respond when they themselves carry out the same actions. Not only actions, however, are immediately shared. We are linked to others also by emotions. Each of us knows how contagious are fear, disgust, as well as joy. In the past, many reasons were given in order to explain our ability for immediate empathy with others. Only now, however, we are beginning to understand that the various forms of emotional “resonance” are determined by specific, anatomically separated, mirror neuron systems. When we see someone moving away from a glass containing some liquid or from a plate with food with a grimace of disgust, we immediately react as if we were experiencing the disgust. This is indeed what occurs: the sight of an emotional reaction of another person activates, in our brain, the same cortical areas that are activated when we ourselves experience that emotion!

Mirroring Brains

How we Understand Others from the Inside

di Giacomo Rizzolatti, Corrado Sinigaglia

publisher: Raffaello Cortina Editore

pages: 180

"Since their discovery in the mid-1990’s, mirror neurons have been one of the most intriguing and hotly debated topic in an amazing variety of disciplines, ranging from cognitive neuroscience and psychology to philosophy and anthropology. For this reason, we decided 10 years ago to write a book together in order to describe the functional properties of these apparently ‘magic’ neurons. The book had a great and long lasting success, with several translations in other languages. However, over the last few years a great deal of findings provided a much more detailed picture about the extent of mirror neurons and their properties. Indeed, mirror neurons have been found in very different species and in very different brain structures. And several studies suggested that they may function in a much more complex way than previously thought. This lead some scholars to advance doubts about the actual role of these neurons in cognition. Thus, a great challenge seems to urge anyone who is interested in the mirror story today, that is, providing a unitary account of the mirror mechanism and demonstrating whether and to what extent it might be involved in social cognition. Tackling this challenge is the main aim of this book. In doing this, we explore the properties of the mirror mechanism in both the action and emotion domains, by introducing and discussing some of the more recent and relevant findings. We also take in consideration what psychologists and psychiatrics variously labelled as vitality affects or forms.  Our main claim is that the mirror mechanism may provide an understanding of others’ actions, emotions and affects which can be mainly exploited just in ways that depend one’s own processes and representations involved in those actions, emotions and affects. What we think about others’ minds would be different if it were not for our abilities to represent our own actions, emotions and affects. The lack of these abilities may result in social impairment. This is the reason why we define the mirror-based understanding as an understanding from the inside. Such an understanding is not without consequences for our experiencing others. Indeed, it suggests that there are plausible aspects of phenomenal character that are common to experiences of our own and others’ actions, emotions and vitality forms, given that both experiences are shaped by the same processes and representations, or so we argue and provide evidence for".The Authors

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