Mirror Neurons and Human Violence

Part 1 of The Art of Violence series

We hear this a lot: we humans are even worse than animals because we murder one another.

That’s a half-truth. It’s true that animals don’t murder one another, at least not very often, and humans do. The other half of the truth is that humans have created entire institutions to avoid violence at all costs. So, give humans some credit.

Still, the question remains: why do humans murder one another? Why do fights escalate so quickly? Why do we take revenge? And why don’t animals do this?

For millennia, we’ve had spiritual answers to these questions. “We’re fallen”, or “we’re cursed.” These are loaded terms. Unfortunately for us, we’re so far removed from the sacred that terms like these are reduced to mere superstition, and the “educated” mind has a hard time understanding the meaning behind them. But neuroscience and the discovery of mirror neurons can help us out.

The Discovery of Mirror Neurons

Giacomo Rizzolatti discovered mirror neurons first in the macaque monkey. They were looking for the neuron in the monkey’s brain that was responsible for grabbing a banana. They found it, put a probe there, the monkey grabbed a banana, and a machine beeped. Then a scientist grabbed a banana, and the machine beeped again. The monkey, perceiving someone performing the grasping, thought (however minimally) that it was grabbing the banana. (Read: Rizzolatti’s Mirrors in the Brain)

After some more tests, Rizzolatti discovered a large network of mirror neurons in the macaque monkey. Then his team discovered even more in the human brain. If you stick your tongue out at a newborn baby, he’ll stick his tongue out at you. This isn’t rational, and it’s not instinct. It’s pure mimicry in his mirror neuron system. Hi-5s work the same way soon after in development. Eventually he’ll copy your thumbs-up gesture. The neuron network develops from the tongue “outward”.

Meltzoff and Moore (1977)

Mirror neurons create simulations in our brains when we perceive the intentions of others. When we see a man teetering on the ledge of a cliff, we lose our breath momentarily. Our neurons mirror his, creating a simulation of his intentions in our minds. It’s like we’re him. That’s how a baby perceives his mother: he and his mother are one. The concept of the I doesn’t emerge until 2-3 years old, when the mirror neuron system is mostly developed and begins taking on a “mind of its own” (the ego).

Mimicking Intent, Not Action

As developed humans, we don’t simply copy the movements of others. If we did, we’d never get anything done. Instead, we mimic intentions. Mimicry is context-dependent. If we see a clean table set, and a hand grabs a cup, we’ll assume the intention is to drink from the cup. A dirty table set, cleaning up. The hand may even take the same shape, but the difference in intention will fire a different neuron cluster. Intention is everything.

When someone performs an action, we load the intent into our mirror neuron centers. Then we have two, usually unconscious, choices. In this article we’ll focus on the decision to act on the intent load.

Action Understanding

In a martial arts class, we copy the teacher’s punches thousands of times. In the end, we learn how to punch. By acting on the intent load, we strengthen the circuit between the neuron and our motor system. But something else is happening without our knowing it: we’re learning how to read punches. Every time you punch, you twist your foot slightly, and your hips move a bit, and one shoulder goes back. You’re mostly unaware of this, but that’s how every human body must move to do this punch. By doing this thousands of times, you can see that movement in your opponents. So when the shoulder moves in that certain way, you know a punch is coming. This is called action understanding and it’s how Muhammad Ali could read the minds of his opponents.

Muhammad Ali’s action understanding was master class

This “mind reading” is just action understanding taken to its logical ends. This is why “doers” make better critics than academics. Charles Barkley will always be a better basketball critic than an armchair sportscaster.

We’re sparring in our martial arts class now. The opponent lunges at us with a punch, we create that simulation in our minds, and if we’re properly trained we block or dodge. If we’re not trained, we don’t have the action-understanding necessary to defend ourselves, and the data is stored in memory without a proper outlet. Either we develop the action understanding necessary to release the intent load, or it’s stored as trauma until we have a proper resolution.

So, we’ve decided to act on the intent load. We punch back. There’s a back and forth. Martial arts class is a good place to test the mirror neuron system. Our teacher then sits us all down at the end of class. A good teacher will say, “Don’t go using this in the streets.” A bad teacher says we’re ready for war. Why aren’t we ready for war? Animals fight and get things done, so why can’t we?

Animal Combat vs. Human Combat

Animal combat is like our sparring class. When the opponent is coy and hides his right hand from view, we know he’s trying to conceal a punch. In our sparring class, all the variables are well know. Our opponent’s weapons are 2 hands, 2 feet, and in some classes his elbows and knees. He’s outfitted with appropriate defensive gear – groin cup, maybe shin and forearm pads, probably a helmet. The equation is 100% transparent to both combatants.

This is exactly how animals of the same species enter into combat: “I know he’s got hands, his teeth, the claws on his feet, and a thick coat I won’t be able to claw through.” Animals within a species generally aren’t able to kill one another with their natural weapons, and they don’t try to. They load all these intents and eagerly enter battle with one another, knowing that they (probably) won’t die. This is a closed altercation.

If we take our martial arts training to the real world, a different scenario unfolds. Our opponent hides his hand. Do we think he’s hiding a punch now? He could have anything. In an open altercation, at least one combat variable is totally unknown.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus

This is a key difference between humans and animals: humans use tools, animals don’t. When humans enter an open altercation, neither side knows whether he’ll get stoned, shot, stabbed, etc. Either we back down and avoid certain death, or we escalate just in case and stone, shoot, or stab first.

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

If we train ourselves in a hostile open altercation environment, we begin to suspect anybody with his hand in his pocket is hiding a weapon. We automatically assume the worst in otherwise normal situations. This is PTSD.

Rene Girard got us only so far with Violence and the Sacred with his research on violent escalation, but he couldn’t give the why. Now we have a neurological reason for why humans escalate to extremes.

An open altercation might not end there. The victim’s cousin might take revenge. Then our cousins will take revenge. Then his entire family will avenge them. Eventually we realize we’ve started a civil war.

The Contagion of Violence

Our ancestors understood civil war so well that the very threat of violence and bloodshed took on a character of its own. Violence was rightly seen as a contagion that threatened to destroy all of humanity. The CDC issued a report that said gun violence acts like a plague. They were wrong: all human violence acts like a plague.

Image by Catherine Yang

Many of us wish to believe we’re above violence, but nobody is free from the constraints of the mirror neuron system. When we witness violent intentions, we load it. There’s no choice made. No matter how gifted or enlightened, this is what humans do automatically. Our celebrities and politicians present “rational” resolutions for this problem at every turn. Our ancestors had amazing resolutions to this issue, which will have to be covered in another article. Action cinema and gaming is not far from what they created. But when our leaders decry rituals as savage, imperialist, or simply stupid, they deliberately cover up the reality that humans are cursed by this. We are fallen, and this is what defines human violence.

Continue to Part 2 of The Art of Violence series
The Blood-Ritual Spectrum