People enjoy learning new things at any age. Mental activity makes them happy and healthy. If the brain works properly owing to the continuous process of intensive cognition, we do not need to spend so much money on the treatment of people suffering from various diseases because of “lazy” dying neurons. There is less violence and criminality caused by mental frustration. If a man’s mind is occupied with learning the new skills or the new subject he likes, he has no desire to take revenge on the society: his mind is busy with positive things, and he is mentally satisfied. Cognitive and creative needs govern human behaviour in many ways. Our cognition is based on critical and comparative thinking which is reflected in neurophysiological processes: ToM, mirror neurons, empathic reaction. We cannot but compare everything all the time in order to understand and critically evaluate human behaviour and circumstances. The desire to learn, to criticize, and to compare is inborn. However, what can we see in our real life? Political protesters are sent to prison for criticizing huge inequality of incomes and corruptive governments. Meanwhile, it is their human nature to compare, criticize, and make moral assessments according to inborn moral values. It is also their human nature that forces people to fight for free education accessible for all because cognition is as necessary for mental survival as food for a body. The problem is that socio-politico-economic systems are mostly built on the basis of human biological needs ignoring the nature of human mentality.
Let's take the Chilean Education Conflict in 2011-2013. The students in Chile put forward the following demands in the protests known as the Chilean Education Conflict:
1. Free education funded by the state at all levels and equal opportunity to have good higher education independent from families’ incomes. Higher education of young people from poor families will help to overcome the inequality gap in the country.
2. The law must be passed against getting any profit in education. There must be no market principles in this sphere. Education must be considered as a public good and social investment, but not merely as an individual’s benefit. Education is a human right and it must be guaranteed by the Constitution.
3. The higher education must be recognized by the State as the foundation for the social, cultural, educational, humanistic, economic, scientific and technological development. The national plan must be worked out in order to attract talented teachers by raising their status and salary.
4. The right of taking decisions in the educational sphere must belong to the society, which will define the educational policies independent from any current government.
5. Education must be pluralistic. There must be a free public access to sources of information and knowledge, enabling a comprehensive and critical treatment of issues with a diversity of opinions, visions, and disciplines. The generation and transmission of knowledge in public institutions must exclude any dogmatic and indoctrinating practices. Education must be based on such values as solidarity, tolerance, equality, social fairness, and the protection of environment, identity, and cultural and historical roots of the society. Education must create as many critically minded people engaged in intellectual work as possible (News: Bases para un acuerdo social por la educación chilena, 2011).
In Great Britain there was a series of students’ demonstrations in 2010-2011. It was a mass protest against the rise of tuition fees. Sally Hunt, the general secretary of UCU, said that the decision of the government about the rise of fees would be “the final nail in the coffin of affordable university education and the end of genuine choice of degree for thousands of people. The rest of the world is investing in education yet we’re doing the opposite” (News: Killing affordable university education: Degree costs triple in two decades, 2010), and that the rise of fees for education and at the same time “slashing taxes for big businesses whilst telling the public we’re all in this together exposes the government’s true agenda” (News: London: Thousands of students to march in protest over fees rise, 2010).
Aaron Porter, the president of NUS (National Union of Students) declared, “We will fight back against attempts to dismantle the funded education system we desperately need for economic recovery, social mobility, and cultural enrichment. The Government’s short-sighted and self-defeating cuts to colleges and universities must be resisted and that resistance begins now” (Porter, NUS, 2011). On the website of NUS there are three principles of the Union: equality, democracy and collectivism. The ideal for the majority of people has not changed since the time of the French revolution in 1789: “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” because these things are inborn human moral values of social organization.
(in Nina Slanevskaya “Brain, Mind and Social Factors”, St. Petersburg, Centre for Interdisciplinary Neuroscience, 2014)
What are inborn human neuronal mechanisms involved in comparative and critical thinking?
(1) Mirror neurons. (click the image to enlarge)
At the beginning of the 1990s, Rizzolatti and his colleagues discovered a special class of neurons in the frontal cortex of the macaque monkey, which got activated when monkeys observed the actions of an experimenter who manipulated with objects (Rizzolatti et al., 1996). These neurons were called mirror neurons because they mirrored the observed actions at the neuronal level. Later, the other areas of mirror neurons were found in the brain. Our mirror neurons are involved in observing movements and emotions of other people, and this reaction is automatic (Hass-Cohen, 2008; Buccino et al., 2004). If someone eats something sour and winces, an observing person involuntarily winces. Even the diminishing pupil size is mirrored by the observer’s own pupil size (Harrison, Singer, Rotshtein, Dolan, Critchley, 2006). Ramachandran asserts that the significance of the discovery of mirror neurons for psychology is equal to the discovery of DNA for biology: the mirror neurons can provide the uniform framework for the explanation of many mental operations and capabilities, which have been inexplicable so far (Ramachandran, 2000).
While mirror neurons help us to copy movements and acquire new skills, our empathic reaction, and the Theory of Mind play an important role in social communication.
(2) Empathic reaction and the Theory of Mind.
The Theory of Mind (ToM) is a human ability to guess what the other man thinks and feels in certain circumstances (Christian, 2008; Frith, C.D., Frith, U., 1999). Meanwhile, the empathic reaction is a human ability to feel what the other feels (Christian, 2008; Gallese, 2003; Botvinick, Jha, Bylsma, Fabian, Solomon, Prkachin, 2005; Singer, Frith, 2005). Both the abilities are inborn, automatic, and unconscious. Many processes and neuronal networks engaged in ToM are similar to those that form the emphatic reaction, though there are some peculiarities.
Analysing the literature on empathy and Theory of Mind Matthew Lieberman and Tania Singer points out two main hypotheses (Lieberman, 2007; Singer, 2006):
(1) empathy and ToM must have some neuronal mechanism; our own experience is the basis for both the empathic reaction and the construction of the Theory of Mind. It could be impossible to understand other people without our own experience;
(2) empathy and ToM are based on mirror neurons. It is the mirror neurons which provide us with the ability of automatic reflection of mental and emotional states of observed people (Gallese, Goldman, 1998).
The neuroscientists supporting the first hypothesis object to the neuroscientists supporting the second hypothesis saying that imitation can take place without understanding, and that, perhaps, mirror neurons play an important role only in nonverbal communication (gestures, the expression of the face, the position of the body).
Unfortunately, as Singer remarks, the discovery of mirror neurons does not answer the question what is the mechanism of the transition of the other’s sensory experience into our sensory experience without the irritation of peripheral neurons that transmit the command to the brain about sensory stimulation (mirror neurons) (Singer, 2006). Or how can someone’s feeling of sadness transfer into our knowledge of it if we are not sad at all (empathic reaction)? Or how can psychopaths easily guess the intention of the other one and know about the feelings and emotions of the other one without feeling the same by themselves (Theory of Mind)? What are the mechanisms?
Many neuroscientists agree that the following brain structures participate in ToM: superior temporal sulcus, anterior cingulate gyrus, parietal cortex and prefrontal cortex (Brune, Brune-Cohrs, 2006). It was discovered that four-year-old children begin to understand and predict what the other child can think due to the Theory of Mind (Frith, C.D., Frith, U., 1999). If a child does not want to give his toy to his brother, or sister, he will hide it while they are out. However, children who suffer from autism can create ToM only at the age of 8-12.
Samson and colleagues distinguish two phases in ToM (Samson et al., 2005):
(1) the ability of blocking your own perspective and experience;
(2) the ability to guess other’s perspective.
Rebecca Richell and her colleagues point out that neuroscientists try to answer the question whether the worse ToM leads to aggressive behaviour and psychopathy because the person cannot understand what the other one thinks (ToM is bad), or because he cannot feel what the other one feels (empathic reaction is bad) (Richell et al., 2003). Richell and her colleagues have arrived at the conclusion that ToM of psychopaths is not damaged, but they use different neuronal architecture than non-psychopaths, thus their psychopathic behaviour must be explained by something else (Richell et al., 2003).
However, whatever achievements in neuroscience may be Tania Singer reminds us again that we cannot answer the main question how we transform what we see (visual experience) into ToM, and how our knowledge transforms further into what we should do and into motor commands and movements (Singer, Fehr, 2005). What are the mechanisms?
Perhaps, this question can be partially answered if we take a dualist position and admit the existence and interaction of two substances: mental and biological (material). In this case, the neuronal activation in the brain of an observing man is the result of the preceding mental interaction of two mental substances of the observing and observed men.
- Botvinick, M., Jha, A.P., Bylsma, L.M., Fabian, S.A., Solomon, P.E., Prkachin, K.M. (2005) “Viewing Facial Expressions of Pain Engages Cortical Areas Involved in the Direct Experience of Pain” in Neuroimage, 25: 312-19.
- Brune, M., Brune-Cohrs, U. (2006) Theory of Mind-evolution, Ontogeny, Brain Mechanism and Psychopathology” in Neuroscience Biobehavioral Review, 30(4): 437-455.
- Buccino, G., Binkofski, F., Riggio, L. (2004) “The Mirror Neuron System and Action Recognition” in Brain and Language, 89: 370-376.
- Christian, D. (2008) “The Cortex: Regulation of Sensory and Emotional Experience” in Noah Hass-Cohen and Richard Carr (eds.) Art Therapy and Clinical Neuroscience, London and Philadelphia, Jessica Kingsley Publishers: 62-75.
- Frith, C.D., Frith, U. (1999) “Interacting Minds: A Biological Basis” in Science, Vol. 286, No. 5445: 1692-1695.
- Gallese, V. (2003) “The Roots of Empathy: The Shared Manifold Hypothesis and the Neural Basis of Intersubjectivity” in Psychopathology, 36: 171-180.
- Gallese, V., Goldman, A. (1998) “Mirror Neurons and the Simulation Theory of Mind-Reading” in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2(12): 493-501.
- Harrison, N., Singer, T., Rotshtein, P., Dolan, R., Critchley, H. (2006) “Pupillary Contagion: Central Mechanisms Engaged in Sadness Processing” in SCAN, 1: 5-7.
- Hass-Cohen, N. (2008) “CREATE: Art Therapy Relational Neuroscience Principles (ATR-N)” in Noah Hass-Cohen and Richard Carr (eds.) Art Therapy and Clinical Neuroscience, London and Philadelphia, Jessica Kingsley Publishers: 283- 307.
- Lieberman, M. (2007) “Social Cognitive Neuroscience: A Review of Core Processes” in The Annual Review of Psychology, 58: 259-289.
- Ramachandran, V.S. (2000) “Mirror Neurons and Imitation Learning as the Driving Force Behind “the Great Leap Forward” in Human Evolution.
- Richell, R.A., Mitchell, D.G.V., Newman, C., Leonard, A., Baron-Cohen, S., Blair, R.J.R. (2003) “Theory of Mind and Psychopathy: Can Psychopathic Individuals Read the ‘Language of the Eyes’?” in Neuropsychologia, 41: 523-526.
- Rizzolatti, G., Fadiga, L., Gallese, V., Fogassi, L. (1996) “Premotor Cortex and the Recognition of Motor Actions” in Cognitive Brain Research, 3(2): 131-141Samson et al., 2005
- Singer, T. (2006) “The Neuronal Basis and Ontogeny of Empathy and Mind Reading: Review of Literature and Implications for Future Research” in Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews, 30: 855-863.
- Singer, T., Fehr, E. (2005) “The Neuroeconomics of Mind Reading and Empathy” in Neuroscientific Foundations of Economic Decision-making, AEA Papers and Proceedings, Vol. 95, No. 2: 340-345.
(in Nina Slanevskaya “Brain, Mind and Social Factors”, St. Petersburg, Centre for Interdisciplinary Neuroscience, 2014)