In today’s post, I am looking at the ideas inspired by mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a class of neurons that activate when someone engages in an activity or when they observe the same activity being performed by someone else. It was first identified by a group of Italian neurophysiologists led by Giacomo Rizzolatti in the 1980s. They were studying macaque monkeys. As part of their research, they placed electrodes in the monkeys’ brains to study hand and mouth motions. The story goes that the electrodes sent signals when the monkeys observed the scientists eating peanuts. The same neurons that fired when the monkeys were eating peanuts fired when they merely observed the same action. Several additional studies indicate that the mirror neurons are activated to respond to goal-oriented actions. For example, when the scientist covered the peanut bowl, and performed the action of picking a peanut and eating, the mirror neurons still fired even though the monkeys could not see the peanut bowl. However, when the scientist simply mimicked the action of taking a peanut without a peanut bowl, the neurons did not fire. There have been several hypotheses regarding the mirror neurons such as they facilitate learning by copying, and that they are the source for empathy.
The most profound idea about mirror neurons is that action execution and action observation are tightly coupled. Our ability to interpret or comprehend other’s actions involve our own motor system. For example, when we observe someone doing an action, depending upon whether we have performed the action adds depth to how we can observe the action being performed. If I am watching a ballet and the ballerina performs a difficult move, I may not fully grasp what I have seen since I do not know ballet and because I have never performed it. However, if I watch a spin bowler in Cricket throwing an off-spin, I will be able to grasp it better and possibly tell how the ball is going to spin. This is because I have played a lot of Cricket as a youth. The same with a magician performing a sleight of hand.
The idea of mirror neurons brings an extra depth to the meaning of going to the gemba. Going to gemba is a key tenet of Toyota Production System. We go to the gemba, where the action is, to grasp the current situation. We go there to observe. Gemba, it is said, is our best teacher. When we go there to observe the work being performed, we may get a different experience depending upon whether we ourselves have performed the work or not. Heinz von Foerster, the Socrates of Cybernetics, said – if you want to see, learn how to act. He was talking about the circular loop of sensorium and motorium. In order to see, there has to be interaction between the sensorium and motorium.
In a similar way, Kiichiro Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Motor Corporation is said to have remarked that engineers would never amount to anything unless they had to wash their hands at least three times a day; the evidence they were getting their hands dirty from real work.
I will finish with a great advice from Taiichi Ohno:
Don’t look with your eyes, look with your feet. Don’t think with your head, think with your hands.
Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was The Extended Form of the Law of Requisite Variety:
Image Reference – Now You See It. Now You Don’t (Bill Tarr)