Mirror Neurons Win Out

On my walk yesterday morning I found that at one stage my mirror neurons took over as I approached a woman hurrying towards me with a camera and pointing it up in the air. Then I saw another couple 25 yards away stopped and looking up as well. My mirror neurons would not be silent and I stopped and looked up.

Now, I knew we weren’t far from our osprey’s nest and the tree I was looking up at probably had her mate in, but I had to join in and stand and stare. This of course is a well-known effect and has just had another quantitative check by Gallup et al who have published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (1).

The new experiments were done in the busy streets of Oxford at lunchtime and at a commuter station. Over 3,000 pedestrians were tracked and the first type of experiment just entailed some plants stopping and looking up at a roof-top camera. The second type of experiment had a couple acting as though they were trying to discretely video people while one of them was taking copious notes – good conspiracy theory stuff.

The results showed that lunch ideas were tending to damp down mirror neuron activity. The bigger the group of planted starers, the more people tended to spend time also looking and about a dozen seemed to saturate the interest of the hungry crowd. However, the starers didn’t cause the crowd to crystalize so that they all stopped to stare.

Being English, the people in the crowd were more likely to look if the others who were looking would be unable to see that they were also looking. And as for staring at people doing suspicious things in a commuter station, that would be really bad form. Nobody would want a “and what are you looking at?” response which is a standard precursor to a Donny Brook.
  1. Gallup et al, http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/04/18/1116141109.full.pdf

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