With the recent discovery of mirror neurons and the ongoing debate about if video games can lead to increased violence among youth, it is interesting to see that no studies have begun to look at the effect mirror neurons have on the violent tendencies of humans. Most of the mirror neuron research that has occurred thus far is about how these neurons could explain what makes humans human and how they are involved with empathy. According to Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, one of the leaders in mirror neuron research, “Mirror neurons can also enable you to imitate the movements of others” and this is what “liberates us from the constraints of a purely gene based evolution.”[i] Although Ramachandran clearly says mirror neurons enable us to imitate the movement of others, most of the research that pertains to mirror neurons is about empathy or autism. Can mirror neurons only cause humans to empathize and not cause humans to act more violently?
Video game violence is one of the most controversial topics today as research comes out saying that video game violence does lead to increased violence in youth, while other research finds the exact opposite or results inconclusive. In a recent study done by Iowa State researchers that was published in the April 2013 issue of Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, researchers concluded that there was a strong connection between the exposure to video game violence and aggression.[ii] Knowing that there are cells whose main job is to imitate makes it easier to believe that video game violence could cause teens to be more aggressive, yet research still has not come around to looking into this aspect of mirror neurons. There are several reasons for this; most say the lack of research stems from the fact that the concept of mirror neurons are so new while others believe that the idea is just being over-hyped by scientists.Dr. Christian Jarrett, a writer for Psychology Today argues that one of the biggest problems with idea of mirror neurons is that they “are quite clearly capable of understanding actions that we are unable to perform.”[iii] This argument would make sense as to why mirror neurons would not be responsible for violent actions as a result of the media or violent video games. A person can understand how to commit a violent act even though they may think it is impossible for them to actually perform such an act. For example, a person understands how to push someone down a flight of stairs, but they would never actually be able to do that.
Mirror neurons would not have been a factor looked at 15 years ago because they had not yet been discovered. Since they are newly discovered, there is still disagreement among the scientific community as to the extent to which mirror neurons contribute to our understanding of the world. For example, Dr. Marco Iacoboni, another leader in the field of mirror neuron research says that it enables “an understanding from within”[iv] while University of California-Irvine scientist Dr. Gregory Hickok argues that mirror neurons main function are not about understanding another person’s actions but seeing those actions and being able to make our own choice as to how to act.[v] So, although it would seem like common sense just to say that mirror neurons would have a connection to the on going debate about video game violence and violence in youth, there is still too much unknown about them at this time to do research.
Eventually, the next logical step would be to look at what role, if any, mirror neurons might have in violence among youth.There is a lot scientists still do not know about mirror neurons and I think as time progresses they will eventually look into mirror neurons connection with violence and not just the positive attribute of empathy. In an interview with Scientific American Dr. Iacoboni does acknowledge that “there is convincing behavioral evidence linking media violence with imitative violence”and that “mirror neurons provide a plausible neurobiological mechanism that explains why being exposed to media violence leads to imitative violence.”[vi] Although he makes this acknowledgement no research has been done into violence and mirror neurons as of this time. What mirror neurons do definitively show is that many of the questions we seek answers to cannot be answered because there are many things still unknown about the human body, especially in the brain.
[i] Ramachandran, V.S. (2000) Mirror Neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind “the great leap forward” in human evolution. Retrieved from http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/ramachandran/ramachandran_p1.html
[ii] M. DeLisi, M. G. Vaughn, D. A. Gentile, C. A. Anderson, J. J. Shook. Violent Video Games, Delinquency, and Youth Violence: New Evidence. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 2012; 11 (2): 132
[iii] Jarrett, C. (2012, December 10). Mirror Neurons: The Most Hyped Concept in Neuroscience? Psychology Today. doi: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-myths/201212/mirror-neurons-th...
[vi] Lehrer, J. (Interviwer) & Iacoboni, M. (Interviewee). (2008). The Mirror Neuron Revolution: Explaining What Makes Human Social [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from Scientific American Web site: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-mirror-neuron-revolut