Significance of mirror neurons in visual culture in an intercultural setting

TitleSignificance of mirror neurons in visual culture in an intercultural setting
Publication TypeConference Paper
Author(s)Herdin, T.
Affiliation (1st Author)University of Salzburg, Austria
Section or WGVisual Culture Working Group
DateThurs 27 June
Slot CodeVIST3a
Slot Code (Keyword)VIST3a
Time of Session14:00-15:30
RoomHelix - The Gallery
Session TitleVisual Narrative and Interactivity
Submission ID4572

The discovery of mirror neurons marks a major scientific advance, with exciting possibilities for the field of psychology (Ramachandran 2000). Rizzolatti and his colleagues identified neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys (histological area called F5) that were activated not only when the monkeys performed an action but also when they merely observed one (Rizzolatti et al. 1996). Further research clearly showed that humans have a similar “mirror neuron” system. Mirror neurons “allow understanding of actions made by others… Every time we observe an action made by another individual, we are able to understand its goal because the observed action is matched on our internal representation of it” (Fogassi & Ferrari 2004: 350). To a certain extent, then, mirror neurons are therefore the neural basis of communication, creating “a direct link between the sender of a message and its receiver” (Rizzolatti & Craighero 2004: 183).This discovery can have significant impact for the field of communication studies, even it has rarely been taken up or discussed. Especially in the field of visual and nonverbal communication, the processing of images is based on neurological activities (cognitive neuroscience), and responding to visual images and symbols is neither conscious nor logical. It is a form of action that involves understanding in an unconsciousness way. To a certain degree, mirror neurons give rise to a form of empathy – and the ability to understand and even experience what others feel is central to interpersonal communication.But precisely these findings also point up the problematique of mutual understanding in the field of intercultural communication. Symbols and codes of nonverbal communication (in the sense of symbolic interactionism) are deeply culturally embedded. Not only may nonverbal gestures be decoded in ways not intended by the sender, the visual decoding process may lead to erroneous interpretation when the “wrong” mirror neurons are activated (“firing”). Take for example the smile. In Southeast Asian countries there exists an elaborate array of facial expressions regarding “smiling”. As many as 13 ways of “smiling”’ have been detected that are not congruent with common Western meanings. Thus it should come as no surprise that many Eastern smiles (e.g. the “I-beg-to-disagree-with-you” smile) can in a critical situation result in wrong interpretations by Western counterparts (e.g. “that person is smiling, and thus is not taking this seriously”). In neurological terms, the “wrong” neurons are firing, and the result is necessarily a misunderstanding.My presentation has a threefold structure. The first part provides a brief introduction to current knowledge of mirror neurons regarding the human mind. The second part discusses the relevance of mirror neurons for processes of communication. In the third part I outline the challenges to the field of visual and intercultural communication by providing examples, and offer some suggestions for circumventing apparent barriers to mutual understanding.

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