As a young boy growing up in rural England, I was blessed with the somewhat unusual combination of truly terrible behavior and very high school grades. Every year my report card would have virtually the same comment from all of my teachers. It usually read something like this: “He is a gifted individual with a natural aptitude for learning. If only he would buckle down in class…”
A few years ago, after many years of living in Japan, I returned to my home country, Venezuela, and an elderly family friend gave me a welcome home present. When I started to thank her, I unconsciously also did something that incited in her the most puzzled look I have probably ever seen in my life: I was bowing. You see, we Latin Americans do not normally bow.
A lot of people probably still believe that the computer remains the best metaphor we have for the brain, indeed some people may even think that the brain is quite literally computer-like. This notion can be linked to the computational theory of mind, often associated with the philosopher Jerry Fodor (see this Stanford article for a long review), and in linguistics, probably with Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. However, arguments against this theory have been building up since the late 1980s, in particular from theories of embodied or simulated cognition, also associated with extended or distributed cognition.
The brain and computer are two everyday words for concepts that widely capture the imagination of so many people by their complexity and intelligent design and have been bed partners in an enduring metaphor since the 1940s. These two concepts are so intricately interconnected in language and thought that it is hard to imagine one without imagining the other. For instance, the electrical currents of a computer are similar to the action potentials of neurons firing in the brain.
In 1992, Rizzolatti and a team of researchers at the University of Parma attached sensors to Macaque monkey motor neurons to map muscle-motor interactions. Then, as the story goes (Taylor, 2016), during a break, one of the researchers started eating lunch in the same room. The monitors started showing an odd pattern. Whenever the researcher grasped his lunch and lifted it for a bite, the neurons in the monkeys’ brains for the same grasping and lifting actions fired as well, as if they were doing the eating. In that way, mirror neurons were discovered.