I have some opportunity to read some of the articles provided by Graeme Daniel wonderful WWWtool post and am fascinated by the implications.
The must read article is the "original" piece MIRROR NEURONS and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution by V.S. Ramachandran in the June 2000 issue of Edge. Ramachandran opens by asking a few puzzling questions:
1) The hominid brain reached almost its present size — and perhaps even its present intellectual capacity about 250,000 years ago . Yet many of the attributes we regard as uniquely human appeared only much later. [snip]
2) Crude "Oldawan" tools [snip] emerged 2.4 million ago and were probably made by Homo Habilis whose brain size was half way (700cc) between modern humans (1300) and chimps (400). After another million years of evolutionary stasis aesthetically pleasing "symmetrical" tools began to appear [snip] And lastly, the invention of stereotyped "assembly line" tools (sophisticated symmetrical bifacial tools) that were hafted to a handle, took place only 200,000 years ago. Why was the evolution of the human mind "punctuated" by these relatively sudden upheavals of technological change?
3) Why the sudden explosion (often called the "great leap" ) in technological sophistication, widespread cave art, clothes, stereotyped dwellings, etc. around 40 thousand years ago, even though the brain had achieved its present "modern" size almost a million years earlier?
[snip] [my emphasis]
... any given mirror neuron will also fire when the monkey in question observes another monkey (or even the experimenter) performing the same action, e.g. tasting a peanut! With knowledge of these neurons, you have the basis for understanding a host of very enigmatic aspects of the human mind: "mind reading" empathy, imitation learning, and even the evolution of language. Anytime you watch someone else doing something (or even starting to do something), the corresponding mirror neuron might fire in your brain, thereby allowing you to "read" and understand another's intentions, and thus to develop a sophisticated "theory of other minds." (I suggest, also, that a loss of these mirror neurons may explain autism — a cruel disease that afflicts children. Without these neurons the child can no longer understand or empathize with other people emotionally and therefore completely withdraws from the world socially.)
Mirror neurons can also enable you to imitate the movements of others thereby setting the stage for the complex Lamarckian or cultural inheritance that characterizes our species and liberates us from the constraints of a purely gene based evolution. Moreover, as Rizzolati has noted, these neurons may also enable you to mime — and possibly understand — the lip and tongue movements of others which, in turn, could provide the opportunity for language to evolve. (This is why, when you stick your tongue out at a new born baby it will reciprocate! How ironic and poignant that this little gesture encapsulates a half a million years of primate brain evolution.) Once you have these two abilities in place the ability to read someone's intentions and the ability to mime their vocalizations then you have set in motion the evolution of language. You need no longer speak of a unique language organ and the problem doesn't seem quite so mysterious any more.
Wow! Human become human when our brain has developed the mirror neurons. With mirror neurons, human no longer depends on "a purely gene based evolution". We evolve by "learning".
Without the knowledge of mirror neuron, I wrote about how I thought we learn in Learning Design and Learning Design - 2. I proposed that we have an internal world view which is the overall accumulated experience we have since birth. It turned out a better explanation came from mirror neurons:
Mirror neurons were discovered in monkeys but how do we know they exist in the human brain? To find out we studied patients with a strange disorder called anosognosia. Most patients with a right hemisphere stroke have complete paralysis of the left side of their body and will complain about it, as expected. But about 5% of them will vehemently deny their paralysis even though they are mentally otherwise lucid and intelligent. This is the so called "denial" syndrome or anosognosia. To our amazement, we found that some of these patients not only denied their own paralysis, but also denied the paralysis of another patient whose inability to move his arm was clearly visible to them and to others. Denying ones one paralysis is odd enough but why would a patient deny another patient's paralysis? We suggest that this bizarre observation is best understood in terms of damage to Rizzolatti's mirror neurons. It's as if anytime you want to make a judgement about someone else's movements you have to run a VR (virtual reality) simulation of the corresponding movements in your own brain and without mirror neurons you cannot do this. [my emphasis]
So our ability to learn, ie learnability which is based on mirror neuron, is deeply linked to our empathy system - the ability to put ourselves in someone's shoe when we see things happen to them.
Translating this to learning design, if I may, would be to provide deep empathy links to subject matter and use demonstrations.
From Memory and the Brain
Although most adults have likely seen and held over 10,000 pennies during their lives, few can pick the correct picture. The reason for this is simple: We don't really care enough to memorize what an exact reproduction of a penny looks like since a penny has such little personal value. With over ten thousand exposures to the stimulus, the response is still inaccurate without a personally motivating linkage to details in the coin. There are two groups of people who can make an accurate identification of the penny. They are either professional coin collectors or penny-pinchers. When there are emotional "hooks" planted for the learner, the probability of subsequent recall increases dramatically.
One way of establishing an emotional link, and be able to break the link *after* achieving the learning outcome is to use role play simulation (such as those powered by Fablusi). With proper orientation and debriefing, de-roling and reflection, the learning is deep and memorable.