Monday, August 15, 2011

The brain's mirror neuron system and Britain's "moral collapse"

Much has been written about the mirror neuron system. At the cellular level, this refers to neurons in the brain that not only respond vigorously when the subject undertakes some action such as grasping but also respond vigorously when the subject observes someone else undertaking the same action. There are many outstanding questions regarding the mirror neuron system, but these need concern us here.

Much has been made of the mirror neuron system. Among the questions that have not been addressed, as far as I can tell, is whether such a system functions in developing concepts related to role models in individuals. The question is not unreasonable. We often imitate the actions of those we admire, and we may even enlarge this imitative behaviour to aspire to what they have achieved. This aspiration need not be limited to the exact field that the role model is in. For example, a sportsperson can inspire us, through their dedication, motivation and self-application, to try to reach equivalent heights in our own chosen field.

That of course is looking at the mirror neuron system – assuming it to be remotely involved in this general imitative behaviour – in a positive light. But can the mirror neuron system also act in what is generally considered to be a negative way?

I recently saw a film which describes true life events related to gangsters – a disturbing film, in which young men took as their models older gangsters and imitated their behaviour. To be sure, there are other factors that come into play here – the absence of a positive role model, the inadequacy of the individual, etc., but I wonder to what extent the brain’s mirror neuron system plays a role.

Which brings me to the recent riots in Britain.

It is of course a fact that these riots did take place largely – though apparently not exclusively – in impoverished areas, which has led some to suspect that this impoverishment is one of the root causes. That may well be so, but I wonder to what extent the absence of positive role models, and the presence of negative role models, at the highest levels of society has not also provided a negative role model, through the brain’s mirror neuron system.

There is a Russian proverb which says that when a fish stinks, it stinks from the head down.

When the Prime Minister speaks of Britain’s “moral collapse”, he should include in that the moral collapse – apparently with impunity – of Britain’s ruling elite. When Members of Parliament can have their hands in the till and behave in ways which, though legally acceptable, are morally wrong, when politicians can lie to the public and to Parliament on important matters of state, when they can have cosy relationships with unelected people who apparently dictate policy to them, when bankers can bring the country to the brink of disaster with impunity – and the catalogue goes on – then they are not providing good moral leadership.

When these same people apparently are rewarded, or simply let off the hook, then the moral collapse is complete. And it provides a negative role model, perhaps through the brain’s mirror neuron system, aided by its memory system.

When the Prime Minister says that at the root of the riots was “indifference to what is right and wrong”, he should keep in mind the model provided by the politicians, who also in many instances seem to be indifferent to what is right and wrong.

Mr Miliband, of the Labour Opposition Party, has blamed “greed, selfishness and immorality” for the riots. Do these words not also adequately describe the behaviour of politicians, en masse, as revealed in the press over the past two years?

Perhaps neurobiologists will now start to consider the relationship of the brain’s mirror neuron system to the development of positive and negative role models.

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