When Mirror Neurons Go Bad.

A brief, totally context-free excerpt from “Hive Minds and Mind Hives”, the talk I’ll be presenting this Sunday at the SpecFic Colloquium. I’m told that as of several days ago only four tickets remained unsold, so anyone who hasn’t already signed up is probably SOL:

Mirror neurons think outside the skull by definition. They’re a kind of monkey-see-monkey-do circuit: they fire both when you do something, and when you see someone else doing the same thing. I drink a beer, certain mirrors fire. I watch you drink a beer; the same neurons fire, even though I’m not moving. It’s been suggested that mirror neurons are essential to developing a theory of mind, to empathy, to consciousness itself — Ramachandran’s all over them in that last context.

But sometimes mirror neurons go bad. Normally they just fire quietly to themselves when they see someone else doing something. In victims of echopraxia, however, those signals run right down the motor nerve to the muscles and force the body to follow suit. Echopraxiacs are compelled to mimic actions they see others performing.

Interesting implications follow from this. If you want to kill someone suffering from Echopraxia, lure him onto the roof of a skyscraper and get him to stand ten meters from the edge. You stand twenty meters back, then run fifteen meters forward. What you’ve done — beyond turning your victim into street pizza — is send an instruction set along an optical channel. He receives it through his eyes, but it might as well be fiberop for all the difference it makes. He processes that packet, and executes it; if another echopraxiac happens to be standing nearby, the very act of executing the instruction set also serves to pass it on.

What you’ve done, in other words, is turned the poor bastard into a node in a wireless network.

Now hang on, you’re saying. Echopraxia is very cool and all, but how is this any different from what any of us do when we read the instructions on how to fill out our tax forms, or submit to an anal probe at the hands of your friendly neighborhood border guard? You’re receiving external commands then too — and you have about as much choice in the matter as echopraxia would give you — but nobody tarts up such routine activities in network jargon. The difference is, again, latency. It takes time to read and process written instructions, time for the guy with the truncheon to describe how he wants you to drop your pants and bend over. Echopraxia’s a lot faster than that; the packet transmits at lightspeed. The bottleneck step is the rate at which your motor nerves fire.

Echopraxia is proof-of-principle that we can not only become nodes in a network, but that such a meat-containing network might be fast enough to start doing things on its own, independent of the wishes of the meat itself.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Friday October 26 2012at 01:10 pm , filed under neuro, public interface . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

22 Responses to “When Mirror Neurons Go Bad.”

  1. How does echopraxia deal with muscle memory and training? For instance, if an echopraxic was sitting beside a skilled pianist as the latter played a difficult stretch of Rachmaninoff, would the echopraxic reproduce the fine motor-movements of the trained artist?

  2. EnsleyG,

    That’s a really good question. I am dying to know!

  3. Ah… Peter. You’re arguing using a truly extreme form of echopraxia. Clearly, in evolutionary terms, this would be pretty self-limiting. Didn’t everyone’s Mom ask them as a rhetorical question? -“so, everyone you know jumps off a bridge, you’re also going to jump off a bridge.” No, really, it doesn’t happen all that often… and for anyone who is pathologically incapable of learning from their Mom, are they likely to reproduce their highly defective kind?

    I think a better question to ask might be, “given that we all have these motor neurons, and at least a touch of echopraxia if only to better understand the intentions and actions of those around us, why aren’t we all marching in lockstep off of the nearest precipice as if we were a bunch of the legendary variety of lemmings?”

    I somehow expect, not to answer that question but “I’m just sayin'”, possibly for the majority of people, their echopractic tendencies end somewhere in the vicinity of learning the steps in the latest dance craze. Somewhere in the healthy nervous system is something that draws a line and says “okay, I can try the reach the level of silliness in Gangnam Style, but I’m not diving off of any cliffs.”.

  4. OT, but I thought I’d mention I wrote a (highly favorable) review of Blindsight for a gaming website that caters to internet spaceship nerds:

    http://themittani.com/books/blindsight

  5. This kind of wireless network has terrible bandwidth, is limited to line-of-sight operation, and lacks even the most rudimentary security features. I can easily see a non-human species evolving this kind of behaviour, but I don’t see it replacing my wireless router just yet.

    That said, does anyone know if echopraxia is the principle behind the swift, graceful movements of flocks of birds, or schools of fish? I can imagine such a thing being hard to verify experimentally, but it makes a big difference if the individual animals in such an organisation have a degree of free will, or if they’re following the individual in front of them without even the opportunity to disagree.

    In the first case, we can start thinking about these flocks and schools as huge, complex and deeply alien hive minds; in the second, they’re all just mindless drones marching after an equally dumb führerfish.

  6. I’m curious about the perception that people with this sort of extreme echopraxia have of their own experience. Do they *feel* that their body is acting independently of their will, or do they feel that they are compelled by a desire to be doing whatever behavior they’re mimicking, or do they develop an ex post facto narrative which provides a rationale for the behavior?

  7. EnsleyG,

    Is this not what some savants are capable?

  8. Is this the same reactions that some people have when they see someone else mass reverse peristalsis?

  9. EnsleyG:
    How does echopraxia deal with muscle memory and training? For instance, if an echopraxic was sitting beside a skilled pianist as the latter played a difficult stretch of Rachmaninoff, would the echopraxic reproduce the fine motor-movements of the trained artist?

    I do not know, but I’m willing to guess not; I think we’re talking about mimicry on a fairly coarse scale.

    Mr Non-Entity: Ah… Peter. You’re arguing using a truly extreme form of echopraxia.

    Well, yeah. That’s what I do. But in this context, I’m only using it as a proof-of-principle, a stepping-stone en route to a bigger conclusion. (Which is probably even more extreme, but — I think — more plausible than I originally gave it credit for.)

    Michiel: This kind of wireless network has terrible bandwidth, is limited to line-of-sight operation, and lacks even the most rudimentary security features. I can easily see a non-human species evolving this kind of behaviour, but I don’t see it replacing my wireless router just yet.

    It won’t have to. I actually think the wireless router is going to meet us halfway. Or three-quarters, more likely.

    That said, does anyone know if echopraxia is the principle behind the swift, graceful movements of flocks of birds, or schools of fish? I can imagine such a thing being hard to verify experimentally, but it makes a big difference if the individual animals in such an organisation have a degree of free will, or if they’re following the individual in front of them without even the opportunity to disagree.

    That’s a damned interesting question. I remember wondering back in the eighties if one could think of schooling organisms as a kind of diffuse neural net (I know I brought it up in seminars, but I don’t think I ever actually based a story on it). Turns out that fish, at least, use a very simple rule: keep that guy on your left about X-distance away. That rule gets subordinated to other, more proximal imperatives (Swim Like Hell if a killer whale shows up off the starboard bow), but since only a small number of the flock will perceive those overriding stimuli at any given time, they’ll take the lead and the rest of the nodes just swirl in that graceful fishy ballet, maintaining nearest-neighbor distance. It’s a really simple rule set that results in the most beautiful choreography.

    But is it echopraxia? Do fish have mirror neurons? Now that you bring it up, I’d be really surprised if the two behaviors didn’t have common neurological roots.

    Noemon:
    I’m curious about the perception that people with this sort of extreme echopraxia have of their own experience. Do they *feel* that their body is acting independently of their will, or do they feel that they are compelled by a desire to be doing whatever behavior they’re mimicking, or do they develop an ex post facto narrative which provides a rationale for the behavior?

    Another good question for which I have no answer. If I had to guess, I’d say the latter: the sense of alien-hand “possession” generally happens in split-brain patients in which each hemisphere has control over a different half of the body; whole-brain people induced by external stimuli (magnetic fields, say) to commit involuntary motor acts are more likely to come up with some post-hoc rationale and insist they meant to do it all along. Echopraxia seems to have more in common with the latter case than the former.

  10. @Peter, and oddly also to Michiel:

    You might want to take a look at the concept of Emergent Systems. The classic example is of the massing flights of starlings and other such birds as gather into “super-flocks”. I don’t know if this is fitting into the paradigm you seek to elaborate in detail to we, the willing readers. Yet Emergent Systems such as the super-flock (cited above as hyperlink) might in fact be exactly what you’re looking to describe and examine in detail. There’s more than a bit of heavy math attached to it, which sadly I cannot follow as I am nearly innumerate (childhood accident demonstrating why kids should not run on the decks of swimming pools). The math of Flocking is pretty well developed and I do seem to recall that a lot of system-and-network-administrator types wish only most fervently that they could herd their cats into such performances on command. We try but we cannot do it; the darned Users have their own notions of how to apply the notion of going Viral to our notions of Scalability-On-Demand.

    If only people navigating the Capital Beltway could drive 1/10,000th as well as these starlings fly. In terms of nodes in a network, as it were something akin to a living Beowulf Cluster (computing system), one might wonder if all of this beautiful mapping of fractal systems by the starlings actually means something, or if it’s just math being math, however live and winged in flight that math may be. Then again, one may also wonder if the periodical cicadas in their billions of their own emergence, are just a vast mass of crickets chirping, or if their modem-like song is actually moving data. It’s all in the same league as wondering if there really is a g_d or whether the meaning of life is really “42”. 8-D

  11. Do other modalities work, or only sight?

  12. @Sheila: For flocking, birds seem to use mostly sight…. but I rather suspect that, once their mirror-neuron system picks up cues (from probably a combination of their near neighbors and other birds observed at distances farther out from the near-neighbor, in much the same way that a good freeway driver looks a few or more cars ahead of them, rather than the car immediately in front of them only) they “understand” where the flock is headed and then adjust their own paths within the limits and conditions they just ‘collected and analyzed’ with the mirror-neuron system.

    If you were asking about me, it seems to be something akin to dyslexia. Math is a language, a written one with a specific symbology, and in that written language, I am fairly close to illiterate and can’t parse the grammar. I’m sure I am doing math all of the time, but rather like Peter’s “Scramblers”, I’m not sapient/sentient about it within the accepted mode of written language. Presumably the starlings aren’t symbolic-math-literate nor sapient/sentient about it either, but they can fly pretty well. Both the starlings (and lots of other flocking birds) and non-flocking animals such as myself have to be pretty good at recognizing patterns and quickly adjusting behavior on the basis of recognizing both the patterns, and the way that the patterns emerge from one form into another.

    Speaking of recognizing patterns, there seems to be an “unprecedented” tropical cyclone getting ready to transition into an extra-tropical cyclone, right overhead and right overnight. I must go herd some cats and move data. When the power goes out I’ll read and play guitar and sleep. Looking forward to coming back online and reading more of the Crawl.

  13. I’m wondering if other sense modalities work, not just sight. Say, if you hear something, you vocalize the same? … oh, my brain just kicked up a memory of echolalia. I guess I’d need to dig more to see if that is anything “mirror neuron” based.

    Not sure if the people keep repeating their own tics or not. I wonder if they do, and whether people repeat motions they’ve performed, and I wonder if echopraxia can be induced by having someone with it watch themselves in a mirror or in a video?

  14. Re-reading the Original Posting, the closest thing I can think of to a wireless network of people would be mob activity or an unstructured riot… except that’s not necessarily imitative. The more I think about it, in more-or-less normal people anyway, the closest thing I can think of might be as follows:

    Someone sees something such as a child (perched foolishly on a railing at a zoo) going over the edge into the great-ape exhibit pit. A parent makes their fastest grab, but misses. Yet even for those people who are far out of arms-reach of the child, if they see the child going over the edge, the make a grab for it at the same time the parent does. So much for latency, I guess, not much to be seen. I’ve seen comparable behavior not involving children, but almost always involving making a grab for things just starting to fall.

    Comparably, though one might question if it’s responding to a concept or to a visual stimulus, imagine a rather tight game of american football. The intended receiver is in position and the quarterback delivers a throw coming near to the target. The receiver completes the play with a good catch, and the crowd goes wild. A very large percentage of the fans leap into the air simulating a good catch… yet the percentage of those doing so concurrent to the action is rather small; most wait until the catch is seen to be good. Are those who leapt concurrently rather than very shortly afterwards tending more towards the echopraxic? Lord knows there’s lots off data to be examined in the reams of video of various sports’ championship games.

  15. Dancers use visual mimicry all the time. It’s one of the main tools for teaching group choreography. We called it “follow the bouncing butt” because whoever leads usually faces away from their followers. Some people are awesome mirror mimics, but most people seem to find that more challenging.

    I doubt many dancers have echopraxia, but I do think dance aims to tap into similar abilities. It seeks shortcuts between cues (visual and audio) and muscle memory and motion. There is a very deliberate effort to teach dancers NOT think the process through. You are supposed to see/hear and do and you get much better with practice. A really good troupe dancer can mimic new choreography well enough that viewers often can’t tell who is leading and who is following.

    Dance troupes/marching bands/cheerleaders also do a version of the fish bird thing to maintain consistent interpersonal space while moving across a stage/on a field/down the street etc. I was taught to use peripheral vision and continual minor position adjustments to manage space between myself and up to five people while keeping my eyes front (watching where I was going!). If each person within the larger group does this well/consistently, the whole group can maintain formation.

    We’re not as good as birds/fish, but we are not herd/flock animals whose survival depends directly on the skills. To see the best human examples, watch videos of some of the mass dance/gymnastic performances in Olympic opening/closing ceremonies or an award-winning US marching band…

  16. Bjorn Townsend:
    OT, but I thought I’d mention I wrote a (highly favorable) review of Blindsight for a gaming website that caters to internet spaceship nerds:
    http://themittani.com/books/blindsight

    I saw that, Bjorn. Thanks. That’s a lot of love for a book that’s been sitting there since 2006. I’m glad to see people are still discovering the damn thing.

    I suppose I better finish the follow-up…

  17. Noemon:
    I’m curious about the perception that people with this sort of extreme echopraxia have of their own experience.

    Well, my first gut reaction was “hell yeah, so schizophrenics are right when they say some(one/thing/whatever) made them do it”, but on second thoughts, I agree people are more likely to come up with an egosyntonic explanation like “I wanted to” and not an egodystonic “delusion” of control, where the “delusion” would be a realistic model of what’s happening. Please note I’m not sure if I’m using “egosyntonic” etc. in the correct way here,

    BTW, I’m also not that sure if all cases of echopraxia are really misfiring mirror neurons, since it’s more like a description of a behaviour, it might be a strategy the psychotic uses to mollify a hostile environment, it might be something akin to the stimming seen e.g. in autists

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stimming

    to get sensory input/combat boredom etc.

    Some of these explanations might be difficult to distinguish on the neurological level, e.g. to use some hypothetical examples, missing sensory input might somehow disinhibit motor neurons, not necessarily directly but through some other means, e.g. driving down the frontal lobes, but would this be a strategy to increase sensory input (e.g. stimming) or a mechanism at work (e.g. echopraxia). And if the psychotic feels better when doing it, is it a ritual to combat anxiety, or is it stimming? Or are some of these concepts equivalent on a neuronal level?

    Personally, I still wonder if some delusions of control in psychotics are just people becoming somewhat aware of their mirror neurons; problem is, it seems like mirror neurons are both underactive

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21549567

    and overactive

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22510432

    in schizophrenics. Maybe chronic schizophrenics, schizotypals etc. have underactive mirror neurons, reflecting the notorious negative symptoms, while a florid psychosis is connected with positive symptoms and an overactive mirror neuron system

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_and_Negative_Syndrome_Scale

    and delusions of control would be related to mirror neuron activity in individuals not used to them (predominantly negative symptoms) or used to lower activity (predominantly positive symptoms).

    Just some musings…

  18. If you wanted to manipulate human behavior, even small-societal behavior, and you knew the heuristics by which key individuals acted and their relative rankings, and you had ways of representing reality to each individual and otherwise tuning their emotional state, you could create just about any societal scenarios, getting each key individual to act in just the way you pleased, especially if you were willing to engage in (or incite) violence or the appearance thereof to achieve this. General expertise in “let’s you and he fight” incitements would also be helpful.
    Though if your network’s security got breached, all bets would be off.
    The only people whose behavior you wouldn’t be able to shape would be the truly monomaniacal ones; but even those who look that way are rarely 100% on that scale, and anyone else is at least somewhat malleable.

  19. I hate biological sentience. I want to be uploaded, and then edit out the bad bits.

  20. @Trottelreiner, writing in-part: Personally, I still wonder if some delusions of control in psychotics […]

    I think what you might be suggesting, perhaps, is that for certain psychotics, their delusion of control isn’t really a delusion of control? Rather, if they have a delusion, they are deluded as to the source of control; they are erroneously assigning that to some outside influence when actually it’s just their own internal neurology. Additionally, they might be erroneously mis-attributing the element of control to something/someone which is doubly in error, first assigning to the exterior that which is arising from the interior infrastructure of their own nervous system and neurochemistry; secondly they err in assigning specificity to the perception of externality (some entity, person, group, or agency), although actually the only influence is in their own nervous system. Thus, although they are controlled, they are in fact controlled by themselves… but they don’t like the decisions they are making (or can’t avoid) and thus reactively externalize it.

    But of course this raises the question: how much under control (from within) could they be… if they are able to perceive an element of control (actually theirs) and object to it or struggle against it as if it were an objectionable imposition from the outside?

    Isn’t this boiling down, eventually, to an argument that perhaps Free Will leads to, or is a product only, of a disordered mind? Because only Free Will could perceive, object to, and struggle against, their own predestination of mind-set which should be determined by their internal neurology.

    Please find a flaw in this argument, which shouldn’t be difficult as I am posting from the other side of a six-pack of shite American beer. ;)

  21. Just a side question. Following along this idea of learning behavior through external instructions and mirror neurons…does this mean border guards keep a stash of sexploitative prison movies in the back room?

    Responding to Mr NE, I think if you have two equally enforced “tasks” stuffed into the grey matter and only do one, then you are perhaps “choosing.” One might argue that the rest of the stuffing predetermined that response, I suppose. But is that disordered?

    Mmmm…stuffing…

  22. Mr Non-Entity

    Mr Non-Entity:
    I think what you might be suggesting, perhaps, is that for certain psychotics, their delusion of control isn’t really a delusion of control?

    Well, it’s somewhat complicated; first of, I somewhat agree to your conclussion, that’s why I put “delusion” into quotation marks.

    Second of, well, I’m not that sure delusions of controls are necessarily a more realistic “ego model”, since AFAIK most paranoid psychotics have no echopraxia, e.g. they are not that “controlled”, more “suggested to”, and the delusion is more like the psychotic’s “ego model” running around “help, help, I’m being repressed”. And we are speaking about delusions, which are of a somewhat different quality than mere ideas, you can argue with the latter, but not with the former or only to some extant. Last but not least, IMHO the whole “ego model” is an illusion, while with psychotics, big chunks of that one stay intact and are often less likely to do the self-analysis. Try to argue with a psychotic he might be mistaken on things he is clearly wrong on, e.g. some correlation. ;)

    Third of, well, the original rationale behind the term “schizophrenia” was that some the impulses etc. that are normally integrated into our “ego model” are not, thus creating the impression of a “split mind”, not “split personality”. E.g. the voices some psychotics hear are just the inner monologue all of us have. So it might not be just mirror neurons, but quite some other parts of the mind, too. Though arguing about that would necessitate working out a coherent theory of (the) schizophrenia(s), good luck with that one, call me if you succeed, we could share the Nobel. There are some pharmacological models, though:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dissociative_drug

    they are erroneously assigning that to some outside influence when actually it’s just their own internal neurology.

    They are not necessarily erroneous, since they might make a correct correlation between some observed behaviour and their mirror neuron activity, pinpointing it on some individual, but they might be errorneous in calling it “control”, when actually it’s more like an impulse supressed by the rest of the mind, but as already mentioned, a delusion is not your garden variety everyday theory. Because then some other features of schizophrenia kick in, namely some oddities with correlation detection and some peculiarities in the theory building and logics department, the strange communication might be independent of both, a result of the mentioned deficits or the end point of social isolation; part of these deficits might be just be the result of the attention/executive function deficits in schizophrenia, though then, maybe the A/E deficits are themselves the product of some other parts of schizophrenia, e.g. hallucinations.

    BTW, not integrating the mirror neuron signal might help with the signal being detected by some parts of our “ego model”, but it might not be necessary, even non-psychotics have some notions of “infectious yawning” etc. Building this into a worldview somewhat removed from general consensus, this usually takes psychosis. Which, BTW, might make for some problems with diagnosis, can you diagnose someone who believes the MIBs gave him an implant with “beliefs outside of cultural norms” when he is part of a internet culture centered around said belief?

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16391510

    Not integrating some signals might also account for things like Capgras delusion, since some some part of the stimulus is missing. Same for Cotard.

    Thus, although they are controlled, they are in fact controlled by themselves… but they don’t like the decisions they are making (or can’t avoid) and thus reactively externalize it.

    Liking and not liking decisions is somewhat secondary to the delusion; there are also angelic confirming auditory hallucinations, and delusions of control where it’s all in the best interest of the psychotic.

    http://www.chovil.ca/

    IMHO it’s not so much a way to cope with unpopular decisions, but a failure of the “ego model” of the mind to integrate. Which might explain why drugs that inhibit communication in the brain, e.g. NMDA antagonists, lead to similar symptoms.

    BTW, Chovil makes some point about the prodrome, e.g. the time before diagnosis, and that might be important. Some of the symptoms of schizophrenia might just be “iatrogenic”, e.g. short term memory deficit leading to less social functioning leading to less social contacts leading to diminuished short term memory function leading to…

    if they are able to perceive an element of control (actually theirs) and object to it or struggle against it as if it were an objectionable imposition from the outside?

    Well, we do that all the time. Though most of us think the voice in the back of out head telling us we just made a bad speech is part of our mind and not the Galaxion from Tau Ceti III helping us surviving WW3 by irradiating our brains. And that the impulse to slap someone stems from the same mind and is not Samael opposing Galaxion. Err.

    Isn’t this boiling down, eventually, to an argument that perhaps Free Will leads to, or is a product only, of a disordered mind?

    Well, Free Will is likely to be an illusion, if we interpret Libet that way. IMHO it’s more of a model about the impulses in our nervous system, and schizophrenia is somewhat like what happens when some of parts of this model play body integrity identity disorder:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_integrity_identity_disorder

    As for the inside perspective, ask me after my next operation on an NMDA antagonist anesthetic…

    BTW,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_models_of_schizophrenia