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Why we get lost in a good book
Reprinted from Latest Science News


cientists have found the part of brain that keeps us fascinated into the wee hours with a good book, thumbing through a page-turner.

New brain imaging from UCLA demonstrates that specialised brain cells, known as mirror neurons, activate both when we observe the actions of others and when we simply read sentences describing the same action.

When we read a book, these specialised cells respond as if we are actually doing what the book character is doing.

The researchers used a brain-imaging technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify how written phrases describing actions performed by the mouth or the hand influenced mirror neurons that are activated by the sight of those same actions.

For example, when individuals read literal phrases such as “biting the peach” or “grasping a pen,” certain cortical areas were activated that were also stimulated when the same participants later viewed videos of fruit being bitten or a pen being grasped.

Together, the findings suggest that mirror neurons play a key role in the mental ‘re-enactment’ of actions when linguistic descriptions of those actions are conceptually processed.

Mirror neurons have been hypothesised to contribute to skills such as empathy, socialised behaviour and language acquisition.

Cognitive function in the mirror

The new data therefore suggests that we use mirror neurons not only to understand the actions of other people but also to understand the meaning of sentences describing the same action.

“Our study provides the first empirical evidence in support of the long hypothesised role of mirror neurons in language,” said Marco Iacoboni, director of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center of UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience.

“Indeed, some scientists think that we humans developed the ability to use language from mirror neurons.”

The new findings may also be relevant to understanding language disorders in autism.

“Previously, we showed that autistic children have mirror neuron deficits that make it difficult for them to understand the emotions of other people,” he said.

“However, autistic children also tend to have language problems. Thus, a deficit in the mirror neuron system may provide a unifying explanation for a variety of disorders associated with autism.”
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