Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

'Movies Made Me Murder'

Copycat Brain Cells

Recent research in molecular biology indicates that as an evolutionary strategy, we may actually be programmed to mimic others.  Sandra Blakeslee wrote about it for the New York Times.  Apparently, researchers first noticed the phenomenon about fifteen years ago, in Italy.  Wires were implanted in the brain of a monkey that monitored its movements when it manipulated an object, and a graduate student noticed that its brain reacted even when the monkey failed to move.  The stimulus: watching someone else's behavior — in this case, the student was lifting an ice cream cone to his mouth.

Giacomo Rizzolatti
Giacomo Rizzolatti

Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma, led the research in trying to determine what was occurring in the brain when the monkey (as well as human beings) observed others in specific behaviors.  It seems that the same brain cells fired during observational behavior as during the act itself.  Rizzolatti identified this class of cells as "mirror neurons."  By that, he meant that certain cells in the brain start processing when someone sees or hears an action that its own body can perform.  The research was published in 1996.

However, more recently, research indicates that mirror neurons in humans are both intelligent and flexible.  In fact, Blakeslee continues, humans have "multiple mirror systems that specialize in carrying out and understanding not just the actions of others but their intentions, the social meaning of their behavior and their emotions."  These neurons grasp the implications of the behavior they process via direct simulation.  The person fully experiences another person's behavior, rather than just contemplating it.  This is at the heart of how children learn and why certain experiences are shared archetypally across cultures.  People respond to what others model if it's behavior common to that species.  It may also explain why media violence influences certain people.

Example cover: Media Psychology
Example cover: Media Psychology

A study published in 2006 in Media Psychology indicated that mirror neurons were activated in children who watched violent television programs, and the prediction was that they would be more likely than others who did not watch to act more aggressively afterward. 

It's been found, however, that the more active the mirror neurons, the more empathy we feel.  It may be the case, then, that children with "broken" or less active mirror neurons who also watch violent programs might behave aggressively because they don't have the inhibiting experience that comes with empathy.  But this connection is merely suggestive; it has not yet been studied scientifically.

Mirror neurons show up in several areas of the human brain. They activate in the face of actions that are linked to intentions, with different neurons firing for different parts of the process.  They simulate the action as if the observer is actually performing it, which is how the person understands the action and what motivated it; there's a sort of "template" for it in the brain. This affects the degree of empathy and language acquisition, as well as the ability to predict and anticipate.  Yet certain brain circuits also inhibit the person from acting it out.

"Mirror neurons provide a powerful biological foundation for the evolution of culture," says Dr. Patricia Greenfield, a developmental psychologist from UCLA.  It remains to be seen how they will figure into research on violence and aggression.

Some movies, it seems, are so resonant that they trigger violence both toward oneself and others.  One movie is notable for this.


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