The Genesis of Desire: Chapter Three

This chapter was the least interesting and most irritating so far, and rather repetitive of previous sections of the book.

Its title is Universal Mimesis and its sections are Some Precursors; The Discovery of Mirror Neurons; and A New Theory of Desire.

Intuition of Mimesis as Foundational to Humans

Oughourlian first looks at the precursors, that is, the philosophers, psychologists and physicians who have sensed and posited some sort of imitative force binding humans together, including those who explored the startling dynamics of crowd or mob psychology. They include Max Scheler, Schopenhauer, Henri Bergson, Felix Ravaisson, Gabriel Tarde, Nietzsche, Jung, Franz Mesmer, Gustave LeBon, and Elias Canetti.

About crowds, he notes that “the force of mimetic attraction is greatly magnified by the two parameters of mass and distance  that determine it.” In other words, the more people and the closer together they are, the more likely they will act as one, as a homogeneous group:

“The most striking peculiarity presented by a psychological crowd is the following: Whoever be the individuals that compose it, however like or unlike be their mode of life, their occupations, their character, or their intelligence, the fact that they have been transformed into a crowd puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would think, feel and act were he in a state of isolation. There are certain ideas and feelings which do not come into being, or do not transform themselves into acts except in the case of individuals forming a crowd.”

Individuals in a crowd can take each other as models and also as rivals or obstacles.

Mirror Neurons – Neuroscience Proof?

The question mark is mine, not Oughourlian’s, who starts off by saying that Girard formulated his mimetic theory hypothesis in 1961, but it was only in the 1990s “that our mimetic hypotheses were scientifically established as certain.

He talks at length about the work of Vittorio Gallese and others at the University of Parma, who ‘discovered’ mirror neurons in macaque monkeys. Mirror neurons are parts of the front motor areas of the brain that become as activated (as seen on PET scans), and exactly in the same manner, when we see someone else perform (or even try to perform) a goal-oriented action as when we perform it ourselves.They don’t become activated when a machine or non-animal performs the same action.  Oughourlian notes that researchers are finding mirror neurons in other parts of the brain, too, like Broca’s area, an essential center for language.

It’s unclear to me from this chapter whether mirror neurons have been studied in humans, other than autistic people (more on that below), and how they have been studied, using what machinery. Oughourlian talks of other experiments, but they are psychological (not neurological) experiments on infants (conducted by Andrew Meltzoff), which show that even babies who are an hour or two old imitate what they see others do. For example, newborns will automatically imitate the experimenter sticking out her tongue.

Experiments on both monkeys and infants seem to show that it’s not only the movement that’s communicated between subjects, but also the intention of the movement. Babies, e.g., will imitate what the experimenter meant to do, even if the experimenter fails at it, rather than imitate the failed attempt. Again, they don’t imitate the intention of a machine doing the same movement.

So, it seems, from a very early age (a half-hour old in one case), children imitate the intention — that is, the desire — of others.

And it’s not only by seeing someone else perform an action that we imitate it; the premotor mirror neurons are activated in monkeys when they simply hear a peanut being cracked, e.g.  Hence, “we are able to understand how … a gesture, a sound, a glance or an attitude  can betray a desire  that is immediately noticed by an observer.

(Later studies — at least among those monkeys — seem to show that distance matters, too, with some mirror neurons firing faster when the subject is closer to the action being performed.)

Regarding autism:

“Interhuman verbal and affective communication are universal, though with some exceptions, such as in the case of autism in particular, and both this universality and the exceptions to it are now able to be explained by the activity or failure of motor neurons. Recent research demonstrates that autistics show reduced activity of mirror neurons in the frontal gyrus, a part of the premotor cortex, and this perhaps explains their inability to assess the intentions of others.”

On the other hand, people with autism don’t usually have problems understanding the “intentions of simple movements common in daily situations,” as one critical article notes, so why this would be is a bit of a mystery.

Oughourlian’s book was published in 2007, and in April of that year, Alison Gopnik, in an article titled Cells That Read Minds? What the myth of mirror neurons gets wrong about the human brain in Slate (26 April 2007), takes down the mirror neuron theory. She claims there are four misconceptions in what she calls the myth of mirror neurons:

  1. that we can generalise from animal studies to humans; at that point, “the evidence for individual mirror neurons [came] entirely from studies of macaque monkeys”
  2. that brain structure is innate when actually the brain is shaped by experience; but the psychological research on infants seems to show, at the very least, that something imitative exists in the brain from birth, although the tongue protrusion (which is the action tested by most of the studies) may be a special case for infants, with another cause.
  3. that brain imaging and neuronal activity are related
  4. that a single type of neuron correlates with a single type of experience

Interestingly, Gopnik worked with Andrew Meltzoff in his mimicry studies on infants (she co-authored books with him in 1997 and 2000 on the topic, and co-authored an article with him as recently as 2010 titled Just do it? Investigating the gap between prediction and action in toddlers’ causal inferences in Cognition) but she doesn’t mention these studies at all in her article.

In her article — whose criticisms I wish Oughourlian had addressed (even though his book preceded it, he might have known these would be criticisms) — Gopnik says that like a traditional myth, the scientific myth of mirror neurons “captures intuitions about the human condition through vivid metaphors.” Oughourlian seems to agree with this, hence his “Some Precursors” section.

Gopnik goes on:

“This isn’t the first time that popular science has merged with the popular imagination. In the 1960s, for example, pioneering work on ‘split-brain’ patients revealed real functional differences between the two cerebral hemispheres — an idea that quickly became a metaphor for ancient intuitions about reason and passion.”

But there are actually important differences in the lateral sides of the human brain, metaphors and intuitions or no, as can be easily seen in stroke patients with demonstrable damage to one or another side of the brain. Simply because the science makes sense to us intuitively doesn’t make the science wrong. It may make us more liable to the errors of bias, though.

Gopnik speaks directly of the Gallese experiments:

“In the late 1980s and early 1990s, neuroscientists found a population of cells that fired whenever a monkey prepared to act but also when it watched another animal act. They called these cells ‘mirror neurons.’ It didn’t take long for scientists and science writers to speculate that mirror neurons might serve as the physiological basis for a wide range of social behaviors, from altruism to art appreciation.”

She says, without citing evidence (she may have been thinking of this article, which hadn’t been published yet?), that “careful experiments show that they don’t even systematically imitate the actions of other monkeys.” She also concludes that because monkeys don’t have language or culture, the fact that they “have mirror neurons means that these cells can’t by themselves explain our social behavior.” I’m not sure that they don’t have language or culture, and even if they don’t, I’m not sure that monkeys and humans can’t share brain structure and function. She doesn’t offer much here in proof.

Regarding her third point, she says “FMRI machines can’t provide any definite answers, because imaging studies, unlike the electrode studies in monkeys, don’t measure the electrical activity of individual neurons. They tell us about the oxygen use of sections of the brain with many hundreds of thousands of individual neurons.”  It would be nice to know how the autism studies are done (yes, I’m talking to you, Oughourlian).

In the comments, someone notes that there are a number of human studies being done, some with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) which uses “the very electrodes that the author says are not used in humans.” And Wikipedia cites an April 2010 study in which recordings from single neurons with mirror properties in the supplementary motor area and medial temporal cortex are reported in 3 experiments, from the brains of 21 epilepsy patients, implanted with intracranial depth electrodes to try to determine seizure centers (the researchers basically piggybacked their research onto this, with patients’ consent).

Aside from the criticisms in Gopnik’s somewhat brief, unfootnoted and now quite dated article, I am also uneasy with the idea that experiments on non-humans seem to be so casually generalised to humans (or indeed, experiments on one animal generalised to any other animal). I recently read The Last Psychiatrist’s critique of  Jonah Lehrer’s Dec. 2010 New Yorker article about the decline effect in research, and wonder if we are trying to force psychology and anthropology into a scientific framework that doesn’t fit them. Even if mirror neurons are studied with scientific method at the individual level in humans and repeated studies show that these neurons reliably fire exactly the same when we do and when we observe an action, still, we’re still not really measuring empathy, mimesis, the ability to use or learn language, or human nature in general. I don’t feel we need scientific evidence or an absolute scientific underpinning for mimetic theory, but perhaps others do.

Lots more on mirror neurons at Wikipedia, for those so inclined.

A New Theory of Desire

Basically, Oughourlian argues that psychology should model itself on hypnosis, in a way, because when someone is hypnotised, they realise, and experience as true, in that moment (though not after they come out of the trance), that the suggestion made to them comes from the hypnotist and that therefore his or her desire is actually and first the desire of the hypnotist. This “repositioning of the true chronology” of desire is healing, because it “brings recognition of the mimetic mechanism and of the model as a model, rather than as an obstacle or a rival.”

We must “abandon a psychology of the subject and not become polarized on individuals, but rather, grasping the mimetic nature of our desire, establish a psychology of relationship, of the interdividual relation, of the mutual influence of one subject on another.”

He distinguishes the mimetic configurations of neurosis and psychosis:

— in neurosis, the self-of-desire continues to see the difference between the self and the model, who may be seen as a rival or as an obstacle ; in fact, when the other is seen as the obstacle, the self “sees only too well the difference between itself and the model. And that difference seems to be insurmountable. For this reason it feels inhibited and constantly blocked by its model and becomes obsessed by it, which signifies feeling beseiged by the model.” Examples: when other seen as rival–> hysteria (denying the other while making him responsible for the illness); when other seen as obstacle –> obsessions, anxiety, phobias, inhibitions, neurasthenia.

— in psychosis, the self-of-desire no longer sees the difference between itself and the model. The model becomes a double, and there is “abiding confusion” between the two. Sometimes the self “confuses itself with a model taken simply as model” and then it sees itself as brilliant, great, expansive. Examples: delusions, paranoia, delirium. When the self sees the other as obstacle, it becomes at war with itself.  “The desire-self forbids itself … and denies its own right to be.” Examples are schizophrenia and chronic psychoses in which the self accuses others of persecuting it.

Finally, he looks “towards a new clinical anthropology,” focusing on the cortical system (cerebral cortex), the “seat of motor, sensitive and cognitive activities,” and the limbic system, the “seat of emotions, sensations, feelings and mood.”  He says that mirror neurons run through both brain components.

In the cortical system, “mimetic rivalry will adorn itself with moral and ethical judgments. My desire is good. I am executing the will of God,” etc. In the limbic system, “mimetic rivalry will clothe itself with sentiments and emotions,” and what they are will depend on the culture, personality and situation.  There may also be bodily symptoms.

At the foundation of the new theory seems to be this idea, which he formulates earlier in the chapter:

The world in which we live is a world of illusion. To gain wisdom and peace, to escape from the rivalry that lies in wait for us, we have to see reality as it really is, to learn the truth about the mimetic desire that runs through us. Doing this is what, in Evolution and Conversion, René Girard calls ‘conversion.'”


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