Usually, we study the brain directly by measuring electrical activity on the scalp, probing the brain with strong magnetic fields and radio waves, or by using various forms of electrical and magnetic stimulation. But, for this research project we have decided to observe behaviour during experiments that measure speed of response and accuracy, as well as relying on tried and tested questionnaires to tell us about individual differences. That’s not to say that the project isn’t informed by our previous research involving brain activation – it certainly is; or that we can’t say something about brain processes from what we measure – we can.
A large body of previous research has demonstrated that the system in the brain we use for making movements is also activated when we observe other people moving. This so-called ‘mirror neuron system’ has far-reaching implications for how we think about the brain, the mind and mental health. Although for the most part the existence of a mirror neuron system in the brain is uncontroversial, there is vigorous debate in the scientific community about what role such a system might play in thought, emotion and sociality. Some of the more enthusiastic claims argue that mirror neurons are a unifying basis for all aspects of social life in humans. Others, more skeptically, suggest that mirror neurons are important, but are more closely linked to movement co-ordination. To date much of the research in humans has focused on what this system is used for and what behaviours and thoughts it helps produce. Importantly, this research has led us to focus on the inherent connection between our own body and the body of others.
The research we have taking place in the science museum hopes to build on our understanding of the mirror neuron system. Specifically, we want to understand a little more about how this system is affected by how we focus our attention to ourselves and our own bodies. The four different tasks that visitors can take part in are split into two categories; those that look at how we attend to our own body and those that look at how we attend to the bodies of other’s. The overall aim is to see if attention to one’s own body is related to the mirror neuron system.
However, each task is also really relevant in its own right. The types of experiments we are running are often conducted in psychology laboratories with only a very small number of people taking part, and those people tend to be students in their early 20s. Running our experiments in the Science Museum means we get a sample that is more representative of the general population, and we get to see differences across different ages.
Although it is fair to say that the research is ‘pure’ in that we are concerned with the fundamental way in which our minds and brains work, there are also tangible implications of our research. Systems in the brain associated with attention and the mirror neuron system have been linked to mental health issues. Specifically, too much attention to our body has been linked to anxiety. Non-typical activation of the mirror neuron system has been linked to difficulties in understanding other people’s emotions. So, it’s our hope that this research will go on to inform our understanding of associated mental health issues.