Brains, Baudrillard and Bodily Immersion
Floaty philosophy and media forms have certainly not been uncommon bed fellows in human cultural history. We love to implant our complex musings and conceptualizations of abstract and mysterious human thought into our stories, as it arguably plays a crucial role in helping us to feel immersed and connected with the interactions between people and other such entities in the stories we tell. Science also has a strong role within storytelling in that it similarly builds narrative worlds we can identify with and feel connected to, but for the longest time scientific thought itself has been unable to touch on these qualities of immersive reality and human empathy within our media forms that make these stories so real to us. However, the discovery of a new type of neuron in the brain, the mirror neuron, might just carry some implications that will change all that.
These mirror neurons were originally discovered by Italian neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his merry crew of science men who had placed electrodes on the ventral premotor cortex of macaque monkeys in order to record and study the firing of neurons that known to have a close connection to hand and mouth actions. As it was subsequently discovered, the neurons in the brain of a monkey observing another monkey putting food to his mouth would fire identically to the neurons firing in the other monkey’s brains as he performed the actions. Soon confirmed to function the same for humans as well, these mirror neurons essentially assume the perspective by firing as if the person observing was performing the observed action. Soon after the discovery of these mirror neurons in the premotor cortex, supplemental research proved their existence in the primary somatosensory cortex as well- a part of the brain closely linked with various kinds of sensation.
While these discoveries came bundled with a load of new, potential implications about human thought, it was Vilayanur Ramachandran whose astute reflections and research on this newly discovered neurological phenomenon, which his TED Talk discusses in terms even an undergraduate Anthropology major can understand, carry so much relevance to immersion within fictional narratives. In his TED talk, Ramachandran’s makes two main points, each corresponding with the mirror neurons in the premotor and somatosensory cortexes respectively.
Firstly, in regard to the ability of mirror neurons to fire in simulation of observed actions he argues quite boldly that the human being’s sudden and consistently quick intellectual evolution originated from the development of these mirror neurons. The theory is a simple application of discoveries brought by the mirror neuron: if the neurons in our brain can so easily simulate the commands required to complete tasks we observe, then naturally the widespread transmission of breakthroughs in human capacity and development would occur as quickly as it took children and friends of original innovators to observe them. Broader historical implications aside, the key point is that the human mind is empowered by these neurons to fire as if we physically were the people we are observing, and we are simultaneously and immediately learning from that.
“Here is a neuron that fires when I reach and grab something, but it also fires when I watch Joe reaching and grabbing something. … It’s as though this neuron is adopting the other person’s point of view.”
From here, I would extend this line of thought even further to assert that, in engaging with immersive, visual media such as a film or video game, the sense displacement from your our physical body that occurs when we’re completely absorbed in a story or particular sequence could possibly stem from our mirror neurons simulating the actions of those characters seen on the screen as our brains take their perspective, fictional as they may be. Assuming this is the case, the disconnect from our own bodies could stem from the conflicting feedback from our limbs simultaneously telling are brain that we aren’t, in fact, moving like the character on screen. Given the absence of such specific research to date, the most
All I can posit are queries about the theoretical possibilities these neuromechanical functions offer- but even in theory there are fascinating questions to ask. Once again provided that our mirror neurons respond to the observed actions of on-screen characters, would seeing a character, say one controlled by the observer, move in a video game specifically trigger the mirror neurons that relate to the physical actions of the character or the hand and finger motions required to manipulate the gamepad or keyboard? When watching characters perform Hollywood magic/CGI-assisted supernatural feats, how, if at all, would our brains simulate actions that are mechanically foreign to our pre-programmed capabilities? Regardless of whether or not these questions see answers anytime soon, the possibility that we are physically stepping into the bodies of those characters we immerse ourselves in has a great deal of implications, namely against the stigmas of invalidation and quality of fakeness attributed to fictional, immersive experience.
The second point Ramachandran made, in regard to the presence of mirror neurons in the somatosensory cortex, discusses the empathetic qualities the mirror neurons in the sensory regions of the brain possess. Similarly to those mirror neurons seen in the premotor cortex, they simulate the neurons firing in the people they observe. In this case however, these neurons fire when we observe someone being touched or visibly experiencing some other sensation. We could see someone’s arm being grabbed or poked at various locations, and simultaneously our mirror neurons would fire as if we were physically feeling that same location in that same place. However, in order to prevent us from physically feeling that sensation in a direct sense, these neurons communicate with the neurons elsewhere in our body, say our skin where we are being grabbed, that report back and say that we’re not actually receiving that stimulus. Our brains give us a flash of empathy for the person and immediately encourage us to step into their perspective, but so long as our body reports back saying the sensation isn’t physically happening we don’t literally feel the sensation. So what happens when our body can’t reassure the brain that it’s not receiving stimulus, say if we see someone’s arm being grabbed but our arm is either completely numbed or removed entirely? The fascinating discovery is, we actually literally feel the sensation at that point. In our hypothetical phantom limb, we physically feel the exact same sensations that our brain subconsciously interprets the other person to be feeling. A man with a phantom limb will physically feel that touch as if it were he himself receiving it. As is mentioned in the TED talk, cases of phantom pain can even be cured by watching someone else being massaged in their respective limb. Due to this ability to empathize so directly with the sensations of others, Ramachandran calls these particular mirror neurons “the Gandhi Neurons.”
“There is no real independent self, aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world, inspecting other people. You are, in fact, connected not just via Facebook and Internet, you’re actually quite literally connected by your neurons.”
Much of this communication between neurons is hypothesized to be largely achievable through direct messages relayed between two people’s respective neurons, but here is where I diverge to make my own second point. I would excitedly assert these Gandhi neurons, producing simulations of another person’s sensation unless our bodies can produce evidence that the sensation isn’t physically happening, are effectively replicating and manifesting Jean Baudrillard’s concepts of simulacra and simulation inside the mechanical workings of the human brain. Put simply, the Gandhi neurons that fire in order to recreate the pattern of neurons firing in the other individuals brain when the sensation is witnessed, this sensation is being simulated in the highly Baudrillardian sense that, while the firing of these mirror neurons reflect the profound reality of the other person’s sensation, the body’s contextual knowledge of its own existence reminds us that this feeling is not real. In the mixed terminology of Baudrillard and Ramachandran, the Gandhi neurons reflect the sacramental order of profound reality, as the neurons elsewhere in our body prove this to be a mere simulation. It is only when the simulation produced by these mirror neurons loses the context of the body’s feedback that the sensation is not real that our brains are convinced so thoroughly that it is our sensation that we actually, physically feel the pain. The sacramental order, the profound reality that we are simulating another’s experience, is being masked and hidden by our lack of context in what Baudrillard would call the order of sorcery. At this point, with the context of reality veiled by the order or sorcery, the pure simulation becomes the percieved reality- the simulacra- and we feel it as such.
If one follows the connection this far, then the implications Baudrillard’s simulation and simulacra carry for immersion in narrative media forms becomes all the more exciting with the added, pre-conceptual input of the Gandhi neurons. Those feelings of immersion in a character’s world, that immense sympathy we feel for the events surrounding them as we imaginatively engage with the representation of their world could then quite potentially be explained through these discoveries about mirror neurons. If we see a character we have immersed ourselves in beaten badly on screen, then the sudden jerks of immense sympathy could very realistically stem from the fact that we are so close to physically feeling that pain, if not for the frantic reminder from our own bodily neurons telling us that we aren’t being beaten. The same could apply to immersion in an intimate, escalated sex scene, a very narrow and intense escape scene where we see our character visibly vigilant, stressed, and adrenaline-addled, or any other kind of sensation portrayed onscreen. The question then becomes whether or not the absence of feedback from our own receptor neurons would, much like the physical sensation achieved when we watch someone physically being touched, we would physically feel the sensations we visually perceive through our immersion in a media form? Does an armless man feel a severe, sharp pain in his phantom hand when he watches Jennifer Connely’s character in Requiem for a Dream jam a fork into her therapist’s hand? Would he feel it every time Jared Leto’s character jabs himself with a needle? Pushing the envelope even further, could these sensory neurons be firing even as we read about such experiences? Sadly, these fascinating questions fall outside the reaches of my speculation.
As the globalization and the connectivity made possible by the internet has made us acutely aware, our kind has a huge propensity to lose ourselves completely in immersive, representations experiences in various media forms regardless of whether it is fictional or not, simulacra or simulation. People will devote huge sections of their lives to the various manifestations of fictional universe within a transmedia empire, and there has been no grounding, physical explanation for the strong sense of connection we achieve with these worlds that keep us so obsessed apart from broad speculations about our power of imagination. Even if the possible implications these mirror neurons hold only give us a slight glimpse into the qualities of immersion that make it so real and meaningful for us. If we our brains are running through the same mechanical steps as the hypothetical brains of those characters on screen, if we are milliseconds of neuron-fire away from physically feeling a character’s feet slam into the ground as they frantically dash away from impending danger, then the sense of urgency, elevated tension, and danger we feel as we sit spectating on our comfy couch cushions makes a bit more sense. It becomes a bit more understandable how people can find these representative worlds in these broad, multifaceted transmedia universes more engaging than real-world experience, and how this phenomenon is so common in the contemporary world that massive communities are formed around these shared experiences. This blurs the line between the real and the imagined, and considering the similarly immersive practices that allow for such magnificent feats as shamanic healing in Amazonian tribal spiritualism this is absolutely fascinating. Who knows how “real” our fantasies will become?