Several weeks ago Monica Anderson related a problem with random neuron learning: How do you combine two learned tricks into one organism? How to spread individually acquired beneficial behavior. How does one organism benefit from more tricks than it has learned by itself?
Just now it occurred to me to wonder how nature addressed this problem. The first idea is language which allows knowledge of solutions of many sorts of to be transferred. Another much earlier stratagem involves the so-called ‘mirror neurons’ by which animals mimic successful behavior of other animals.
Some abilities may be conveyed thru language, but some cannot. With language we can describe where to find food but not how to ride a bicycle. That it is possible to ride a bicycle is relayed from one individual to another perhaps thru some means like mirror neurons. Knowing that it is possible is strategic to learning to do so.
This is the first connection I have seen between mirror neurons and language. Both mirror neurons and language would seem to benefit social animals more than the lone rangers. It is a small step towards a super-organism.
I object to the term ‘mirror neuron’ for the same reason I would object to a term ‘matrix inversion transistors’ in the description of a computer that can, among other things, invert matrices. Programs can be thought of as an acquired behavior of a computer—not in its genes. I believe that abilities ascribed to mirror neurons are indeed in our genes, but not localized to specific neurons. There may indeed be some neurons that support only that function. I think the ability is in our genes which are expressed more like a program than like some particular set of neurons somehow genetically wired to do that function.