Friday, January 13, 2006

Mirror Neurons + No Cuba in Baseball Classic + So Over Alito

Today is one of those days where writing even the simplest blog post felt like extracting one of my molars with a piece of string (and I did have them all taken out surgically at the same time years ago, an experience I wish on no one). Okay, it's not that bad, but after a week of classes and administrative reading, it's hard to focus. I'm not (that) superstitious, so I'm not blaming it on the fact that it's Friday the 13th....


Mirror NeuronsI wanted to post about a really amazing article I came across that I haven't seen too many other blogs mention, on mirror neurons. Are any of the other Jstheater participants familiar with them? Sandra Blakeslee wrote about them in her New York Times Science section article "Cells That Read Minds" earlier this week.

Basically, mirror neurons, which can be found in several different places in the brain, create an innate virtual reality system that allows us to anticipate, experience and mentally mirror the actions of others, but differently from how researchers had previously thought. As Giacomo Rizzolatti, the University of Parma neurologist who was in the team that first identified them in monkeys back in 1996, puts its: "Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking." In fact, they may play a central role in and help to explain many aspects of human experience, particularly involving social relations; they are integral to our capacity for empathic responses and connections, and other interrelational emotions (such as fear, disgust, horror, delight, etc.) based on visual cues, our childhood learning processes, and our enjoyment of visual art, music, literature, dance, sports and pornography. (Yes, pornography.) The Times article wrote that the mirror neuron studies are shaking up existing beliefs in a range of "scientific disciplines, shifting the understanding of culture, empathy, philosophy, language, imitation, autism and psychotherapy."

To quote Blakeslee's piece:

Mirror neurons make these complex cells [that guide other functions like facial or manual recognition] look like numbskulls. Found in several areas of the brain - including the premotor cortex, the posterior parietal lobe, the superior temporal sulcus and the insula - they fire in response to chains of actions linked to intentions.

Studies show that some mirror neurons fire when a person reaches for a glass or watches someone else reach for a glass; others fire when the person puts the glass down and still others fire when the person reaches for a toothbrush and so on. They respond when someone kicks a ball, sees a ball being kicked, hears a ball being kicked and says or hears the word "kick."

"When you see me perform an action - such as picking up a baseball - you automatically simulate the action in your own brain," said Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies mirror neurons. "Circuits in your brain, which we do not yet entirely understand, inhibit you from moving while you simulate," he said. "But you understand my action because you have in your brain a template for that action based on your own movements.

"When you see me pull my arm back, as if to throw the ball, you also have in your brain a copy of what I am doing and it helps you understand my goal. Because of mirror neurons, you can read my intentions. You know what I am going to do next."

He continued: "And if you see me choke up, in emotional distress from striking out at home plate, mirror neurons in your brain simulate my distress. You automatically have empathy for me. You know how I feel because you literally feel what I am feeling."

Mirror neurons seem to analyzed [sic] scenes and to read minds. If you see someone reach toward a bookshelf and his hand is out of sight, you have little doubt that he is going to pick up a book because your mirror neurons tell you so.

The article features so much more. One aspect that particularly interested me was the idea that perhaps because of mirror neutron functioning, "when you read a novel, you memorize positions of objects from the narrator's point of view." I have often wondered about this virtual experience when writing and reading (how do I so easily place myself so vividly within a particular fictionally narrativized space?), how this imaginative location system and positionality occurs and what its neurological sources might be.

A great piece, with so much to think about. V.S. Ramachandran has a great, multi-page article on the same topic at Third Culture. Meanwhile, PBS's Nova ScienceNow has a 14-minute downloadable video segment on the topic.


Ortiz LeapingAccording to a directive from the W(arrentless Domestic Wiretapping) administration, Cuba will not be allowed to travel to the US to participate in the World Baseball Classic. The purported reason is that the Cuban team would be able to earn money for its play, but the real reason, of course, is ideological and political. W and the anti-Castroites (including, I assume, my new Senator from New Jersey, Bob Menendez) don't want to afford a group of athletes representing Fidel Castro's authoritarian state any platform whatsoever, even if most of the entire team were willing to defect and sing "God Bless America" in whiteface on bended knee. (So what about Venezuela? Don't the right-wingers keep painting Hugo Chávez as the next worst thing to the future of DEMOCRACY after Fidel-Saddam-Osama, even though he keeps winning elections that are estimated, by some of the election observers at least, to be even more transparent than our own? Lord knows, Rep. Bob Ney, Ken Blackwell and Diebold haven't been playing around with the election rules in Carácas, have they?)

Roberto González Echeverría
, the Yale professor and commentator on everything "Hispanic," argues in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, "Castro at the Bat," that banning Cuba is the right thing to do. They're a "team of slaves," he claims, who're really a dressed-up press gang with baseball bats. They live in a totalitarian state that's being propped up by Chávez and as should be viewed as having no say whatsoever in any aspects of their lives. He goes on to add that the team is made up of "Black Cuban men." (But is he saying they're picked only because they're Black or what? Is there a racial criterion for playing Cuba's team? In a country where anti-Black racism still is prevalent? This is the first I'd heard of this. Anyone else?)

Omar LinaresAs a result of the US's position, the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) has threatened not to sanction the tournament if Cuba is barred, which could lead some national teams to drop out. Not that the US cares, of course. So far Major League Baseball (MLB) hasn't been able to change the Katrina Administration's position, and none of the other nations appears willing or strong enough to step up to the plate. Yet.

I think preventing the Cubans (including Omar Linares, at left) from participating is a terrible decision, because what ultimately will it accomplish beyond allowing Castro to portray himself (and his nation) as the victim. (Didn't we learn anything from 1980 and 1984 Olympic boycotts? Barring Russia didn't cause its collapse, and US athletes lost out in 1980.) Instead of penalizing Castro, it penalizes the athletes, who very well may not agree with him or the current state of affairs in Cuba. In effect, it makes him the cynosure rather than a sideshow. It also denies baseball fans the opportunity to see how Cuba's team matches up with some of the star-studded lineups from across the world that once upon a time probably couldn't have competed against it. The Dominican Republic's team alone could field an all-star (and future Hall of Famers) at almost every position (Manny Ramírez, David Ortiz [pictured leaping above at right, from], Albert Pujols, Miguel Tejada, Aramis Ramírez, etc.); Puerto Rico's, Venezuela's, South Korea's and Japan's teams will also have a number of very good MLB players, and then there's the US team, which, if it assembles the right roster and excellent coaching, should give Cuba and DR a run for their money.

But right now, it looks like Cuba isn't going to be allowed to play. Blogger Daniel Drezner thinks that they'd "get their butts kicked." I'm not so sure. DR, the US and Venezuela just might do it. But I wouldn't count the Cuban players out.


Alito BlabbingThe farce called the Samuel Alito confirmation hearings are OVER. If anyone thought for a moment that King Brush Clearer and the GOP took them seriously, they should have got a real wake-up call after Senator Lindsey Graham's joke about Republican scandal-manager Jack Abramoff. There were the usual theatrics from senators of both parties, bloviating by Joe Biden, lots of ingenuous nuttiness from Sam Brownback (we get it, you're obsessed with abortions) and the oft-incoherent Tom Coburn, Teddy Kennedy's powerdrill questioning over Concerned Alumni of Princeton and Vanguard, a quick spat between Kennedy and the ever-droning Arlen Specter, Charles Grassley's annoying homespunness, Orrin Hatch's sanctimony and edge-of-his-seat piety, a bit of staged drama when Martha-Ann Bomgardner (what, this good Republican woman can't take her husband's last name? Well, I never!) rushed from the room in tears after being cued, it appeared, by Rachel Brand, a Republican operative, after one of Graham's really inane questions ("Are you a bigot?" Like anyone who wanted a job would seriously answer that question publicly in the affirmative!), the usual high level of engagement from Russ Feingold, and on and on. One person I could always see and hear less of is Texas's John Cornyn, considered by some metrics to be the most conservative senator in the US (and this includes the delegations from Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Oklahoma, etc.), who actually blurted out "Scalito" more than once!

Yesterday and today saw the panels of praise-singers and naysayers, including Donald Trump's sister, a Republican who naturally thought the world of Alito, and a retired judge named Lewis who appeared to confirm that yes, he liked Alito a lot and that yes, Alito was an extreme right-winger. Today I heard a professor from Yale, a brother, last-named Sullivan, whose voice was cracking with fierce emotion, lay down his indictment against Alito. I bought it and wished he'd had more time--I was riveted! At any rate, it's over, and now the sadsack Democrats, even if they vote as a block, will not be able to stop the man's confirmation if they don't get Republican moderates (and their own conservatives) on board. People like Olympia Snowe, Lincoln Chafee, and Susan Collins (and Spector, for that matter) say they support women's freedom of choice, a separation of powers and a division between church and state, and more moderate policies than the extreme and extremely incompetent Emperor Heckuvajob has pushed lo these last five years. But if they simply roll over, as appears likely with this nomination, they're making it clear that their allegiance is to their corruption-embroiled party, which has marginalized them repeatedly, rather than to the American people. Alito very well may be an honorable person, a good man, a brilliant jurist. But if he's really in the mold of Scalia and Thomas, he isn't the right person for this position at this time.

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