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I'm reading the "The Power of Now" book by Ekhart Tolle, in which he describes a spiritual practice by which attention/awareness is focused on the currently experienced mental state. For example, anger, frustration or jealousy are observed without letting them take over. Tolle describes the outcome of this practice as something along the lines of "these emotions are transmuted into awareness". I'm interested if there's any evidence in cognitive science to support his claim.

The description reminds me of mirror neurons - observing an emotion in others "infects" the observer with the same emotion. There's a small number of deeply connected mirror neurons that permeate the human brain

This makes me ask the question - are there "awareness" related mirror neurons or similar structures that get activated by one's own awareness? By which process could the experience of observing emotion increase awareness of the observer?

Update: this wikipedia article has a very brief section on mirror neurons and self awareness:

V.S. Ramachandran has speculated that mirror neurons may provide the neurological basis of human self-awareness.[70] In an essay written for the Edge Foundation in 2009 Ramachandran gave the following explanation of his theory: "... I also speculated that these neurons can not only help simulate other people's behavior but can be turned 'inward'—as it were—to create second-order representations or meta-representations of your own earlier brain processes. This could be the neural basis of introspection, and of the reciprocity of self awareness and other awareness.

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Mirror neurons are actually quite a contentious area in cogsci. The debate is most certainly not settled as to what role they play, and whether they even exist, in humans. In short though, my argument would be that there are no specific awareness related mirror neurons in the brain because mirror neurons themselves are awareness. Again, this is an extremely contentious issue in cogsci, and there is no one answer widely accepted at the moment -- I'll just try to explain and justify my thoughts.

It's important in anything that's being discussed to have a working definition of the matter at hand. Personally, I would disagree with your definition of naming them "emotion infectors", instead opting to assume that mirror neurons are very specialised cells allowing for the reenactment of sensory-motor information (Rizzolatti et al.).

Gibson gave us a pretty neat applied example of this in the form of affordances. These are action possibilities possessed by items, but perceived by an agent (see Norman's review for a neat explanation as to why this changed) -- in short, a rock doesn't want us to throw it, but a human might want to throw a rock. Additionally, a mouse might see the same rock and, being unable to lift it and throw it, decide instead to hide behind it from predators. At the same time, a savvy cat may suss out what's actually going on... What does this mean for mirror neurons? Specifically that this network of cells allow us to understand actions, and create new ones, by parasitizing upon motoric and sensory systems. Essentially, our experience of the world is bound by our bodily constraints.

So what does this mean for our experience of abstract concepts? Domains like love, time, depression, and even awareness aren't physical entities, but metaphysical ones. These are conceptually understood (Lakoff). Time flies, we are down in the dumps when depressed and -- the most cheesy of all -- love hurts. Time doesn't actually fly, we don't shrink when we're depressed and love doesn't actually physically hurt, but we scaffold what is concrete (i.e. sensory-motor information) to the abstract in order to understand it (Veale & Keane).

So, I don't believe that a mirror neuron network would exist for a process like awareness, because the mirror neuron network itself is awareness. It's what provides us with a specific ability to understand the environment, to understand actions and, perhaps most importantly, understand ourselves.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't quite see how your conclusion follows from the rest of your comment. The process of "understanding" recruits many different neural populations, as does any higher order mental process. Moreover, to equate sensorimotor simulation with "awareness" doesn't seem quite right. Would you mind clarifying these statements? $\endgroup$ – mrt Feb 20 '15 at 22:49
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With regard to emotions, it may be more useful to think about things in terms of interoception and attention. Interoception involves awareness of one's inner bodily sensations (e.g., pleasantness/unpleasantness, high/low arousal; Craig, 2002), and we can (rapidly) direct our attention to shifts in these sensations.

Changes in our inner physiological sensations are occurring constantly, but only when we foreground these changes in our attentional field (and make meaning of them) do we consciously experience an emotion (Barrett, 2014).

In general, interoception and attention as involved in emotion recruit the "salience network" (e.g., parts of the insula, parts of the cingulate cortex, etc.), which is involved in body-directed attention ("The Neuroscience of Construction," Oosterwijk, Touroutoglou, & Lindquist, 2014). We also make use of the frontoparietal network (e.g., dlPFC, mCC, etc.), involved in executive attention, which might mediate our ability to foreground mental states into awareness. In this sense, it seems unlikely that mirror neurons alone are responsible for awareness of one's emotions; instead, broadly distributed neural networks might be involved.

Paula Niedenthal has mentioned a potential role for mirror neurons in the simulation of sensorimotor experiences of emotions in the body. However, I don't think this corresponds to your hypothesis.

I'm otherwise not quite sure if I answered your question, but hopefully this clarifies something for you.

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Here is an excellent article on self awareness and associated phenomena. The author (his quote is linked in the original question) describes various forms of brain damage and psychiatric conditions and their impact on (self)awareness and perception of the world. He mentions mirror neurons on multiple occasions.

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