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Harish Jose


Observing With Your Hands

A neurological approach to knowledge retention

Published: Thursday, April 22, 2021 - 12:03

Today I’m looking at the ideas inspired by mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a class of neurons that activate when someone engages in an activity, or when they observe the same activity being performed by someone else.

The phenomenon was first identified by a group of Italian neurophysiologists led by Giacomo Rizzolatti during the 1980s. They were studying macaque monkeys. As part of their research, they placed electrodes in the monkeys’ brains to study hand and mouth motions. The story goes that the electrodes sent signals when the monkeys observed the scientists eating peanuts. The same neurons that fired when the monkeys were eating peanuts fired when they merely observed the same action.

Several additional studies indicate that the mirror neurons are activated to respond to goal-oriented actions. For example, when a scientist covered the peanut bowl but still performed the action of picking up a peanut and eating it, the mirror neurons still fired, even though the monkeys couldn’t see the peanut bowl. However, when the scientist simply mimicked the action of taking a peanut without a peanut bowl, the neurons didn’t fire. There have been several hypotheses regarding the mirror neurons, such as they facilitate learning by copying, and that they are the source for empathy.

The most profound idea about mirror neurons is that action execution and action observation are tightly coupled. Our ability to interpret or comprehend others’ actions involves our own motor system. For example, when we observe someone doing an action, depending on whether we have performed the action adds depth to how we can observe the action being performed. If I’m watching a ballet, and the ballerina performs a difficult move, I may not fully grasp what I have seen because I don’t know ballet, and because I’ve never performed it. However, if I watch a spin bowler in cricket throwing an off-spin, I will be able to grasp it better and possibly tell how the ball is going to spin. This is because I played a lot of cricket as a youth. The same with a magician performing a sleight of hand.

The idea of mirror neurons brings an extra depth to the meaning of going to the gemba. Going to the gemba is a key tenet of the Toyota Production System. We go to the gemba, where the action is, to grasp the current situation. We go there to observe. Gemba, it is said, is our best teacher. When we go there to observe the work being performed, we may get a different experience depending on whether we ourselves have performed the work. Heinz von Foerster, the Socrates of Cybernetics, said, “If you want to see, learn how to act.” Von Foerster was talking about the circular loop of sensorium and motorium. To see, there must be interaction between the sensorium and motorium.

In a similar way, Kiichiro Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Motor Corporation, is said to have remarked that engineers, “... would never amount to anything unless they had to wash their hands at least three times a day”—the evidence they were getting their hands dirty from real work.

I’ll finish with a great piece of advice from Taiichi Ohno:
“Don’t look with your eyes; look with your feet. Don’t think with your head; think with your hands.”

First published April 4, 2021, on Harish’s Notebook blog.


About The Author

Harish Jose’s picture

Harish Jose

Harish Jose has more than seven years experience in the medical device field. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla, where he obtained a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering and published two articles. Harish is an ASQ member with multiple ASQ certifications, including Quality Engineer, Six Sigma Black Belt, and Reliability Engineer. He is a subject-matter expert in lean, data science, database programming, and industrial experiments, and publishes frequently on his blog Harish’s Notebook.