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W ha t is intelligence? What distinguishes an intelligent human from a skillfully programmed computer?

These are the big questions that my “Introduction to Cognitive Science” class aims to examine through psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy and more. The most fascinating angle for me, however, is the neurological perspective. Each biological discovery that puts together one more piece of the puzzle only increases my awe at the beautiful complexity of humankind.

For instance, how do we explain empathy? While not unique to humans, emotions are certainly a rarity in the living world and nonexistent for inanimate objects. Such sensory feelings are an essential aspect of humanity that we should explore as much as possible.

After crying at the ending of a novel for my English class — George Eliot’s "The Mill on the Floss" — I started wondering at my tendency to invest myself so thoroughly in both books and movies that I am strongly attached to the characters by the end.

More generally, humans have an enormous capacity for empathy as it relates to art, be it literature, music, dance, theater or film. We are able to completely immerse ourselves in such forms of expression and even relate to them. People are profoundly affected by art in ways that other animals don’t seem capable of experiencing. Art is vital to us as a species. And there is a fascinating reason for this.

The scientific explanation lies in mirror neurons. Italian neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese discovered mirror neurons after observing imitation in macaque monkeys, but they seem to be most highly developed in humans. These neurons in the frontal cortex fire both when you do something and when you see someone else doing it.

That is, when we watch or read about someone laughing, crying or blushing from embarrassment, mirror neurons allow us to experience the sensations as if they were our own. In fact, the only reason we don’t feel physical pain when seeing someone else get punched is that other relevant frontal cortex neurons do not fire. This “tells” the brain that nothing is happening to us.

In a 2011 paper, Gallese and Hannah Wojciehowski investigated the link between literary studies and neuroscience that allows such a vivid experience of literature. They call the phenomenon “Feeling of Body.” According to this theory, readers use their own sensory-motor systems to internally mimic the actions and feelings of characters and thus can directly identify with them. The authors describe "Feeling of Body" as part of the larger cognitive-science concept of "Embodied Simulation," which enables direct communication of others’ thoughts and emotions through these neuronal capacities.

This theory is evolutionarily significant because it explains the rapid growth of human learning about 75,000 to 100,000 years ago in terms of language and tool use, as neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran explained in a 2009 TED talk. This meant that people could form a social, civilized society. Mirror neurons allow us to learn from parents and peers by watching and imitating them, because your brain can learn what to do based on which neurons fire for various actions.

While none of us really need to learn how to build a fire or hut anymore, mirror neurons are still important in the modern world. As college students in an environment that will shape our lifelong opinions and beliefs, we should use these neurons to expand our knowledge of other people, times and places.

Read a novel. Visit an art museum. Attend a dance show or music concert. The possibilities, especially in a cultural city like Philadelphia, are seem ingly endless, not to mention highly affordable. Last weekend at Annenberg, I saw Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company for free through my college house, as well as the Arturo Sandoval jazz quintet with a $10 student rush ticket.

As a friend recently told me, feelings make you more human. Art lets us experience these feelings. We have the unique and incredible ability to empathize with characters that originate from other people’s imaginations, and to relate to their own emotions as expressed through visual or performing art forms. Take every opportunity you can to glance in these mirrors into each other’s souls.

Maya Rawal is a College sophomore from River Forest, Ill. Her email address is “The Maya Project” appears every other Thursday.

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