World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2010

  • Neuroscience Update: The Power of Perception

    Friday 29th January 2010 - 4:30pm - 5:15pm

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  • Neuroscience Update: The Power of Perception

    Brain research suggests that most things humans perceive are hypotheses of reality rather than what they see with their eyes.

    How do the latest developments in brain research change the understanding of how we absorb and navigate our environment?

    Key Points

    • Brain imaging studies have helped identify areas of the brain that seem to be involved in perception and interpretation of other people
    • These “mirror neurons” show greater firing activity in children who are highly socially integrated and asked to assess facial expressions than in children who are less connected to their peers
    • Located in the frontal lobe, this area of the brain shows less activation in autistic children
    • Such findings in neuroscience suggest that the mind and empathy are localized in the brain, but there is little clarity regarding the mechanisms, pathways or effects on perception or behaviour


    Research on monkeys’ brains has identified specific firing patterns when monkeys perform the action of drinking from a cup. Some of these same neurons were activated when the monkeys remained still but watched others monkeys drink. Neuroscientists believe that an analogous area of the brain exists in humans where “mirror neurons” fire in response to a sense of connection with other humans.

    This area of the brain, in the frontal lobe, has implications for autism, in addition to a range of other disorders. When autistic children are shown images of facial expressions, these “mirror neurons” do not show the same levels of activation that appear in the brains of non-autistic children. This data is reinforced by the observations of many therapists who say they struggle to get attention of autistic children but are often able to do so instantly when they imitate the child’s motions.

    These early studies suggest that the human brain processes information differently depending on the level of engagement with other people. Further studies are needed to understand the meaning and implications of this conclusion, but it could have a bearing on education, psychology and treatment of disease, among other issues. For example, when children learn how the Internet works from a teacher who lectures, they typically retain very little. By contrast, children who enact this lesson by passing pieces of paper to their peers understand the transmission of online information more fully, and they are more likely to retain this knowledge.

    Though the ramifications are highly unclear, some scientists suggest that this research suggests the neural underpinnings of empathy.

    Session Panellist

    Marco Iacoboni, Professor, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, Brain Research Institute, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, USA

    This summary was prepared by Mary Bridges. The views expressed are those of certain participants in the discussion and do not necessarily reflect the views of all participants or of the World Economic Forum.

    Copyright 2010 World Economic Forum
    No part of this material may be copied, photocopied or duplicated in any form by any means or redistributed without the prior written consent of the World Economic Forum.

    Friday 29 January

    Keywords: neuroscience, empathy, research, human behaviour, mental disease, psychology

    Recommended reading for: Technology Pioneers, neuroscientists, psychologists, researchers, social scientists



  • Marco Iacoboni Marco Iacoboni
    Professor, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, Brain Research Institute, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, USA

    Graduate, School of Medicine of the University La Sapienza, Rome, Italy. Currently, Director, Transc...