In nature, aggression among animals is not simply to win or to lose: it is an ego battle in which it establishes a sense of dominance. Thus, it is no private affair and rather a public display in front of numerous ‘spectators,’ in order to validate one’s sense of superiority. To further investigate the behavioural science behind these aggressive interactions, researchers at Stanford Medicine thoroughly researched neural activity, particularly mirror neurons, in such situations.
In a study conducted by researchers, mice exemplified accentuated neural activity in a region of the brain called the “rage center” both in engaging in aggression and observing aggression. Particularly, mirror neurons are activated when an animal is doing or witnessing said behavior. These mirror neurons exist in the ventromedial hypothalamus, which is an evolutionary ancient region of the brain. This may indicate the prevalence of mirror neurons since the primitive origin of animal biology.
According to the lead of the study, Nirao Shah, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, a group of particular brain cells are associated with aggression in specifically male mice. In fact, it was deemed particularly straightforward in triggering aggressive behavior from male mice. For instance, researchers introduced a male mouse into the cage of another one of its kind. In the setup, a mouse was placed beside a transparent divider to emulate the role of an observer. The result was as expected: the provoked mouse resorted to aggressive tactics, particularly by tail-rattling. Although, what is strikingly interesting is that the same group of activated neurons in the fighting mice were also seen in the witnessing mouse. This suggests that these particular neurons are mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that is equivalently activated when we perform an action or observe the same action. According to the study, these neurons were activated only in aggressive settings as opposed to other standard situations such as grooming or exercising on a wheel. This notion was furtherly scrutinized by the Stanford researchers.
In further experimentation, provoked male mice did not confine their aggression to other males, but attacks against female mice were observed. Though interaction between male and female mice tend to showcase coupling behavior, in aggressive settings, male mice demonstrated tail-rattling, a form of their aggression.
This study is interesting as it gives insight to our own ability as humans to develop a sense of culture through our means of empathizing and reciprocating emotions to others. Though understanding the prevalence of these neurons in primates, the activity of mirror neurons in a primal region of the brain proposes a possibility for the conservation of thistrait from mice to humans.