The old saying “monkey see, monkey do” also applies to human behavior, say a trio of Italian scientists who have earned the 2007 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology.
Researchers Giacomo Rizzolatti, Vittorio Gallese and Leonardo Fogassi have identified a “mirror neuron” system of brain cells in monkeys that also exists in humans. The system, which activates when we perceive similar behavior in others, may explain how we empathize and communicate and why we learn by seeing as well as doing.
The finding could offer new insight into disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and Tourette’s syndrome, all of which involve problems with imitation.
Rizzolatti, Gallese and Fogassi are all professors of human physiology at the University of Parma in Italy.
Winners of the seventh Grawemeyer psychology prize, they were selected from among 30 nominations from five countries.
About Giacomo Rizzolatti
Giacomo Rizzolatti is professor of human physiology at the University of Parma, Italy, where he has worked since 1969 except for yearlong stints at the University of Pennsylvania and at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
He received his medical and neurology degrees at the University of Padua before working at the University of Pisa’s Institute of Physiology. He also has an honorary medical degree from University Claude Bernard in Lyon, France.
Rizzolatti has been president of the European Brain and Behaviour Society, Italian Neuroscience Association and the Italian Neuropsychological Society. The scientist also has directed the European Science Foundation’s European training program in brain and behavior research and has been a member of the European Medical Research Council.
His research interests include the motor system’s role in cognition and relationship to attention.
About Vittorio Gallese
Vittorio Gallese has been affiliated with University of Parma for more than 20 years, having earned his medical and neurology degrees there.
After postdoctoral work at Nihon University in Tokyo and research jobs at University of Lausanne in Switzerland, Gallese returned in 1994 to Parma, where he joined the faculty and has advanced to professor of human physiology. He also has been a visiting professor at University of California-Berkeley.
His research interests include cognitive neurophysiology, neuropsychology, brain imaging and philosophy of the mind.
About Leonardo Fogassi
Leonardo Fogassi is professor of human physiology at University of Parma, where he also earned his doctorate in neuroscience.
He has taught at Parma since 1996 after stints as a researcher at University of Pisa and as a visiting scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
His research interests include action and perception in the cerebral cortex of humans and monkeys and the neurophysiology of motor responses to sensory stimulation.