The Chameleon Effect: Imitation, Emotion, and Mirror Neurons

The Chameleon Effect

Imitation, Emotion, and Mirror Neurons

On Tuesday December 6th, Ruth Leys, the Henry Wiesenfeld Professor of Humanities at Johns Hopkins University, discusses her essay “The Turn to Affect: a Critique” with members of the Rifkind seminar on Emotions, and then gives a public lecture on her forthcoming book on post-war history of experimental and theoretical approaches to the study of the emotions. In her recent books, Prof. Leys critically examined the history of the modern concept of psychic trauma from its origins in the work of Freud to recent discussions by Shoshana Felman, Cathy Caruth, and others (Trauma: A Genealogy) and explored the post-World War II vicissitudes of the concept of “survivor guilt” and its recent displacement by notions of shame, focusing on the recent contributions to shame theory by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Giorgio Agamben, and others (From Guilt to Shame: Auschwitz and After, forthcoming winter 2007).


Tuesday, December 6, 2016
4:30-6:00 p.m.
The Rifkind Room in NAC 6/316

In recent years much speculation and controversy has surrounded the question of the relation of emotional life to mirror neurons, neurons that fire both when an animal enacts a movement and when that animal observes the same action by another animal. Clinicians have suggested that defective functioning of such neurons may help explain autism while humanistic and other scholars have drawn on scientific findings about mirror neurons to make sense of the empathic responses elicited by works of art, literature, or everyday imagery. Noted historian of science Ruth Leys examines what is at stake in efforts to explain phenomena such as empathy, imitation, and emotional contagion in terms of the automatic
actions of mirror neurons in the brain, and raises the question of whether people can be considered “chameleons” or “resonance” machines.

Ruth Leys is a historian of the human sciences with a special interest in the history of the neurosciences, psychoanalysis, and psychiatry. Her books includeTrauma: A Genealogy (Chicago, 2000); and From Guilt to Shame: Auschwitz and After (Princeton, 2007). Her book, The Ascent of Affect: From the 1960s to the Millennium (Chicago), will appear in the fall of 2017.