Mirror Neurons Revisited

Xenia1Although the title The Myth of Mirror Neurons make cause one to think it, this book does NOT deny the existence of mirror neurons. (See Mirroring Desires.) The myth the author talks about is a serious overrating of what mirror neurons can do in human beings. The discovery that the same neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys fire when they do an action or see the action done, such as grabbing a banana remains intact. It is the extension of the motor simulation to explaining human language and imitation that Hickock contests. Two historical points: 1) Up to the discovery of mirror neurons, the computational system of the brain was somewhat overrated; 2) the discovery of mirror neurons triggered a revival of the highly discredited motor theory of language skills in humans. Hickock explains at length how the same problems that discredited the motor theory of language remain in force, notwithstanding the difficulty of killing zombies. He discusses the evidence for high-level computational processing in the human brain in language use and in imitation. What mirror neurons do is ground the computational work in the brain in the motor areas of the brain. Hickock suggestss that mirror neurons seem to be about the same in macaques and humans but macaques do not talk and they do not imitate very much–certainly not anywhere near on a human skill. Hickock discusses autism and the theory that it is caused by a deprivation of mirror neuron activity. Hickock gives reasons why this does not work as part of a broader questioning of all deprivation theories of autism. In its place, Hickock cites evidence that autism is caused by overload in many areas. It is well-known that autistic persons are hypersensitive to sound and other sensory inputs such as certain colors. There is also growing evidence that autistic persons are hyper-sensitive to the other people; that is, they have an overload of empathy that is overwhelming rather than a lack. Where we seem to end up, for the time being anyway, is a mirror neuron system that grounds a complex computational cognitive set up apps (to use the computer analogy). For those interested in René Girard’s thought who see the discovery of mirror neurons as explaining Girard’s notions of mimetic desire: mirror neurons don’t do as much as the hype has suggested but they are very much in our bodies and they do play a role. The instinctive reaction to stimuli still seems to point to the preconscious element of mimetic desire, or at least part of it. The paradigm that Hickock is moving us toward suggests that it is not mirror neurons but the explosion of cognitive skills in the brain that takes humans out of instinct into learning by experience. Imitation, so fundamental to those exploring Girard’s thought, takes over from what instinct did in animals. Those skilled in neurology and related issues might found it useful to follow up this notion to see if it holds significant explanatory value. In any case, everyone who has been excited about mirror neurons and especially those who have cited the discovery as helpful to understanding humans should read this book to see where at least some scientists are now taking it. Hickock hasn’t just razed the barn; he has also called in the carpenters.

Mirroring Desires

beanBagsIt’s no surprise to be told that neurons fire inside your brain when you decide to pick up a banana and again when you actually pick up the banana. What might surprise some people is to be told that exactly the same neurons fire when you see somebody else reach for a banana and then pick it up. This was not the kind of thing neuroscientists were looking for or expecting to find. Like many of the most significant scientific discoveries, this one was the result of serendipity. An experimenter who was analyzing the firing of neurons in a macaque monkey left the probes in its brain while taking a short break to have a snack. When he picked up a banana, the monkey’s neurons fired the same neurons that fired when the monkey picked up a banana. So began the following up of an exciting discovery.

The prime importance here is the firing of neurons based on intention. The neurons don’t wait until somebody actually picks up the banana. All it takes is for somebody to reach for the banana in such a way as to convey the intention of picking it up. If a person draws the hand away at the last second or tries to pick it up and drops it, the same neurons have fired. However, show a cartoon of a stick figure reaching for a banana and these neurons do not fire. The action has been portrayed but the live intention has not. Scientists call the neurons that fire under these circumstances “mirror neurons” because the neurons are mirroring the displayed intentional behavior.

This discovery seems to confirm, or at least add credence to, René Girard’s concept of mimetic desire, the notion that we imitate the desires of other people, often at a pre-conscious level.  (See Human See, Human Want) As I think about this exciting discovery, I would have to say that this neuronal mirroring of others’ intention does not, in itself, indicate imitating desire, but it does indicate very strongly that we automatically resonate with the intentions of other people at a deep physiological level, and these intentions are grounded in desire. Far from being individual blocks of personality shooting personal desires out at the world, our desires are wired in our bodies to resonate with the desires of others and vice versa. Our mirror neurons make sure that we live in a web of personal desires surrounding us.

Mirror neurons build a subtle and deep connection between all of us. We live in the midst of these connections whether we like it or not and these connections also connect us to God who created us, mirror neurons and all.

(Mirroring People by Marco Iacoboni is an accessible and absorbing account of the discovery and ramifications of this exciting discovery.)