Brain Myths

Stories we tell about the brain and mind.

Mirror Neurons: The Most Hyped Concept in Neuroscience?

Mirror neurons are probably the most hyped concept in neuroscience. There's no doubt they are fascinating cells, but they don't explain what makes us human. Read More

This is an interesting and

This is an interesting and provocative piece. In my opinion the functional role of mirror neurons has clearly been over hyped and over sold in the past and some form of redress is clearly needed. However, there is a danger that articles such as the above only lead to polarise opinion on mirror neurons that could hinder more reasoned scientific debate on the functional role, if any, of mirror neurons. For example, the arguement that "The biggest and most obvious problem for anyone advocating the idea that mirror neurons play a central role in our ability to understand other people’s actions, is that we are quite clearly capable of understanding actions that we are unable to perform" is also "a simple and seductive idea." It is also clearly wrong. Whereas, we might be able to tell that Federer is playing tennis without motor expertise at playing tennis, we might not be so good at understanding how much spin there is on the ball, where exactly the ball will land, how fast the ball will be travelling etc. Such 'understanding' of observed actions has indeed been shown to be correlated with motor expertise (not just visual expertise) e.g. Aglioti et al. 2008 Nature Neuroscience 11, 1109-1116. This would suggest that it is possible to 'understand' what an observed action is without any requirement for mirror neurons but that mirror neurons might be functionally important for 'understanding' differences in how this action is performed (see Kilner 2011 Trends in Cognitive Sciences 15(8):352-7; Patel et al. 2012 Proceeding Royal Society B 279(1748):4853-60). These are important and interesting current questions for the field.

Whereas articles such as the above are thought provoking and entertaining they do little to advance reasoned scientific debate in what is already a highly controversial field.

controversial field

hi James, thanks for your comments. My main aim was to show how controversial the field is, and how much doubt there is around many of the bold claims made about mirror neurons. This may not aid scientific debate among scholars like yourself, but hopefully does help to combat the perpetuation of myths in the main-stream media and general public.

On the point about Federer, I did allude to the idea that mirror neurons may allow for a deeper level of understanding. However, this idea that they may be involved when it comes to motor expertise is a far cry from the idea that they form the very basis of empathy and action understanding. The expertise idea is also tricky to reconcile with findings (e.g. that have suggested less mirror neuron activity when looking at gestures that are better known and have more meaning vs. meaningless/unfamiliar gestures.

Relativity of this dispute to autism

I am an undergrad student studying psychology. I have recently taken up great interest in the inner workings of the intelligence, and social functions of diagnosed Autism and Asperger Syndrome individuals. My main question is, If we were to find that these mirror neurons do indeed exist, and do help to replicate the actions and emotions of others could it even potentially benefit those diagnosed individuals. Obviously the real disability amongst these individuals is simply the lack of the ability to interact socially. Although they are already extremely intelligent, would this breakthrough be applicable in assisting these individuals with social interaction, or simply to understand peoples feelings thus pushing them into an even more uncomfortable social zone, feeling as though they have their reservations of interaction as well as those of the people around them?

Great article, Thank You

not a monolith

hi Alex, thanks for your comments. A few things to note - lots of research shows that people with autism have no trouble understanding other people's actions, and the recent review that I mentioned in my article found little evidence of any mirror neuron dysfunction.

You wrote that - "the real disability amongst these individuals is simply the lack of the ability to interact socially". In fact, there are three key aspects to diagnosing autism - social impairment, communication difficulties and rigid/fixed interests. These three don't always go together and each is influenced by an independent suite of genes. Some people with autism are highly intelligent, some aren't. Some have an unusual talent or talents, others don't. To quote the autism expert Lorna King "Once you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism".

Mirror-neuron therapy, or any other kind of therapy based on a narrow theory, is unlikely to be a panacea. As Francesca Happe, an expert based in the UK, puts it: There are no miracle cures, but ‘expert enlightened education with understanding really works – these are miracles happening everyday in our special schools and units.’


"The biggest and most obvious problem for anyone advocating the idea that mirror neurons play a central role in our ability to understand other people’s actions, is that we are quite clearly capable of understanding actions that we are unable to perform."

You seem to be saying that mirror neurons' effectiveness is tied to their ability to bring about actions--that if we cannot play tennis like Federer, then we cannot be empathizing with him (via mirror neurons), regardless of the fact that we can "understand" what he's doing.

Empathy doesn't mean, an ability to DO what the other is doing. It's an ability to feel what the other seems to be feeling. Or at least to feel a simulation of it, as in response to a drama. It is possible the monkey in Parma was reacting, not to the action of reaching for a peanut, but to the feeling of anticipation or delectation or impending satisfaction that comes once one has reached for and eaten the peanut.

Of course, this doesn't address the idea of teaching, especially of physical actions--playing tennis, playing the guitar, etc. But that needn't be mirror neurons' "job." Rather, their job might be to tune the subject's emotional state to the task at hand, as a basis for more physical imitations and cognitive forms of learning. The fact that mirror neurons don't do everything doesn't mean they don't do anything.

You've misunderstood the

You've misunderstood the point - it has been claimed that mirror neurons provide the basis for empathy by a process of simulation. These are cells that are active when a certain action is performed, and when it is witnessed. We empathise with other people's actions, so the argument goes, when our motor cells (i.e. the mirror neurons) fire as if we were performing that action ourselves. A fatal flaw in this logic is that we are clearly able to empathise with and understand actions for which we do not have the relevant mirroring motor cells.

No one is claiming that mirror neurons don't do anything or that their mirror properties aren't interesting.

Hi Dr. Jarrett, I find mirror

Hi Dr. Jarrett,

I find mirror neurons very interesting, especially the challenge they pose in relation to criminal responsibility. Using the arguments outlined by Ramachandran, one could raise a defence that they did not intend to perform a criminal act, as rather they were subconsciously reacting and mimicking what they saw somebody else do.

What are your thoughts on this matter?

Empathy and Dialogue

James Kilner is right that Christian's piece is interesting and provocative, and that Christian's effort to clarify the function of motor neurons for laypeople is somewhat "simple and seductive." AND it appears that the conversation so far misses the significance of Christian's point that "mirror neurons appear to acquire their properties through experience. . . and cultural practices."

The causal claims that Christian appropriately resists are as flawed as most attempts to explain, as contrasted with understanding, humans and human systems (cf. Dilthey, Heidegger, etc. on Erklarung vs. Verstehen). The kind of understanding that mirror neurons facilitate is mediated by the understander's experience. In this sense, the metaphor, "mirror" is a bit misleading, unless we remember that mirrors can distort and that even images in flat mirrors are to some degree interpreted by the viewer's perspective, expectations, etc.

The difference is similar to the distinction some popular commentators on intercultural competence make between the "Golden Rule" and the "Platinum Rule." In an intercultural context, if I "do unto others as I would have them do unto me," I risk offending--or worse. Genuine intercultural adaptation requires me to "do under others as they would have me do unto them," and this can't usually happen unless and until I carefully observe and, most importantly, listen to them.

Dialogue, in its full sense, requires a kind of mutuality that involves conversation partners letting the other person happen to them while holding their own ground. The mindful listening that is a crucial element of dialogue can enhance one's ability to discover elements of the other's meanings for his or her actions and thus inform the interpretations (understanding) that my mirror neurons permit me to make.

The interpersonal processes include some natural, objective elements that may be understood with the help of causal models, AND they are primarily human processes that involve interpretations which cannot be fully understood as causally linked.

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Christian Jarrett, Ph.D is the editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and staff writer on their magazine The Psychologist.


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