Mirror neurons?

The strongest claim about mirror neurons is that they are responsible for human uniqueness, because they turned us into a singularly social primate. “It is widely believed that hyper-sociality is what makes humans ‘special,’ the key to understanding why it is we, and not the members of any other species, who dominate the world with our language, artefacts and institutions,” wrote Heyes in her 2010 commentary. “Therefore, in the light of this ‘adaptation hypothesis,’ mirror neurons emerge as an evolutionary foundation of human uniqueness…If mirror neurons are an adaptation, and more ‘advanced’ in humans than in monkeys, they may well play a major role in explaining the evolutionary origins and online control of human social cognition,” she wrote. Indeed, that’s the same claim that Ramachandran makes…

But recent research casts doubt on the adaptation hypothesis. Increasing evidence indicates that the so-called “mirror effect” in brain cells can be enhanced, abolished, or even reversed due to the effects of learning. The mirror-neuron systems of dancers and musicians, for example, have different properties than those of others, and those tool-sensitive mirror neurons in monkeys only come about as a result of experience with tools…

That means that mirror neurons didn’t evolve, per se. What evolved is the mechanism that produces mirror neurons: associative learning, our ability to identify statistical patterns in the world, to associate one event with another, like the ringing of a bell with a tasty dinner. And associative learning is present in a wide variety of species, meaning that its mere presence can’t be the “evolutionary foundation of human uniqueness.”

Jason Goldman has a nice essay in Nautilus on the ubiquitous mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are fairly controversial, with questions as to whether they actually exist as a distinct population of cells.


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