Mysterious neurons

Mo Costandi has an excerpt from his book, 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know, on his Guardian blog (here). The post is about mirror cells.



It can be summed up:


  • Mirror neurons are cells that fire during both the execution and observation of a specific action.

  • They have not actually been observed in humans although they have been inferred.

  • What they actually do in the monkey brain is not clear.

  • They have been hyped out of all proportion to the knowledge that we have of them.


So we have people proposing that autism is the result of the ‘mirror system’ not functioning properly, that mirror neurons allow us to understand the actions of others, that they are needed for imitation, that they allow us to understand action ‘from the inside’, that they are the foundation of empathy, etc. etc.



I assume that someday mirror neurons will be found in humans but that they will turn out to be the action equivalent of sensory cells that recognize particular objects, or particular places. The brain can recognize particular things by activity in particular groups of neurons: a kitchen chair, a friend’s back yard, Aunt Jane, and the action of reaching for something. There does not seem to be a special explanation required. The fact that mirror neurons have taken on a sort of mystical quality implies that there is something very important missing from many people’s understanding of the brain. Some gap that has to be bridged.



In some quotes found in other articles, there is a clue to what the gap seems to be. G. Rissolatti: “We are exquisitely social creatures. Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking.” P. Greenfield: “Mirror neurons provide a powerful biological foundation for the evolution of culture. Now we see that mirror neurons absorb culture directly, with each generation teaching the next by social sharing, imitation and observation.” M Iacoboni: “Mirror neurons suggest that we pretend to be in another person’s mental shoes. In fact, with mirror neurons we do not have to pretend, we practically are in another person’s mind.” So there is the problem – how do we know what other’s intentions are without some magical mind reading?



That does not seem a problem. We guess. Simple, we guess. We are smart guessers. First, we sometimes guess wrong. Two, the guessing skill is something that can be learned. Three, we have to guess our own intentions so why not others.



Consciousness does not have a direct knowledge of intent – we guess and we are not even conscious of our guessing. We are back to the awkward knowledge that what we feel consciously (first our intention, then our decision and then our action) is not what is actually happening. Our conscious thoughts are not the cause of the action. Our conscious thought is constructed after the events have taken place. We are guessing what our intent is. Libet’s experiment is not going to fade away. We have to face up to this. We have to get used to how our motivation really works rather than put a mystical, magical power into mirror neurons.


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