The demise of mirror neurons?

The latest (April 2016) issue of Scientific American contains an article that caught my eye. It is billed as “Cognitive Psychology” and subtitled “By honing ax-making skills while scanning their own brains, researchers are studying how cognition evolved.” This is clearly a very speculative venture, and the article (“Tales of a Stone Age Neuroscientist” available to subscribers) is full of interesting anecdotes and hypotheses.

A quick search of the NIH site reveals quite a few related articles, that I will pursue as time permits (ha!). The SciAm article also lists several references.

One thing that struck me was that the author (Dietrich Stout) described a process of cognition long know as “action understanding” without invoking the phrase “mirror neurons” — a topic that I have posted (skeptically) about in the past. A quick glance at the summaries of the articles linked to above revealed no such usage, either. I’ll be interested to find out, by reading those articles, whether any reference (to mirror neurons) is made.

A few years ago, I was a subject in a brain study that was searching for link between so-called “mirror neurons” and autism. One¬†outcome of that study is now the subject of John Elder Robison’s latest book, Switched On. I had a very different experience from John’s, as he reports in his book. And the other autistic subjects (at least the ones I knew and talked with) had varying reactions to the brain stimulation we experienced. Clearly, though, something happened in our brains that changed the way we perceived the world, and created cognitive or emotional clarity,¬†even if only temporarily, that we had not previously known.

This study stimulated (so to speak) my interest in mirror neurons, which led me to do a lot of reading on that topic. I came to the belief that there are no such specialized cells, but that the brain as a whole performs the functions attributed to those hypothetical neurons. And it may very well be that, like so many brain functions, there are areas of the brain that are heavily involved in this process. In that study, Broca’s area was targeted. This area is known to be heavily involved in language processing, and probably in other related functions such as social understanding. The brain regions mentioned in the SciAm article are mostly in the frontal cortex as well, the “newest” area of the human brain (although as the brain evolves, “older” parts of the brain change, too, because the organ operates as a unit, not a collection of disparate functions).

For now, pending further study, my takeaway is the (to me) surprising lack of the use of the phrase “mirror neurons” (may they rest in peace). Instead, the process of “action understanding” was described in the article as

…we use many of the same brain systems to understand observed actions as we do to execute them.

This seems to me like a much simpler and more accurate way to describe how the brain works. Occam’s razor and all that.


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