There have been some critical commentaries recently that suggest that the hype over mirror neurons has become unbearable and a backlash is about to begin.
Mirror neurons are cells in the brain that are active both when a person is performing an action, or when they see someone else perform an action, and have been hypothesised to be involved in perceiving and comprehending others’ actions.
Worryingly, this system has been proposed as the basis of everything from empathy to appreciation of art, with very little supporting evidence.
Both Mixing Memory and Neurotopia have sceptical commentaries on mirror neurons and doubt whether they have been consistently demonstrated in humans in anything other than correlational brain scanning experiments.
This is probably a little unfair, as evidence for ‘mirror neurons’ in humans has been found using subdural (brain surface) electrodes, transcranial magnetic stimulation, fMRI, magnetoencephalography, EEG and when studying patients with action production and recognition problems after brain injury.
That’s quite a lot of converging evidence for the existence of an equivalent human system.
What is a little misleading is that the original studies measured the responses of single neurons in monkeys, whereby the human studies have all been using techniques that measured activation from a group of neurons.
This, and the fact that the recognition and generation of actions also relies on other brain areas, has led some to use the more accurate term ‘mirror system’ in preference to ‘mirror neuron’.
What most of the recent articles seem to be criticising, however, is that the concept is being used as a convenient ‘just so’ story for explaining almost any sort of complex human behaviour, usually by people with a fairly poor grasp of the existing evidence.
It’s easy to see why the idea is attractive. A system that is both involved in producing our own movements and becomes active when we see others moving leads some to infer (perhaps falsely) that we encode others’ behaviour into our brains in quite a direct way.
Even worse, in some retellings of the story, behaviour can include almost anything you care to think of.
As noted by Frontal Cortex, this concept, although flawed, is easy to grasp and user-friendly, making almost anyone an instant ‘expert’ on how the brain supports human interaction.
The reality will probably turn out to have too many qualifications to allow the media obsession with mirror neurons to continue forever, but in the mean time, don’t get put off by the hype.
The findings are fascinating and the mirror system will surely play an important role in our future understanding of human neuropsychology, even if this won’t exactly match how the media portrays it the moment.