Monday, February 16, 2009

Problems for the mirror neuron theory of action understanding

This is a heads-up for people who have been assuming that mirror neurons – which have been most thoroughly studied in monkeys rather than humans – play an important role in the ability of humans to "understand" the actions of others. (It's kind of hard to determine whether monkeys understand, in the human sense, the actions of other monkeys.)

There is increasing skepticism from some in the neuroscience community that mirror neurons – if they even exist in humans in a form analogous to those in monkeys – live up to the high expectations.

Greg Hickok, Professor of Cognitive Sciences, and Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at UC Irvine, has been expressing concerns in this area at his blog, Talking Brains. Now a paper of his that discusses these concerns has been published at the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Here's the announcement from his blog:

Eight problems for the mirror neuron theory of action understanding (2/10/09)
The basic conclusion is that there is little or no evidence to support the mirror neuron=action understanding hypothesis and instead there is substantial evidence against it.

The announcement is also here.

Unfortunately, the journal isn't open access, and I haven't yet seen the paper. If and when I have a chance to read it, I'll very likely try to report a lot more. I've already written about the subject of mirror neurons, based on various earlier accounts, e. g. here, here, here, here.

Pending more information, Hickok has some posts on his blog that provide a few details. Especially this from last August:

Eight Problems for the Mirror Neuron Theory of Action Understanding (8/6/08)
Regular readers (and perhaps even occasional readers) of Talking Brains are well aware that I have been rather critical of the interpretation of mirror neurons that dominates the literature, namely, that they are the basis of action understanding. I've finally synthesized all of these critical comments into a critical review titled "Eight Problems for the Mirror Neuron Theory of Action Understanding in Monkeys and Humans."

Here are other posts by Hickok since that one that discuss mirror neurons:

Mirror neurons, hubs, and puppet masters (8/21/08)
How much can a motor representation contribute to action word meaning? (8/26/08)
Mirror neurons in the inferior parietal lobe: Are they really "goal" selective? (10/24/08)
Rock-Paper-Scissors and mirror neurons: Executed and observed movements have different distributed representations in human aIPS (10/31/08)
Ventral premotor cortex and action processing: Urgesi, et al. (11/3/08)
Mirror neurons in humans revealed by fMRI adaptation (11/4/08)

There are many earlier posts. Just search the blog for "mirror neuron".

One last piece of information – the PubMed abstract for Hickok's paper:

Eight Problems for the Mirror Neuron Theory of Action Understanding in Monkeys and Humans
The discovery of mirror neurons in macaque frontal cortex has sparked a resurgence of interest in motor/embodied theories of cognition. This critical review examines the evidence in support of one of these theories, namely, that the mirror neurons provide the basis of action understanding. It is argued that there is no evidence from monkey data that directly tests this theory, and evidence from humans makes a strong case against the position.

Stay tuned.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous charles said...

this is a really interesting article, its just a pity i dont know that much about psychology and or neurology (?), and hence some of the terms can be difficult to understand..

2/18/2009 01:34:00 AM  
Blogger Charles Daney said...

its just a pity i dont know that much about psychology and or neurology (?), and hence some of the terms can be difficult to understand..

There are links in the article to Wikipedia pages that may explain the term with the link. I would recommend using those, and using Wikipedia to look up any other terms that aren't familiar.

Unfortunately, it isn't possible to explain every topic from scratch every time. But feel free to leave a question in the comments for any terms you want more explanation of.

3/07/2009 07:23:00 PM  

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