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Mirror neurons

Page history last edited by Victoria Yupangco 13 years ago

Mirror neurons



Mirror neurons are a set of visuomotor neurons, originally discovered in the macaque premotor cortex.  Further research has shown that they are present in human beings as well.  The premotor cortex is is predominantly responsible for our movement, as guided by our senses.   These appropriately named “mirror neurons” deal with both the execution and observation of action.  That is, mirror neurons are activated when a certain action is performed by the subject, and when the same action is performed by another subject, while being observed by the first subject.  This criteria is necessary for mirror neurons to discharge.  For example, neurons fire when the subject picks up a newspaper, but also, neurons fire when he observes another subject picking up the newspaper.  That is, they will not react if without the subject, without the target or if the action is performed with a tool.  In addition, the action performed must be goal-oriented: it must have some sort of intention.  These neurons discharge not only when an action is performed, but also react when the same action is observed.  



The cognitive abilities of human beings and other minded creatures have puzzled philosophers for quite some time, and the new discovery of mirror neurons have provided insight as to how human beings understand the behaviour of those around them, and how we explain certain aspects of social cognition.  Vittorio Gallese and Alvin Goldman suggest that the fascinating way in which human beings are able to read the minds of other human beings and make sense of their behaviour and their thoughts is a result of the execution/observation matching system implemented in these mirror neurons.  



Gallese and Goldman argue that a possible function of this system is to “promote learning by imitation” but they also suggest that mirror neurons are in fact the foundation of the “mind reading” abilities of human beings and other animals, (see Simulation Theory).  They conclude that mirror neurons support the simulation hypothesis, rather than Theory-Theory. Simulation Theory put forth that human beings imagine themselves as someone else in order to understand their thoughts and Gallese and Goldman agree that this is the function of the mirror neurons. However, Shaun Gallagher argues that although it is true that another individual may have an effect on another person, this is because it is a perceived elicitation, rather than a simulation: “it is not us (or our brain) doing it, but the other who does this to us.”  So then, as opposed to Simulationists, Gallagher argues that instead of mentally putting ourselves into another’s shoes, we simply experience a perception of the other person, or other animal.  



Further studies have shown that mirror neuron systems are not only useful in understanding others actions and the goals and intentions behind their actions, but also their emotions and the reasons behind their behaviourisms.  As the neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti suggests, “Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation.  By feeling, not by thinking.” (in Blakeslee, 2006)





  • Gallagher, S. (2007). Logical and Phenomenological Arguments against Simulation Theory. In D. Hutto & M. Ratcliffe (Eds.), Folk Psychology Re-Assessed (pp. 63-78). Dordrecht: Springer
  • Blakeslee, Sandra.  (2006) Cells that Read Minds.  New York Times.
  • Gallese, V., & Goldman, A. (1998). Mirror neurons and the simulation theory of mind-reading. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2(12), 493-501.




- Aliyah Nurmohamed,  University of Toronto

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