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The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition
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2014 > BSP 112 What do Mirror Neurons Really DO?

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Virginia MD (gingercampbell) | 321 comments Mod
I have just posted the latest Brain Science Podcast. BSP 112 is an interview with Gregory Hickok, author of The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition. It is an intriguing look on why the most popular current theory about what mirror neurons do is probably wrong.

Link to mp3

BSP show notes

message 2: by Dalton (new)

Dalton Seymour | 20 comments As I see it, the biggest problem with Mirror neuron theories is very similar to the Grand Mother Cell - the name they chose for this group of cells. I believe that what's being detected in both cases are simply Hub Cells. Cells that collect features. It appears that the brain likes to boil things down to a single neurons as in the case of Place and Grid cells. When that's done, it allows linking to all sorts of associations that give a concept depth and understanding - the process of assimilation.

Discounting Motor Neuron Theories for the mapping of sounds and actions as a mechanism for recognition and comprehension:

The problem with entirely discounting this theory is that in the case of motor neuron disease and disorders, Hickok has failed to take into consideration that there are different brain levels that sequential activities progress through. The cortical and cerebral components may indeed be intact and functional while the problem exists peripherally at the neuromuscular junction or even at the level of the spinal ganglia. One could still have some degree of subjective feedback. So, discounting the motor neuron theory on the basis of disease should be taken with a grain of salt.

Another source that has lead to the discounting of the motor system is in the claims that we do not possess pathway patterns for the production of motions unique to other species. The problem here is that it fails to take into account evolution on two separate levels. One is the conservation of rudimentary biological features across species, and the other is adaptation that allows us to recognize intent in the behavior of other species and predators based on experience and survival. Plasticity could very likely lay down the connectivity to recognize the postural intention of predators and even be a heritable trait carried forward based on those who survive and Lamarckian inheritance. Once discounted in favor of Darwinian evolution, it has now regained favor with the understanding of epigenetics, the heritable proteome, and self maintaining prion proteins.

When it comes to language and the impairment of vocal expression, that doesn't mean that the initialization circuitry in the cortex and sequencing by cerebellum are impaired. Therefore, if one takes into account the difference between the snapshot single memory for objects and sounds, and sequential memories that unfold over time (as in task related activities) like the production of audible streams in speech, one realizes that of all the so called different types of memory, these two are undeniable. One of the things that gives them credibility is they depend on different morphological types of neurons (pyramidal vs purkinji cells).

If one looks for how sequential memories are produced, it leads you too the cerebellum as the likely source for its specialty is managing sequential activity. The cerebellum is also intimately involved in habituation as opposed to reinforcement. Unlike reinforcement, habituation is largely unconscious. The discourse employed by people has been show to be a habituated process where some 90 % of the words and phrases employed by people is habituated. On practically any instance, spouses who have been together longer than 5 years can predict what's going to come out of the mouth of their mate - verbatim. Last but not least, you should take into consideration that it's not uncommon to experience the engagement of the motor system without production of an output activity. When watching a sports activity, fans can find themselves making minor movements related to the activity they see. I have little doubt that they are internalizing the experience, and through that internal playback they gain greater depth in their understanding.

message 3: by Wayne (last edited Oct 17, 2014 02:10PM) (new)

Wayne Brooks | 6 comments A pair of neuroscientists in London have published a timely review in the respected journal Current Biology entitled “What we know currently about mirror neurons.” In contrast to the hype that usually surrounds these cells, James Kilner and Roger Lemon at UCL have taken a calm, objective look at the literature:

"The discovery of mirror neurons has had a profound effect on the field of social cognition. Here we have reviewed what is currently known about mirror neurons in the different cortical areas in which they have been described. There is now evidence that mirror neurons are present throughout the motor system, including ventral and dorsal premotor cortices and primary motor cortex, as well as being present in different regions of the parietal cortex. The functional role(s) of mirror neurons and whether mirror neurons arise as a result of a functional adaptation and/or of associative learning during development are important questions that still remain to be solved. In answering these questions we will need to know more about the connectivity of mirror neurons and their comparative biology across different species."

Hickock does well to argue for a complete picture when it comes to mirror neurons, including the contiributory role of the sensorimotor system. His outcome however is not to integrate mirror neurons into a bigger picture but to argue for the primacy of the sensorimotor system to the exclusion of the role of mirror neurons. All learning is multimodal and from the brain as a network perspective is not going to reduce to exclusionary pathways. This exclusionary viewpoint is divisive not in the scientific mode of Kilner and Lemon who do not hold Hickock's brilliantly argued theoretical bias.

message 4: by Andriuskulikauskas (last edited Oct 17, 2014 11:50AM) (new)

Andriuskulikauskas | 8 comments Ginger, Dalton, Wayne, I have some thoughts related to Dalton's post.

As Dalton describes, there are many layers of processing involved. I think it's important to distinguish whether mirror neurons are firing in response to external shapes or internal schema. I expect that there is a robust system that fires in reponse to internal schema. For example, a mirror neuron might fire if a mouse goes into a hole, and then again if a snake goes into that hole, and then again if one's hand goes into that hole, or anybody else's. That is to say, it will fire if anything is perceived to go into that mouse hole or is imagined to do so. Similarly, a mirror neuron may fire to apply an internal schema for grasping a cup, whether that is with a human hand, a monkey hand or a robot hand. That internal schema may or may not pick up on concrete visual or motor cues regarding the shaping of the hand, depending on the level of abstraction that it is operating on.

Whereas I doubt that mirror neurons will fire if the hand simply has a similar external shape. For example, if a mouse or a plastic doll were to have a tiny hand that had exactly the shape of a hand grasping for a cup, then I doubt that the the mirror neuron would fire if there was no context for the action to make sense.

When we see a bird fly or snake slither, we have a very impoverished and incorrect understanding of its action. We simply don't see what's going on, we're quite clueless,we don't know how to parse the actions. We thus rely on anthropomorphization. We can compare that with our hands wriggling or fluttering. That's about as good as we get unless we spend a lot of time studying birds or snakes. Then we may start making sense.

The arguments that Gregory Hickok presented imply that there should be a single way of dealing with speech perception. Instead, it is quite likely that there is a primary way and several excellent secondary ways that compensate almost good enough. It does seem like an interesting hypothesis that oral language is built on our ability to produce different kinds of sounds. The perception of these sounds may depend very much on the phonetic system overall and thus be language specific. For example, objectively, the "s" at the end of "dogs" (=dogz) and "cats" sound starkingly different but I think most English speakers aren't aware of that. Certain languages may not distinguish between 'pa' and 'ba' and others may, or even have a gradation of distinctions. This suggests that speech perception is not driven by absolute sounds but by phonetic systems. This would explain why an accent may initially sound like gibberish but with a bit of effort, paying attention, one can come to understand it readily. One transforms the sound system until the oppositions make sense. One finds the optimal center from which to draw distinctions. Now others (just like robots and computers) can and do learn alternative ways to decode the system. But I think they will run into big trouble if they don't already know what they are trying to learn, for example, if they are asked to learn a language which they've never heard before.

As with the actions of the snakes or the birds, if we study and practice, learn to take the actions apart and put them back together, as with learning to read, then we can gain an idiosyncratic ability for speech perception that is unrelated to how it is produced. But that ability will typically be much more conscious or simply have an alternative foundation. Speech perception was, I would think, co-evolved through a process that involved sound production. Alternate approaches are "parasitic" in that they themselves never would have led to speech perception.

All of this suggests that mirror neurons are exciting as indicators of a grammar of action, and even, a grammar of willfulness. Thank you for your thought-provoking episode!

Andriuskulikauskas | 8 comments P.S. Ginger, I want to add that I couldn't find a link to this forum from your website !

message 6: by David (new)

David Parker | 2 comments Can someone tell me if the mirror neuron theory was meant to be a universal theory? That is that it applies to all human brains. Is it also exclusive? Does it claim that this neuron function and only this function explains the resulting function in the mind?

It seems that the arguments for the theory being wrong are based on these two conditions.

message 7: by Wayne (last edited Oct 19, 2014 09:16PM) (new)

Wayne Brooks | 6 comments It is considered to be applicable to all human brains, but was never meant to be exclusive regarding function.

message 8: by David (new)

David Parker | 2 comments Ok, thanks.

Virginia MD (gingercampbell) | 321 comments Mod
Andriuskulikauskas wrote: "P.S. Ginger, I want to add that I couldn't find a link to this forum from your website !"

The is included in the show notes for most episodes, but if you want to share an easy version use

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