The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition

By Hauptman, Robert | Journal of Information Ethics, April 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition


Hauptman, Robert, Journal of Information Ethics


The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition Gregory Hickok. New York: Norton, 2014. 292 pp. $26.95

Gregory Hickok, a professor of cognitive science, provides The New York Times with op-ed pieces debunking myths of cognition. The one that apparently riles him the most concerns mirror neurons, an unusual cognitive reaction that monkeys had to a fellow creature's action and which has been extrapolated to humans (similar experiments cannot be carried out on people except in very extraordinary circumstances, e.g., when patients must have electrodes implanted in their brains for medical reasons. It is inhumane that we do not extend the same ethical considerations to all animals and especially to primates) and naturally has subsequently been touted as the solution to all of our problems. Even scientists get carried away. The discovery was made in Italy in the early i990s that specific neurons (cells) in macaque monkeys' brains reacted when the individual did something like eat a banana (split). The researchers then noticed that when the individual observed a fellow glutton devouring the same meal, the identical neurons fired (even though the monkey remained enviously hungry). These excited mirror neurons excited virtually all neuroscientists and produced reams of scholarly publications, many of which Hickok scrupulously cites with great frequency. Early on, few if any researchers criticized the experiments or the results. Thus, Hickok's questioning (and attempt to publish rebuttals) were not well received (and this is precisely the problem with the peer review system, which stifles iconoclastic views). In The Myth of Mirror Neurons, Hickok reviews the entire brief history of the discovery, research results, problematic anomalies, and implications and then offers an alternative reading.

The first thing that the layman must understand is that the morphology and physiology of the brain is far more complex than was thought just 50 years ago. Larger areas can be subdivided; activities ascribed to specific areas (language to Wernicke's, for example) can migrate to other locations; and processes occur at the cellular level. The second important revelation is that it is possible to observe cellular activity indirectly through implanted electrodes and directly by employing a battery of tools, one of the most useful being fMRI, which allows the researcher to view the brain in action. The problem here is that illuminating blood flow may not indicate precisely what the researcher thinks (or hopes) she sees. Scientists devised imaginative experiments with many variations; others replicated the results. Everyone drew lots of conclusions (for humans). Neurons mirror the actions of another entity and therefore we now have a "neural blueprint" for the development of language, empathy, and autism; Hickok provides a list covering almost two pages of additional areas of neuronal influence including smoking and self-awareness in dolphins. …

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