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What do mirror neurons contribute to human social cognition?

Dr. Pierre Jacob

Tuesday, April 18, 2006, 01:00pm - 02:00pm

Director of research at CNRS, Institut Jean Nicod, Paris, FRANCE

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Mirror neurons (MNs) were first discovered in the ventral premotor cortex of monkeys. Further evidence based on brain imaging has revealed the existence of a "mirror system" in humans. What is the link between the activity of MNs and human mindreading? For a decade, MN theorists assumed that MNs in the brain of an observer match (duplicate or resonate with) MNs in an agent's brain. Gallese and Goldman (1998) have argued that, by resonating with MNs in an agent's brain, MNs in an observer's brain might enable the observer to represent the agent's intention, in accordance with a "forward" internal model of action. Thus, they have linked the mechanism of MNs to the simulation approach to mindreading. I have doubts. New evidence on the activity of MNs in both monkeys and humans casts doubt on the resonance model of the activity of MNs and has led MN theorists to endorse the view that MNs form "chains of logically related neurons". On this latter view, the function of interpersonal mirroring is not replicative, but predictive. But if interpersonal mirroring turns out not to be replicative, then it is not an instance of neural similarity, which, according to simulation-based accounts, is a crucial basis for mindreading. If so, then much of the support for the view that one function of MNs is to represent an agent's intention and, thereby to underlie mindreading, is therefore removed. Consequently, I consider an alternative view according to which the function of MNs is to compute (and thereby predict), not the agent's goal (or intention), but the motor commands suitable for achieving the goal, in accordance with an "inverse" internal model of action, not with a forward internal model of action.

Dr. Pierre Jacob