What's the fuss about mirror neurons?


A few decades ago, scientists in the University of Parma, Italy, discovered that special motor cells (which they named mirror neurons) in the brain of macqua monkeys were active when the monkey's follow hand gestures made by others as they were when the monkeys do it themselves. Mirror neurons have been a subject of unending debate in the world of psychology and neuroscience in the last ten years since its discovery through observational studies conducted on the macqua monkeys.

Proponents of the prospects of mirror neurons proposed that they are central, rather than auxiliary, to how we understand actions and feelings of other people, and as a result share in the emotions of others. Vilayanur Ramachandran, a neuroscientist professor at the University of California, San Diego postulated that mirror neurons could be responsible for the evolution of empathy in humans, which could also have led to the development of human civilization (TED video).

Also, a team led by Mirella Dapretto, a neuroscientist in the University of California, researched the link between the dearth of mirror neuron activity and how autism patients are not able to understand the mindset of others. The experiment involved 10 socially active adolescents forming the control group and 10 autistic patients (the test group) imitating angry, fearful, happy and neutral facial expressions flashed on a computer screen while the activity levels in the mirror neuron systems(MNS) were observed. They noticed that

"the autistic children had no problem imitating the faces, showing that they were getting the same information as the other children, but their MNS was significantly less active. And the more severe the social dysfunction of the autistic child, the weaker the MNS activity."

A recent field of study by Vittorio Gallese, who was part of the lead team of scientists in the University of Parma, links mirror neurons to why we are very much into movies.  These claims were sensible at first but after reading the counter arguments and studies made against them, it was quite disappointing that such seemingly reasonable and intelligent claims could be severely dented by repeated experiment and other theories that simply connected the dots in a different way.

 To counter a research study conducted by Marco Iacoboni at the University of California (which supported the theory that mirror neurons are responsible for the ability of mentally fit persons to socialize better than persons with autism), Ilan Dinstein and David Heeger, of the University of New York conducted a similar test which they deemed more in-depth. The result of the tests showed that two areas of the brain that are thought to contain mirror neurons in the brain were similarly active in both groups although there were observable irregularities in the brains of those with autism.

Also, a counter argument against the theory that mirror neurons are central to understanding the actions of other people is that we can understand the actions of others without being able to perform those actions. Questions about how third variables such as the roles memories may play in how we understand actions of others raise further questions about the central role of mirror neurons in understanding people. This article by NCBI explains the philosophy and science that counter the claim of mirror neurons being central to understanding of people's actions.

Some scientists have called for the study on mirror neurons to be stopped altogether while others still remain hopeful that mirror neurons will give us clearer answers on how we understand the actions of others, even if they may not play a central role. Should studies on this subject be continued?  

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