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Mirror, Mirror Neuron On the Wall

Occasionally Amazon’s suggestion algorithm will get me. Amazon “knows” that I have an interest in neurobiology and brain studies. So it should come as no surprise that Amazon recommended that I read Gregory Hickok’s 2014 book entitled The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition.

My first reaction was negative. I asked myself How could anyone have a problem with mirror neurons? In my mind mirror neurons are warm and fuzzy, not unlike a bunch of Star Trek Tribbles. Mirror neurons allow us to know each other, to be more empathetic. Right? They cause us to gather in small groups, build a campfire, and sing Kumbaya. What could possibly be wrong with mirror neurons? I immediately cast myself in the role of “hostile reader” and punched “purchase.” Myth (for short) was immediately delivered to my Kindle device. Damn you Amazon recommendation algorithm and your nefarious Kindle devices!

Back in the 1990s, a group of Italian researchers made a serendipitous discovery while conducting brain studies with a group of primates.  The primates they were studying had electrodes implanted in their brains as a way of tracking the activity of certain neurons in response to research tasks. Between trials the researchers noticed a peculiar phenomenon. The researchers kept the recording instruments going as they moved things around for the next run. As they reached for an item to move it into a new position, neurons fired. In essence, these neurons mirrored the reaching movements of the researchers. Thus was born the idea of mirror neurons.

The Italian researchers hypothesized that evolution developed mirror neurons in higher order organisms (like primates and humans) as a way of allowing us to know each other through the mirroring of action or movements. Through this mirroring process, we can create a model of the actions of others in our minds. Through this mirroring, we can know better the actions—and the intentions of those actions—of others. This is why mirror neurons have been called upon to explain such phenomenon as empathy, minds knowing minds, Theory of Mind (ToM), and even language. The mirror neuron story is a great story. Who could have a problem with this warm and fuzzy story? It explains so much so easily. But is it too good to be true?

In the early pages of Myth, Hickok allows that there are such things as mirror neurons. He has no problem with mirror neurons per se. His problem stems from the fact that the mirror neuron evidence (the science if you will) has jumped the scientific tracks. Here’s a partial list of the things that mirror neurons have been called upon to explain (sans references, which are in Myth):

  • Lip Reading
  • Stuttering
  • Schizophrenia
  • Imitation
  • Phantom limb
  • Hypnosis
  • Sexual orientation
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Political attitudes
  • Felt presence
  • Facial emotional recognition
  • Obesity
  • Love
  • Business leadership
  • Mother-infant communication, emotion processing, and attachment
  • Spectator sport appreciation
  • Drug abuse
  • The degree of male erection
  • Jungian archetypes
  • Mass hysteria

Phew! That’s quite a list. And there were more but I think you get the picture. The above list is why Hickok suggests that mirror neurons have taken on mythic proportions. Hickok spends most of his time trying to bring us the real story behind mirror neurons. He also points to alternative ways of framing cognition, especially language. I’ll leave you to read Myth and get the full story. In the rest of this post I’d like to focus in on a couple of aspects that I think are important.

In my mind, Hickok’s main beef with the explosive mirror neuron story is it’s too reductionistic. In essence, the mirror neuron story reduces understanding to motor actions and motor action potentials. According to Hickok, this form of reductionism fits well with the theory of embodied cognition: the body or biology forms the basis of understanding. One of the main animators behind the idea of embodied cognition is George Lakoff, who’s work I have tapped into extensively. For an example here, see Lakoff’s 2001 book entitled Where Mathematics Come From: How The Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics Into Being, which he co-authored with Rafael Nuñez. Again, Hickok has no problem with certain aspects of embodied cognition, but he argues that some forms of understanding do not involve experiences of or references to, the body. Hickok points out there are many “abstract concepts that [one] can understand but seem to have nothing motoric to ground in” (quoting Hickok). Here are a few examples:

  • Argue
  • Love
  • Decide
  • Believe
  • Post Cognitivism

Hickok asks this rather probing question: “If these concepts can be understood without grounding them in the motor system [of the brain], then why is it so critical that we ground concepts like KICK, LICK, or REACH in the motor system?

Cutting to the chase, the mirror neuron story has taken on mythic proportions for political reasons. The mirror neuron story supports a liberal view of life with its focus on such things as empathy, minds knowing minds, and mindfulness (which is all the rage today). The mirror neuron story is a liberal story. Now, an irony pops up when we consider that liberals tend to fight against reductionism. In contrast, liberals tend to embrace a more systems oriented approach to life. In his 2006 book entitled Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea, Lakoff argues that liberals tend to use systemic causation. Liberals tend to place social problems within social systems as opposed to placing them within individuals, which is a conservative approach. However, belief in the mirror neuron story tends to go against the systems grain. Go figure. And to his credit, Hickok, in telling us the real story behind cognition and communication, takes a decidedly systems theory approach. Now, here’s where the mirror neuron story gets a bit nasty.

Hickok talks about the “broken mirror” theory. Honestly, this was a new one on me. Because mirror neurons have been used to explain such things as empathy, Theory of Mind, and facial emotional recognition, they have been used to explain what happens when people are on the autism spectrum. In short, people on the autism spectrum have a “broken mirror” or a mirror neuron system that is malfunctioning in some fundamental way. Hickok takes exception with the idea of a broken mirror and rejects this destructive frame. Using well-known autism spectrum resident Temple Grandin as an example, Hickok presents evidence that suggests that people on “the spectrum” can be empathetic, can mirror emotion, and can engage in Theory of Mind. The problem as Hickok sees it is a matter of noise.

People on the spectrum deal with high levels of noise that they have a hard time filtering out. “As autistic author Temple Grandin said in a radio interview,” writes Hickok, “ ‘How is a person going to socialize if their ears are so sensitive that just being at a restaurant is like being inside a speaker at a rock … concert and it’s hurting their ears?’ ” According to Hickok, eye contact for persons on the spectrum allows way too much emotion to flood in, like being in a rock concert speaker. For persons on the spectrum, avoiding eye contact is a form of emotional regulation. “[A]utistics don’t look at the eyes as much because of a hyperactive response to emotional information, which is particularly evident in the eyes,” Hickok tells us. These people are trying to regulate emotion as a way of getting to a place where they can be empathetic and engage in Theory of Mind. Rather than a broken mirror, spectrum residents have a concave mirror that tends to intensify sensory experience. It’s not broken; it’s just very focused.

Now, Hickok mentions something concerning spectrum residents that should resonate with Bowlbian attachment types. Spectrum residents often appear to be aloof and nonplussed, as if they do not care about their surroundings and the people in it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Studies show (see Myth for the references) that often when spectrum residents have a calm, aloof exterior presence, internally they are experiencing a lot of stimulation and even anxiety. This is similar to the pattern often exhibited by kids who have a form of distancing attachment: calm exterior that hides an excited and agitated interior as measured by heart rate and cortisol production (cortisol being one of the neurotransmitters released during sates of arousal or stress). In both cases, a calm exterior hides an interior process of attempting to regulate emotion through distancing.

So, just a quick post to say that even though I was reluctant at first, I ultimately enjoyed Hickok’s book. It gave me a deeper appreciation for what Bowlby did by giving us his trilogy on attachment. Bowlby went to great lengths to make sure that his attachment theory would not jump the scientific tracks the way the mirror neuron story apparently has. I think Bowlby was well aware that without great care on his part, attachment theory could be used for all manner of political purposes. Even with all the safeguards Bowlby built into his theory of attachment, it has been used for political reasons. I think Myth is a great example of how science can jump the tracks, and what we must do to get things back on track. When science jumps the tracks, we could end up with harmful frames such as “broken mirror” and even “mindblindness” (a term that Simon Baron-Cohen uses in his work).

I’ll leave you with this question: Is it possible that we are seeing increases in people living on the autism spectrum because the noise level of life has been so amped up? Are we now all of us living in a rock concert speaker? Echoing Grandin from above, it’s hard to be social when you’re living in a rock concert speaker. Maybe increased levels of autism spectrum disorders and insecure attachment are trying to tell us something. But are things too loud for us to hear these messages? Is it possible that software program coding is a way of communicating while keeping noise to a minimum? If you have any thoughts, use the Contact Us link above.