Mirror neurons were hailed as the explanation for empathy, autism, language learning, human self-awareness, and so much more. But was the hype really warranted? In this article, we take a look at why mirror neuron research seems to have promised more than it could deliver.
But first, what are mirror neurons exactly? Simply put, they are neurons which emit an action potential both when an animal performs an action, as well as when the animal simply watches another animal perform the same action. They were first identified in monkeys in 1992, but didn’t really start gaining popularity until the late 90s.
Their discovery was very much an accident. Researchers were recording activity from a region of the monkey brain called the ventral premotor cortex while the monkeys manipulated certain objects. But the electrodes were still recording in the time between trials, when the experimenter was the one manipulating the tools and setting the next trials. And it was then when the researchers noticed that the same neurons that had been active while the monkeys were performing the task were also active when they saw the experimenter doing the same.
While this is an interesting finding, it definitely doesn’t provide any empirical support to the wild theories that came after. Yet these observations, together with the offhand remark that the monkey ventral premotor cortex corresponds to the human language area (Broca’s area), captured the imagination of both scientists and non-scientists alike. A multitude of research which placed mirror neurons at the center of action understanding followed.
Personally, I learned about the monkey experiment in my undergrad, and was taught that research in humans still needs to show conclusive proof of the existence of mirror neurons, but that this basically explains empathy, language, and the theory of mind, and that their dysfunction explains autism. Then I proceeded to store this information in the back of my mind, because my research didn’t develop along these lines.
That is, until I came across a cartoon of mirror neurons and saw a comment from Gregory Hickok talking about how “the myth of mirror neurons still won’t die”. I looked it up and, wouldn’t you know it, he’s a researcher who literally wrote the book on why mirror neurons are overhyped. I strongly recommend that you read it, but if I were to summarize it in simple terms, I would say it tells the story of how a couple of speculatory paragraphs built on the simple observation that neurons respond to seen actions and the suggestion that the monkey brain area where these neurons are found is equivalent to the human “speech area” took a life of its own and permeated an entire field for more than a decade, when, in fact, the empirical data does not actually support the claims.
And of course, such an explain-it-all exciting idea wasn’t just contained to neuroscience alone, but spilled into popular culture, where the hype simply continued to grow. And while neuroscience managed to let the hype die down and correct course, the corrections weren’t that interesting to make it into pop writing. So perhaps 50 years from now some journalist will write “neuroscientists abandoned the mirror neuron theory, but forgot to tell the public” (in the same way they did about the serotonin imbalance theory of depression).
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Hickok, G. (2009). Eight problems for the mirror neuron theory of action understanding in monkeys and humans. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 21(7), 1229-1243.
Hickok, G. (2014). The myth of mirror neurons: The real neuroscience of communication and cognition. W W Norton & Co.