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Reflecting on… mirror neurons

Laura Swash

1st August 2016

Mirror neurons were discovered in monkeys in the 1990s. They were activated in the pre-motor cortex when the monkeys performed a given action and when they saw another monkey, or a researcher, perform that action. Brain imaging studies with humans have also reported what looks like mirror neuron activity in many of the same brain regions identified in monkeys.

The psychologist V.S. Ramachandran , in his 2011 book, The Tell-Tale Brain, argues that mirror neurons underlie empathy, allow us to imitate other people, have accelerated the evolution of the brain, help explain the origin of language, and that they prompted the great leap forward in human culture that happened about 60,000 years ago.

Ramachandran and others have claimed that the lack of empathy, as measured by the lack of facial mimicry, in autism is traceable to a lack of mirror neurons – the “broken mirror hypothesis”. However, Christian Jarrett, science writer for Psychology Today and editor and creator of the BPS research Digest blog, called these “the most hyped concept in neuroscience”. The most recent research suggests that Jarrett is correct:a recent study in Autism Research has used a new way to measure facial mimicry and the results cast fresh doubt on the idea that autism is somehow caused by a broken mirror neuron system. Martin Schulte-Rüther and his colleagues show that involuntary, spontaneous facial mimicry – which supposedly depends on the mirror neuron system – is intact in individuals with autism.

Maybe there is a sociocultural, rather than a biological, explanation? Maybe people with autism, being less likely to want to make social connections with their peers, are also less likely to engage in the facial mimicry that often accompanies such social bonding, even though they can if they want to?

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Laura Swash

Laura has been teaching Psychology in the face-to-face classroom and online for many years and she enjoys writing online academic material and blogs.

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