Mirror neurons, or, monkey see…

The tireless Don Clark links to a Scientific American interview with Marco Iacoboni, who studies mirror neurons. Iacoboni says, “Mirror neurons are the only brain cells we know of that seem specialized to code the actions of other people and also our own actions.”

He also says:

…the hype can backfire and mirror neurons may lose their specificity.

I think there are two key points to keep in mind. The first one is the one we started with: mirror neurons are brain cells specialized for actions. They are obviously critical cells for social interactions but they can’t explain non-social cognition.

The second point to keep in mind is that every brain cell and every neural system does not operate in a vacuum. Everything in the brain is interconnected, so that the activity of each cell reflects the dynamic interactions with other brain cells and other neural systems.

More on mirror neurons in a Brain Connection column by Robert Sylwester. Nice clear examples. For instance, if you stick your tongue out at a baby, even one who’s a day old, the baby will stick hers out. This isn’t a coincidence. “The infant’s observation of her parent’s projecting tongue fires the premotor neurons that represent her tongue and this priming activates the related motor cortex neurons that project her tongue out in mimicry.”

Faking, in sports, also depends on motor neurons. Here the idea is that you move in such a way that your opponent’s mirror neurons (which assess the movements of others) decide you’re going to go here. Of course, you try to go there.

…and then you think, well, he’s expecting a fake, so I’ll make a fake fake…

So why does so much formal training and formal learning seem to leave out modeling?  Blah blah, facts, key points, nobody actually doing the work.