The Myth of Mirror Neurons: A book review by Bob Morris

Myth of Mirror NeuronsThe Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition
Grgegory Hickok
W.W. Norton & Company (2014)

How the latest research in neuroscience can help almost anyone think and communicate much more effectively

I begin with an unconventional suggestion: Read Appendix A, “A Primer on Brain Organization,” first; then proceed through Gregory Hickok’s lively and eloquent as well as insightful narrative. I wish I had when I first read this book.

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In the Preface, Hickok quotes this passage from V.S. Razmachandran’s conversation (in 2000) with John Brockman, featured by “I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide the unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.” Fourteen years later, in this book, Hickok shares revelations from recent research in neuroscience that can help almost anyone think and communicate much more effectively. Several of these breakthroughs occurred during research on pigtail macaque monkeys. Hickok suggests that the behavior of mirror neurons is modest, at least in the context of the human abilities they are claimed to enable…Mirror neurons are no longer the rock stars of neuroscience and psychology that they once were and, in my view, a more complex and interesting story is gaining favor regarding the neuroscience of communication and cognition”

In other words, the real neuroscience of communication and cognition repudiates and invalidates the myth of mirror neurons.

I very much admire the energy of his analysis and circumspection of his perspective. These are among the subjects of greatest interest to me that Hickok discusses with rigor and, when appropriate, restraint:

o Assuming that humans have mirror neurons, what are their primary functions and limitations? What differentiates them from mirror neurons of a macaque monkey?

o For example, to what extent do they “unlock the secrets of language, mind reading, empathy, and autism”?

o What is the Parma Theory and why is it significant?
o What are the most significant anomalies in the search for mirror neurons in humans?
o What does each of these anomalies suggest? So what?
o What are the defining characteristics and primary functions of a “talking brain”?

o What is an embodied brain”? What is its relevance to “the real neuroscience of communication and cognition”?

o What are the core principles of a neural base of action understanding?

o Why and how is imitation “at the core, the very foundation of what it means to be human both culturally and socially”?

o Why do humans “ape better than apes ape”?

o To what extent (if any) is there a causal link between autism? Between autism and sociopathic behavior?

o In a robotic arm situation, what is the significance of the fact that that the brain “models or predicts the current and future state of the limb internally using motor commands themselves rather than sensory feedback alone”?

o To what extent will mirror neurons have a role to play in our models of the neural basis of communication and cognition”?

Although to the extent possible, Hickok presents the material in language that non-scientists such as I can understand, this was by no means an “easy read” and I plan to re-read it again in a few weeks, first re-reading the two appendices: “A Primer on Brain Organization” and “Cognitive Neuroscience Toolbox.” (I wish I had done so the first time around.) Brilliantly, they frame the issues and ambiguities that are discussed with consummate skill.

I agree with Gregory Hickok: “Placed in the context of a more balanced and complex structure, mirror neurons will no doubt have a role to play in our models of the neural basis of communication and cognition.” So much more research in neuroscience remains to be conducted and evaluated. I am grateful to anyone who increases my understanding of “mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.” In other words, I am grateful for whatever helps me to gain a better understanding of myself.

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