The discovery of a class of brain cells called mirror neurons was embraced by an entire generation of scientists as the key to the neurological understanding of human social behaviors. But what if the fundamental assumption about these cells’ activity was wrong from the start?
The behavioral characteristic of mirror neurons that generated such excitement is this: Neurons fire when a subject reaches for an object as well as when a subject observes someone else reach for an object. This simple but profound feature, which suggests a relationship between knowledge of self-actions and an understanding of the intentions of others, generated multidisciplinary theories about all kinds of human behavior and thought, from language to empathy. Hickok (Cognitive Science/Univ. of California, Irvine) understood the hype—if these claims held up, the mirror neuron theory of “action understanding” could revolutionize our comprehension of some of the brain’s most compelling mysteries. However, the author was also wary, in part because the data that started the firestorm was the result of experiments on monkeys, not humans—a big leap to the nuanced human behaviors mirror neurons were purported to explain. When he dug deeper into the research, Hickok was not convinced that the hard evidence was there. He became a vocal critic of the cult of mirror neurons and began conducting his own research. The results are fascinating: New findings in behavioral science and neuroscience suggest mirror neurons have a vital role to play within a broader class of sensorimotor cells, which may lead to a new understanding of the brain within a computational theory of the mind. It's an inspiring example of experimental science at work: The initial theory of mirror neurons may have had a false start, but it inspired an even more complex and interesting story that is just beginning to unfold.
A bold look at one of the most exciting theories in neuroscience.