Checking the Mirrors

* Alfonso Caramazza, Stefano Anzellotti, Lukas Strnad, and Angelika Lingnau, ‘Embodied Cognition and Mirror Neurons: A Critical Assessment’, Annual Review of Neuroscience, 37 (2014), 1-15.
* Olaf Hauk and Nadja Tschentscher, ‘The Body of Evidence: What Can Neuroscience Tell Us about Embodied Semantics?’, Frontiers in Cognitive Science, 4 (2013), 1-14.
* Friedemann Pulvermüller and Luciano Fadiga, ‘Active Perception: Sensorimotor Circuits as a Cortical Basis for Language’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11 (2010), 351-60.

The first two articles cited above are reviews of the field of ’embodied semantics’, that is, the extension of the ‘mirror neuron’ theory into the realms of language and concepts. ‘Mirror neurons’ in the motor cortex activate when we witness movement and action; scientists have posited this phenomenon as the basis of many higher functions (empathy, abstract ideas, and so on). The third citation (Pulvermüller et al.) is an example of this sort of work. This field has caused quite a bit of excitement in literary studies, which is why I wrote about it here, and referred to some other pieces by Pulvermüller, amongst others.
      However, the two reviews set out certain objections and doubts about the more developed forms of the mirror neuron theory. They don’t think there is good neuroscientific evidence that activation in the motor cortex and conceptual / linguistic function are causally linked. They think the idea that abstract concepts are developed from the brain’s processing of bodily experience is, on the experimental evidence, a bit of a stretch.
      I had a couple of responses to this, beyond being impressed by this scrupulous turn in the debate. One was: while I respected the scientific rigour with which the evidence was being sifted, I still felt it was absolutely astonishing that there could be any imaging evidence that encouraged people to think that abstract concepts and the motor cortex might be connected. You can see the kind of thing I mean in that previous post. The other thing I felt was a bit of relief at the way I had been quite careful in . The mirror neuron work was very congenial and exciting, but I didn’t over-commit to it being the last word; and sure enough, the debate continues, but I think my essay has not been outmanoeuvred.


* N. Tschentscher, O. Hauk, M.H. Fischer, and F. Pulvermüller, ‘You Can Count on the Motor Cortex: Finger Counting Habits Modulate Motor Cortex Activation Evoked by Numbers, NeuroImage, 59 (2012), 3139-48.

The two reviews were mentioned in an excellent presentation by Nadja Tschentscher at the ‘Goethezeit’ colloquium I mentioned in my last post. In the course of that talk she introduced some fascinating research that approached the ’embodied concepts’ questions from another angle.
      The essay cited above tests the possibility that some of our knowledge of number concepts derives from the experience of finger-counting. Since that’s how we learn numbers, the argument goes, our mental experience of numbers is based on, and in some sense still involves, a bodily experience. This is a partial validation of the arguments of by Lakoff and Núñez.
      The experiment in Tschentscher et al. strikes me as a very clever one. They sorted participants into those who habitually finger-counted with their left hands, and those who habitually finger-counted with their right hands. They then confronted them with numbers (with no finger involvement involved at all) and saw whether there was activation in the hand areas of the motor cortex. There was, and the righties and lefties showed different results… ‘Despite the absence of overt hand movements, the hemisphere contralateral to the hand used for counting small numbers was activated when small numbers were presented. The correspondence between finger counting habits and hemispheric motor activation is consistent with an intrinsic functional link between finger counting and number processing’.
      I can’t immediately think of a literary context in which this might be very meaningful, but it’s a lovely thing to think about.

‘The Shakespearean Grasp’, Cambridge Quarterly, 2013.
George Lakoff and Rafael Núñez, Where Mathematics Comes From (New York: Basic Books, 2000)
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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