Cecilia Heyes and Caroline Catmur, ‘What Happened to Mirror Neurons?’, Perspectives on Psychological Science (2021): DOI: 10.1177/1745691621990638
This is another catch-up post in this restart phase of ‘What Literature Knows About Your Brain’. What, indeed, has happened to mirror neurons, which used to be the talk of the town? They were the talk of the blog back in the day, too: several references here and an update here. As I mention in the latter post, I wrote an article (this article) in which I thought a bit about the implications of this field for understanding hand-holding in Shakespeare.
The science of mirror neurons, for the uninitiated, is associated most of all with Vittorio Gallese, especially by those in the humanities, because he has been so open to dialogue with people working on art and literature. The key phenomenon observed in early experiments was that that there was activity in brain regions associated with movements when those movements were observed, as if the brain responded to actions in others with a kind of inward mirroring. The function of that mirroring became the focus of adventurous thinking: is this the mechanism for inferring intentions and/or achieving empathy? Is this the key to artistic experience?
Even in those early days some were sceptical about this push beyond more basic kinds of action appraisal. Now, in a round-up of recent work, Heyes and Catmur give a steady assessment of what they think is a reasonable level of excitement. We shouldn’t go too far, they think: in relation to action understanding, ‘mirror-neuron brain areas contribute to low-level processing of observed actions (e.g., distinguishing types of grip) but not to high-level action interpretation (e.g., inferring actors’ intentions)’. There is a similar pattern in other aspects of cognition: speech perception, imitation, autism, and more. As they say, ‘mirror neurons contribute to complex control systems rather than dominating such systems or acting alone […] at a relatively low level’.
It’s not doom and gloom at all, as these are still remarkable features of the neural architecture: ‘Although disappointing relative to some early claims, we argue that these discoveries should not discourage further research on mirror neurons. […] Mirror neurons should not be tarnished; they are yet to fulfill their true promise’. On their own, their contribution may not reach the heights of the early hopes, but as part of larger networks, they are still fascinating. I think probably there were some over-excited responses to mirror neurons from people in the arts when they first became widely known. There were also some measured ones, and there is still room for more of those.