What Do Mirror Neurons Really Do? (BSP 112)

Greg Hickok, PhD (Click on photo to hear his interview)

Greg Hickok, PhD (Click on photo to hear his interview)

Ever since their chance discovery back in 1992 mirror neurons have captured the imagination of both scientists and nonscientists, but their actual role remains mostly speculative. In The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition Dr. Gregory Hickok (UC-Irvine) explains why the most popular theory is probably wrong. He also provides a fascinating account of how science is really done and the sobering lesson that scientists can fall prey to the same cognitive biases (and tendencies toward laziness) that plague all humans.

I first discussed the discovery of mirror neurons back in BSP 35 when I featured  Mirrors in the brain: How our minds share actions, emotions, and experience (2008) by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia. At that time what I found most fascinating was that since mirror neurons fire both when a subject (usually a monkey) performs an action and when a similar action is observed, this proves that single neurons are not necessarily purely motor or purely sensory. This surprising discovery seems to have been overshadowed in the rush to use mirror neurons to explain everything from autism to language evolution.

The latest Brain Science Podcast  (BSP 112) features an interview with Dr. Gregory Hickok. BSP 35 is also available for FREE via the Brain Science Podcast Mobile APP.

 How to get this episode:

  • FREE: audio mp3 (click to stream, right click to download)

  • Buy Episode Transcript for $1.

  • Premium Subscribers now have unlimited access to all old episodes and transcripts.

  • New episodes of the Brain Science Podcast are always FREE. All episodes posted after January 1, 2013, are free. See the individual show notes for links the audio files

References and Links

Related Episodes:

  • BSP 35: introduction to Mirror Neurons (free as an episode extra if you use the BSP mobile app)

  • BSP 39: Dr. Michael Arbib on the possible role of mirror neurons in language evolution (note this interview doesn't represent his current views)

Announcements:

  • Next month's episode will provide exclusive coverage of "Neuroplasticity and Healing" an event being hosted by the Dalai Lama at the UAB School of Medicine.

  • The most recent 25 episodes of the Brain Science Podcast are always FREE. Older episodes and episode transcripts are available for $1 each. Premium subscribers have unlimited access to all 100+ episodes and transcripts.

  • Reminder: The Brain Science Podcast mobile app is now FREE for iOS, Android and Windows Mobile.  Check newer episodes for extra free content!

  • Don't forget to check out my other podcast Books and Ideas.

  • Please share your feedback about this episode by sending email to brainsciencepodcast@gmail.com or going to the Brain Science Podcast Discussion Forum at http://brainscienceforum.com. You can also post to our fan pages on Facebook or Google+.

Mirror Neurons with Michael Arbib (BSP 39)

Episode 39 of the Brain Science Podcast is an interview with Dr. Michael Arbib from the University of Southern California.  Dr. Arbib's work with functional brain imaging has established the presence of mirror neurons in the human brain.  In our interview, we focused on the role of mirror neurons in imitation and language.  In particular, I questioned Dr. Arbib about the Mirror System Hypothesis (MSH) of Language Evolution that he proposed in 1998 with Giacomo Rizzolatti.  We also explored how this hypothesis diverges from the universal grammar proposed by Noam Chomsky.  Dr. Arbib also shared his enthusiasm for future research and we talked about the special challenges caused by the interdisciplinary nature of modern neuroscience.

How to get this episode:

  • Premium Subscribers now have unlimited access to all old episodes and transcripts.
  • Buy mp3 for $1.
  • Buy Transcript for $1.
  • New episodes of the Brain Science Podcast are always FREE.  All episodes posted after January 1, 2013, are free.  See the individual show notes for links the audio files.

Related Episodes:

Scientists mentioned in the interview:

  • Giacomo Rizzolatti: His team discovered mirror neurons at the University of Parma, Italy. Other team members: Vittorio Gallese, Luciano Fadiga, and Leo Fogassi.
  • Ursula Bellugi (Salk Institute): pioneered the neurobiology of sign language.
  • Richard Byrne (University of St. Andrews): studies how gorillas learn in the wild.
  • Michael Tomasello (Max Planck Institute for Comparative Anthropology): studies social behavior of primates, including how communicative gestures vary between groups.
  • Noam Chomsky (MIT): famous linguist who has proposed an inborn universal grammar.
  • DL Cheney and RM Seyfarth:  research about primate vocal behavior, especially the use of calls in the wild.

References:

Other Links:

Donations and Subscriptions are appreciated

brainsciencestore.gif

A Closer Look at Mirror Neurons (BSP 35)

Mirrors in the Brain

Brain Science Podcast #35 is a discussion of Mirrors in the Brain: How Our Minds Share Actions, Emotions, and Experience, by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia.  Mirror neurons were discovered in Rizzolatti's lab in Parma, Italy, in the early 1990s, and his book is a detailed to discussion of the experimental evidence in both monkeys and humans.  Direct single neuron recordings have been made in monkeys.  The evidence in humans is indirect, since it is based on mainly on neuro-imaging studies like PET scans and fMRI scans.  Even so, mirror neurons appear to be essential to our ability to understand both the actions and emotions of others. 

In this episode, we also explore the evidence that there are other neurons in the motor areas of the brain that have sensory properties and that the areas of the brain traditionally thought to be devoted to sensory functions also contain neurons with motor properties.  Another fascinating discovery is the fact that there are neurons that respond not only to somatosensory inputs (such as being touched) but also to visual or auditory inputs from objects within our peri-personal space.  For background on these body maps, I recommend listening to Episode 21 and Episode 23.  If you are new to the Brain Science Podcast, you may want to listen to those episodes first, because this week's episode is a little more technical than most.

I will be exploring the importance of these discoveries in future episodes.

How to get this episode:

  • Premium Subscribers now have unlimited access to all old episodes and transcripts.
  • Buy mp3 for $1.
  • Buy Transcript for $1.
  • New episodes of the Brain Science Podcast are always FREE.  All episodes posted after January 1, 2013, are free.  See the individual show notes for links the audio files.

Links:

Donations and Subscriptions are appreciated

brainsciencestore.gif

Latest Episode of Talking Robots Explores Mirror Neurons

talkingrobotpodcastlogo.jpg Michael Arbib of USC discusses (Talking Robots 10/12/07) how the discovery of mirror neurons is inspiring attempts to design robots that can emulate human emotions. This is part of a larger trend in robotics which is called biological robotics in which designs are inspired by biological systems. It is significant that what is learned by attempts to design robotic animals can in turn shed light on how biological systems work. This kind of interdisciplinary work is at the intersection of neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and computer engineering. Dr. Arbib also discusses the challenges of doing interdisciplinary work in an age of exploding knowledge. You can find more about his work including links to a few of his numerous publications on his website.
Read More

A review of "The Body Has a Mind of Its Own" (BSP 21)

Featured in this episode: The Body has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better (2007), by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee.  (Also available on from Audible.com)

How to get this episode:

  • Premium Subscribers now have unlimited access to all old episodes and transcripts.
  • Buy mp3 for $1.
  • Buy Transcript for $1.
  • New episodes of the Brain Science Podcast are always FREE.  All episodes posted after January 1, 2013, are free.  See the individual show notes for links the audio files.

SHOW NOTES

Topics:

  • Body maps and the role of embodiment.
  • Basic ideas about the body maps in the brain.
  • Mapping the world around us.
  • How body maps differ between species.
  • Body schema and body image.
  • The role of body maps in disease.
  • The role of belief in health and illness.
  • How body maps explain non-traditional healing methods and unusual experiences.
  • The role of motor imagery in improving motor skills.
  • Mirror Neurons and grid neurons in the hippocampus  (see more on Scholarpedia).
  • How sensation and emotions come together (the role of the insula).

Scientists mentioned in the podcast:

Other scientists mentioned in The Body has a Mind of Its Own:

Note: This list is not exhaustive.  I know I left off VS Ramachandran and several others, but those listed above did work that was addressed, directly or indirectly, in my podcast.

Brain Structures (links include diagrams of the brain):