Doubts against mirron neurons theories

Ihmisillä, varsinkin anonyymeillä häiritsijöillä, on erikoinen taipumus sotkea kahteen eri paradigmaan liittyviä asioita toisiinsa, ajatuksenkulun mennessä jotakuinkin niin, että neuraalisen tason voidaan ajatella olevan "suoraan" käsitteellisen tason alapuolella. Tämä saattaa olla seurausta siitä, että pyrittäessä hahmottelemaan jonkun toisen ihmisen toimintaa, päädytään herkästi piirtelemään paperille, tietokoneelle tai omaan mieleensä palloja tai laatikoita, joilla on toisiinsa nähden jonkinlaisia yhteyksiä, mitkä sitten esitetään yhteyksiä kuvaavien viivojen avulla.

Riippunee paljolti siitä, mitä kaikkea tällainen satunnainen piirtelijä varsinaisesti tietää, että kuinka herkästi häneltä menevät käsitteiden väliset assosiaatiot ja neuronien väliset synaptiset linkit sekaisin ja mitä neuraalitason säännönmukaisuuksia hän soveltaa käsitteellisellä tasolla. Viimeistään siinä vaiheessa, kun hän tulee tietoiseksi siitä, että neuroneilla voi olla jopa tuhansia, kymmenenkin tuhatta, yhteyttä muihin neuroneihin, hän tajunnee, että jotain "pientä" epätarkkuutta hänen mallinnuksessaan saattaa olla. Siltikin, hyvin moni ihminen uskoo esimerkiksi ns. peilisoluihin ja siihen, että assosiaation kautta voidaan palauttaa toisen ihmisen mieleen jokin "tietty asia". Jälkimmäisessä tapauksessa tapahtuu herkästi luulojen projisointia, ensin mainittua eli peilisoluja (niihin liittyvää teoriaa) koetellaan seuraavassa (englanniksi, kirjoitettu vuonna 2010).


Classic explanation of mirror neurons is that certain cells in a brain fire in the exact same way when a monkey is holding a peanut [1] itself, or when it sees some other monkey doing the same. Explanation goes on to explain just about everything from skill of empathy to "being in someone else's shoes". 

I had my doubts against mirror neuron theory 10 years ago, and I still do. This time, however, I'll give the theory even a chance, but I will not give up very easily on this.

It is true, that we as humans can in some level and in some detail understand actions of, even become empathized toward, a video game character. There are some people, who has tendency or maybe a motivation to rush to the conclusions by saying that video game player can not differ himself from the video game character. And that would be, because mirror neurons has such a big impact; when video game character feels cold, you would feel too, right?

Alison Gopnik, author of the article [2] , which appeared in Slate-webmagazine (2007), called mirror neurons "left brain/right brain" of 21st century. She continued by saying:

Instead of teaching us about how the mind works, it may perpetuate some broad misconceptions about neuroscience and what the study of the brain can tell us about human nature.

My feelings about the issue are quite the same. As a curiosity, it's interesting to note how keen researchers have been to announce that mirror neurons might be the key in understanding autism, which they seem to see as a synonym for social handicap. Well, not all of them and frankly, it's really not so bad as an idea. Ker Than wrote in his article for LiveScience [3] that "autistic "mind-blindness" prevents autistics from simulating the experiences of others".

They guess the mental states of others through explicit theorizing, but the end result is a list -- mechanical and impersonal -- of actions, gestures and expressions void of motive, intent, or emotion.

In this post I try not to go too much into details about where exactly mirror neurons are claimed to be found. According to Wikipedia – I'll study the more scientific sources later – premotor cortex is among the areas of a brain, where they could be found.

Neither of the brain scanning techniques, EEG or MEG, can be used to measure activity of an individual neuron, but according the Science Daily [4] brain wave recordings made did show similar activity between subjects performing a movement by themselves and when they watched someone else to do it. However, we are still "highly adept at distinguishing our own actions from those of someone else" [5].

In some rough theory autism might be thought as being at one end of a continuum and in the other end there would be people, who can feel every action and thought of other. They could be called hyper-emphatic [6]:

A brain anomaly can make the saying "I know how you feel" literally true in hyper-empathetic people who actually sense that they are being touched when they witness others being touched.

However, you don't need to have a brain anomaly to feel other people's thoughts and intentions more intensively and clearly. Just go jogging for a half hour. Then get socialized with people for a moment. You'd notice that something has changed. Your very own natural hormones secreted by your jogging activity changed how able you are at "reading other people's minds".

What I find quite hard to understand, is that how can a person from another culture understand intentions of a person from another culture? Well, I'm not alone with my thoughts. UCLA researchers studied [7] this matter and came to a conclusion that:

When it comes to the influence of culture, they found that indeed, the mirror neuron network responds differently depending on whether we are looking at someone who shares our culture, or someone who doesn’t. (2007)

Another team of researchers studied which one of the groups consisting of elite basketball players, coaches or novices made best predictions, while they were watching people shooting baskets. Subjects' task was to guess, "as the ball left their hands, which shots would go in" [8].

The elite basketball players had the edge in this prediction game, proving significantly better at it than even the veteran coaches. The study found the difference was due to higher activity in the players' own motor cortexes - especially in the region responsible for moving the hand and forearm - while watching other people take shots.

Does that really surprise anyone? One who has developed better motoric skills for some area of interest, can "read" other people doing movements familiar to him much better than someone who lacks in that skill. Same might, and probably does, apply to many other things. Smelling? Tasting?

There seems to be some people, who have understood schizophrenia in way that it is directly caused by functional flaw in mirror neurons, meaning that one couldn't differ himself from another person. As an explanation it is quite silly and as a theory too coarse, just like in case of autism. But the man, who first made the mirror neurons -discovery, while studying monkeys in 1995, says [9] that:

"The self and the other are just two sides of the same coin. To understand myself, I must recognize myself in other people,"

Looking at a single object itself doesn't light up mirror neurons in such a way than when an intention is involved. There have been some studies, whose outcome has been that it is not necessarily to see someone intending to do something, directly, for the mirror neurons to fire. According to the study, where brain scanning method of MRI was used, even reading about moving a hand fired same neurons that fired, when subject's hand was really moved. Another study, which were both mentioned in an article [10] by the Seed-magazine (2006), claims that mirror neurons fired, even when it was only heard that someone was eating potato chips, not seen.

"If you hear the word 'grasp,' it's actually the premotor cortex that's active, not just a separate, abstract semantic area in the brain," said lead investigator Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, assistant professor of occupational sciences with a joint appointment in the Brain and Creativity Institute of the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. [11]

This is all very interesting, but I still find it very rough to say that mirror neurons are the ones that "re-create the experience of others within ourselves", like UCLA's Mark Thompson put it [12].