Hi folks. I’m one of the new kids on the virtual block. Thanks to Gualtiero for giving me the opportunity to contribute here.
I’m interested in the relation between mirror neurons and social cognition. Mirror neurons are neurons in our brains that fire for boththe first-person experience and the third-person observation of actions, emotions and sensations. For example, mirror neurons are activated endogenously when I grab a cup, and these same neurons are activated exogenously when I observe you grab a cup. That’s the basic gist of mirror neurons. There have been many bombastic claims made onbehalf of mirror neurons (e.g., they’re allegedly responsible for our abilities to understand others’ actions, to grasp others’ intentions, to learn to use tools, to imitate, to empathize, to understand language, our moral development, and cultural evolution, among other things). Of particular interest to me is the claim that mirror neurons are evidence for the Simulation Theory of mindreading (ST). From what Ican tell, there is a pretty strong consensus that this claim is true, but I’m not sure why. The argument that seems most influential is offered by Gallese and Goldman (1998).
ST holds that we understand others by replicating their mental states. As Gallese and Goldman put it, to understand a target’s current behavior,
“The attributor starts with the question, ‘What goal did the target have that led him to perform action m?’ He conjectures that it was goal g,and tries out this conjecture by pretending to have g as well ascertain beliefs about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the action m vis-à-vis goal g. This simulation leads him to form a (pretend) decision to do m. He therefore uses this result to conclude that the target did indeed have goal g. In this fashion, the attributor ultimately makes a ‘backward’ inference from the observed action to a hypothesized goal state” (Gallese and Goldman, 1998, 497).
When mirror neurons are activated endogenously in execution mode, the mirror neuron activity constitutes a motor plan. When mirror neurons are activated exogenously in observation mode, the mirror neuron activity still constitutes a motor plan, but one that is tagged as belonging to the target. The exogenous activation of mirror neurons constitutes the retrodictive simulation that ST postulates. Gallese and Goldman conclude, “Thus MN activity seems to be nature’s way of getting the observer into the same ‘mental shoes’ as the target –exactly what the conjectured simulation heuristic aims to do” (Galleseand Goldman, 1998, pp. 497-98).
Further, Gallese and Goldman argue, the Theory Theory (TT) does not predict anything like the mirror neuron system. “A proponent of TT might say that TT also has ways of accounting for retrodictive attributions of mental states. Is it clear that anything similar to simulation occurs in externally generated MN activity? The point isthat MN activity is not mere theoretical inference. It creates in the observer a state that matches that of the target. This is how it resembles the simulation heuristic. Nothing about TT leads us to expect this kind of matching” (Gallese and Goldman, 1998, 498).
Do others find this argument persuasive evidence for ST and against TT? Why exactly? Are there other (good) arguments connecting mirror neurons with theories of mindreading? I don’t find the Gallese and Goldman argument particularly persuasive, but I’ll keep that for the comments section if there’s interest.
Gallese, V. and Goldman, A. 1998: Mirror neurons and the simulationtheory of mindreading. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2, 493-501.[NB: This entry was originally posted by Shannon Spaulding]