Some Comments on: Are Mirror Neurons Evidence for Simulation Theory?

Something really weird happened today:  A duplication of Shannon’s post on mirror neurons and simulation theory appeared out of the blue under my name (Gualtiero).  I apologize for the inconvenience; I had nothing to do with it and hopefully it won’t happen again.  (The tech support people didn’t have an explanation, so I wonder…) 

Some people tried to post comments to the duplicate post.  To try to prevent confusion, I will post these comments here and then delete the duplicate entry.  Feel free to continue discussing the following points in the comments to this post.

Update [11/23/09, 6:30 pm]:  more weirdness.  As I (Gualtiero) published this post, it appeared on the blog under Shannon’s name.  At the same time, her original post disappeared (with the original comments; unfortunately those are lost).  I talked to the tech support people again — and again, they had no explanation and did not offer any help .  So I must apologize again.  I truly hope this is the end of blogging weirdness.

Here are the comments to the duplicate post:

11/23/2009 2:04 PM Bill wrote:
I think that what the fMRI studies show is that we activate the same areas of nonverbal cortex when observing another’s behaviour as we use when producing similar nonverbal behaviours. To the extent that Theory Theory has the common philosophical flaw of reducing nonverbal thinking to verbal thinking, I think the fMRI studies show it is incorrect. However this does not mean that we don’t use such theories in predicting others. It’s likely both TT and simulation theories have some truth.

11/23/2009 2:10 PM James wrote:
Cecilia Heyes had a counter at the Susan Hurley memorial conference earlier this year to the MN evidence for ST thesis.

I can’t find a reference at the moment. But this is from something I wrote at the time:

“Heyes has a different—rather deflationary—story to tell. She notes that associative learning mechanisms, whereby brain regions become associated with others, are not unusual in the brain. All that is needed is some sort of initial synchronicity in the firing of the two brain regions. Given frequent repetition of synchronous activation over time brain regions display activation akin to ‘mirroring’, about which however we may tell a story about the individuals past experience, not about evolutionary benefits.

Heyes presents evidence that mirroring does not actually appear to apparent from birth, and that it is subject to the development of expertise. Her suggestion is that mirroring develops because of the frequency with which we both perform and action and observe the same action at the same time. These occasions include self-observation, self-observation in mirrors and participation is activities such as training, dancing and sports in which one has to perform the same actions as others around you.

One snippet of information in support of this is the fact that Male and Female ballet dancers show higher activation when observing gender-specific dance movements of their own gender. Such moves have reinforced mirroring due to the fact that ballet dancers always practise in front of mirrors, and in early training, alongside dancers performing the same actions.

Thus, she suggests, mirror neurons are simply another instance of associative learning, a phenomenon which has many benefits and most likely evolved due the the advantage of much more basic functions rather than because they facilitated the higher human social functions suggested which most likely emerged much later in the evolution of humans.”

11/23/2009 4:16 PM Daniel Weiskopf wrote:
Hi Shannon. This is somewhat orthogonal to your main question, but I (and others) am pretty sceptical about mirror neurons and their standard interpretation. There was a great series of posts at the Talking Brains blog about this. Some choice bits to consult are:


  1. Welcome to the neuroblogosphere! ST and TT have long been a source of many headaches for me- being that I don’t find either of them to be particularly impressive in their ability to describe and explain the bulk of our social cognitive capacities.

    While I think that if one limits their claims to the scope of the specific mechanisms involved (i.e. theorizing and imaginative simulation) the theories remain interesting, it is the constant battle between them for dominance/primordial status that frustrates me.

    Simply put, I do not find either of these mechanisms adequate to explain, phylogentically or ontogenetically, our everyday interactions. Shaun Gallagher has written some very interesting articles on this topic, the most salient being “simulation trouble, logical and phenomenological issues with the simulation theory”. Not positive on that title, but the point is that many from the embodied/enactive perspective have begun to reject the dogma presented by these two perspectives.

    Also, I find it troubling that as TT/ToM advances, it seems to want more and more to dominate prefrontal functioning. These days we are seeing papers claiming that the pre-frontal cortex and all of us functions (working memory, prospection, default mode function) all represent specific functions of the ToM.

    I find this as absurd as their general initative to claim TT/ST as the have-all-be-all of social cognition. We are not primarily in our daily interactions theorists or simulationists. These are secondary functions to our basic dynamic nature.

  2. Edouard Machery



    There is already an extensive literature on the question. You might want to read the exchange between Pierre Jacob (2008) and Alvin Goldman (2009) in Mind & Language on the topic if you have done read them (plenty of references in Pierre’s paper), as well well as Jacob’s paper in Consciousness and Cognition.


  3. shannon spaulding

    thanks for the feedback!

    micah: i actually have a paper forthcoming in Mind & Language on Gallagher’s arguments. although i sympathize with Gallager’s motivation, i’m skeptical that the motivation warrants his conclusions. if you’re interested, i can send it your way.

    edouard: i haven’t read Jacob’s C&C paper, so thanks for the reference!

    eric: there’s an interesting literature on autistics, who have dysfunctional mindreading capacities and (it seems) dysfunctional mirror neuron system. some argue that the damaged MN system causes the dysfunctional mindreading, but there are other plausible hypotheses, the most plausible of which is that there’s a common cause for the dysfunctional mindreading and MNS. Oberman and Ramachandran (2007) and Southgate and Hamilton (2008) are good starting places.

  4. Brendan

    Hi Shannon,

    For my own part, I am skeptical on many fronts. 1. I am highly suspicious of mirror neurons, let alone the existence of a mirror neuron “system”. But perhaps this is a reflection of my own ignorance on the topic. 2. Even supposing such mirror neurons exist, I find the above conjectures (What is the argument?) highly dubious, and 10 years after conjectured, have little to support them. 3. Nichols & Stich (2003) and Goldman (2006) both incorporate aspects of simulation theory and theory-theory, and I also think any plausible view is likely to be a hybrid. So, in that respect, MNs don’t seem to provide evidence of ST against TT in general, but perhaps just certain claims, or “pure” versions of TT. In fact, when I read Goldman (2006), it struck me that his arguments for anything other than low-level (emotional) simulation are incredibly implausible, and the MN stuff does little to help (see Saxe and Carruthers’ responses to Goldman in the phil studies book commentary) 4. The second argument is dubious: if you think MN have nothing to do with mindreading, which I think is the right position, then there is of course no problem that TT predicts “nothing like” MN. And even if MN does have something to do with mindreading, this is only a criticism of an overly pure TT. 5. Consensus? Really? Wow, maybe I am swimming in small circles (near DC), but I have met far more people who find the mirror neuron-to-mindreading connection to be dubious, than people who support it.

    Thanks for bringing up these issues!!!

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