Maybe it's time to ditch Mirror Neurons?

When I google Mirror Neurons I get in excess of 8 million hits on google. This is certainly a popular topic sparking much conjecture on both empathy and how they come to be.

From the linked wiki article: “To date, no widely accepted neural or computational models have been put forward to describe how mirror neuron activity supports cognitive functions.[13][14][15] The subject of mirror neurons continues to generate intense debate. In 2014, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B published a special issue entirely devoted to mirror neuron research.[16]

I don’t think this takes any exotic explanation. As I see it “mirror neurons” are a incorrect interpretation of how semantic meaning is distributed across neural maps.

Check out this paper:
How neurons make meaning: brain mechanisms for embodied and abstract-symbolic semantics
Friedemann Pulvermüller
Direct your attention to figure one. When you read this you should see that semantic meaning is distributed to the areas that are related to the motor-sensory loops that are involved in running your own body. This is the physical substrate for your grounding of semantic structures. I’m sure that this is why you see activity for the perception of these things in others.

This is where that semantic meaning is stored. Since we all share much the same wiring this activation pattern will be relatively constant across individuals and to a lessor extent - species.


Couldn’t agree more. Or at the very least, stop vaguely linking a neural phenomenon we don’t yet properly understand to psychological disorders we don’t yet properly understand.

Otherwise you get this type of thing:

…followed by…


I prefer to use the word archetypes, but absolutely yes!

If I have a person simulator in my head and use that simulator to represent myself, then it stands to reason that my archetype for arm would get reused if I’m thinking of you. It would even get reused if I see an ant’s limb get torn off and have no proper reconciliation for the fact that an ant has 6 of them… I would just imagine that breaking 6 limbs is like breaking 2 arms 3 times. (Or twice plus legs if you prefer)

What I would speculate is that my simulator can handle imagining the pieces and parts of an ant, but an ant (lacking a simulator) has no capacity to see my arm breaking as it might relate to its limbs.

In other words… it’s not mirror neurons.


I agree. I talked to neuroscientist Jonathan Michaels about mirror neurons and he hinted the same thing.

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One more article in that light: Just how consistent is the mirror neuron system paradigm? P.B. PASCOLO, R. BUDAI

the experiments analysed in this paper appear to measure the function undertaken by a group of neurons in a certain timeframe, rather than a property of a particular type of neurons that sets them apart. It is therefore expected that in the future we will recognize mirror-type activity in more or less coherent clusters of common neurons, thereby completely overturning the paradigm itself.


Reading the latest @numenta articles, I wonder if “mirror neurons” or similar phenomena could have a relationship with the displacement neurons hypothesis.

Displacement neurons could be excited both by those who perform a spatial action and by those who observe it: movements of person observed (relative to her body) will be “mapped” to movements relative to the observer body (“as observer is doing the observed movement”).

In other terms, the observer “maps” the arms/hands of the person doing the actions, then this map (collected by grid and displacement neurons) is an excitation similar to perfoming the action, then can help in learning a new observed skill.