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Through a Mirror Neuron Darkly

Adam Green

What are mirror neurons and what do they say about humanity's design?

Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Azusa Pacific University
September 30, 2013

In 1989, an Italian lab had a fortuitous accident. They were investigating the premotor cortex of an ape. The experiment being run had to do with figuring out what neurons fire when an ape picks up an object (like a raisin) with a precision grip. Between experiments, the scanner was left on, and, when some human experimenter picked up the same object (perhaps to the chimps hungered dismay), it was discovered that many of the neurons that were firing in the premotor cortex when the ape itself picked up the object were also firing when the ape saw someone else pick up the same object the same way.


These neurons were famously dubbed “mirror neurons.” It was as if the motor activity of the experimenter was mirrored within the premotor cortex of the ape. Mirror neurons quickly became a sexy topic for brain savvy folk in the ‘90s and early aughts. One of the things that helped this trend was the discovery that there appear to be neurons with mirror properties of many different kinds all throughout the animal kingdom (e.g., they are supposed to be involved in songbirds learning their songs), but they also seem especially associated with human beings.

Mirror neurons appear to give real flesh to the idea that we are inherently social creatures.

The thought was that mirror neurons might tell us something deep about human nature. Mirror neurons were commonly implicated in imitation, action understanding, and empathy, though claims about their role in other areas were not uncommon. Whether via a kind of quasi-perception of others or through simulation, human beings appeared uniquely wired to understand and connect with others by way of these internal mirrors. We understand the actions of others, so the thought goes, not by developing some theory about the world but by something more visceral, like the way tuning forks will resonate with each other. Likewise, for the mirror neuron enthusiast, pro-sociality is not simply a high yield strategy in the game theoretic of life. Rather, we are bent in the direction of cooperation by the very structure of our minds. We are predestined to identify with the experiences of others and to spread know-how quickly within groups. Mirror neurons appear to give real flesh to the idea that we are inherently social creatures.

It is not hard to see how this sketch of the nature and role of mirror neurons could be of use in the project of faith seeking understanding. On the Christian story, all of reality flows from the free creative act of an inherently relational being. The import of God’s being a Trinity is not supposed to reside merely in God’s being three in some sense but in the way the three persons of the Godhead relate to each other. Also on the Christian story, human beings are made in God’s image. They are tasked with loving God and loving people, and the end for which human beings are intended after this life is sustained interpersonal union with the divine and one another. The discovery of a type of neuron that appears specifically designed to translate the doings of others into an internally recognizable code fits the relational themes within Christianity quite well. God created human kind for relationship, and mirror neurons help us figure out how. The machinery that allows for relationship is something we would expect to be deeply human if, as on the Christian story, human beings are designed for such an end and are in some special sense reflective of this relational God.

mirror chimp

As it was popular to explain things with mirror neurons in the first decade after their discovery, so mirror neuron skepticism became chic in the second decade. Action understanding, imitation, empathy, and the like turn out to be a tad more complicated than having a set of magical neurons that just do these things, and, for any task mirror neurons are supposed to be involved with, it is not quite clear whether they are involved in doing the task or whether their firing is simply reflective of the fact that the task has been done. Do I feel empathy because my mirror neuron system is activitated, for example, or does the fact that I am empathetic produce some sympathetic priming within me?

Some of the specific complications are as follows. Action understanding doesn’t have to use the mirror neuron system. It may be that mirror neurons are necessary to a certain way of understanding actions, but they are not necessary to the understanding of actions as such. Mirror neurons also don’t appear to be activated in joint attention. This is surprising because acts of joint attention such as staring into one another’s eyes or following someone’s point to an object are some of the most unique relational activities humans engage in and, indeed, are ones that require an awareness of the other person as having certain thoughts and emotions.

Brain science is young by scientific standards, and there is much about the basic function and design of the brain that remains a mystery.

Non-human animals with mirror neurons aren’t necessarily imitators, so if human mirror neurons are essential to imitation, they would have to have been co-opted for this purpose. Moreover, as the work of Frans de Waal illustrates well, there are behaviors that are very similar to at least parts of human empathy that are widespread in the animal kingdom. If human empathy and the role of mirror neurons in it are unique, the boundary between what is uniquely human and what is not is bound to be a might fuzzy.

Mirror neurons cannot explain empathy by itself anyway. Mirror neurons may be involved in what is called emotional contagion, but empathy goes beyond emotional contagion. If I feel involuntary distress at your distress, I am only empathizing with you in a very weak sense. Furthermore, although it was initially thought that the autistic, who struggle with empathic understanding, could not make much use of their mirror neurons, the truth is more subtle. Autistic persons do have some mirror neuron function with familiar persons and can learn to think in ways that increase the range of mirror neuron activity over time. One could go on, but the point is clear. The more we know, the less likely it becomes that mirror neurons will play the role of some kind of neural Rosetta stone for our attempts to decipher what it means to be us.

The moral that the trajectory of mirror neuron research and its appropriation teaches, I believe, is that neuroscientific research can be a powerful and evocative tool in elaborating, challenging, and refining a worldview. It would be a pity, for instance, if one did not avail oneself of the mirror neuron literature within the project of faith seeking understanding. Even if not fully understood, mirror neurons provide suggestive insight into what the human design plan is as well as what it is not. With some qualification, I think everything I outlined in the theological appropriation of the mirror neuron literature can still be said. On the other hand, the fact that the nature and function of mirror neurons has turned out to be anything but simple is also instructive. Brain science is young by scientific standards, and there is much about the basic function and design of the brain that remains a mystery. The philosophical and theological appropriation of brain science has to, at one and the same time, honor the power and fragility of current findings in neuroscience.

(Artwork by @Matt_Sheean –