The discovery of Mirror Neurons in 1992 has caused much excitement and confusion to their exact functioning ever since. The Mirror Neurons were found in monkey’s brains and are recognisable by their ability to fire when the monkeys performed an action such as holding a cup using a power grip, and fire when observing other monkey’s performing the same action. These clusters of neurons were found in specific parts of the monkey’s brain (premotor cortex & parietal lobe), and now there is strong evidence to suggest that human brains also have such neuron clusters.
It is not difficult to understand how important such neurons can be and soon Mirror Neurons were being attributed with a range of functions including action understanding, imitation, language processing, emotional recognition, empathy, intention reading and speech production. Mirror Neuron’s were quickly blamed as contributing in the development of autism, schizophrenia, Down’s syndrome and obesity. That’s a lot considering there only 24 years old in discovery terms and their understanding is largely due to research on monkey’s brains.
It has long been the consensus that Mirror Neuron’s function were action understanding which the result of evolutionarily driven genetic was adaptation. It is useful for us to understand the actions of others as that can then give us information as to how to respond and detect threats. A recent article however by Cook et al (2014) which highlights the work of Heye’s, supports the idea that Mirror Neurons originate by domain-general processes of associative learning during individual development, and, although they may have psychological functions, they do not necessarily have a specific evolutionary purpose or adaptive function.
Associative learning involves understanding the association between stimuli which then illicit a response. I see this every morning with my dogs, the introduction of the leash illicit lots of turning in circles and licking. This is due to the association of the leash and walking.
I would love to leave with a succinct conclusion, however, I still don’t completely understand the difference in origins and function. What I do understand though is that the way I have described Mirror Neuron’s in the past is most likely not accurate based on these new proposals and that’s what I love. Being wrong only encourages me to read further into the area. It is clear though that there is still lots to learn about Mirror Neurons and their exact origin’s and functions. So when approaching this area be mindful that much more research is needed and that Mirror Neurons are perhaps not as black and white as initially first believed. I will continue to look at Mirror Neurons and give a follow up when my understanding is built on a more concrete foundation.
Cook, R., Bird, G., Catmur, C., Press, C., & Heyes, C. (2014). Mirror neurons: From origin to function. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37(2), 177-92. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X13000903