Seminar Series

Where do mirror neurons come from?

Debates about the evolution of the ‘mirror neuron system’ imply that it is an adaptation for action understanding. Alternatively, mirror neurons may be a byproduct of associative learning. I argue that the adaptation and associative hypotheses both offer plausible accounts of the origin of mirror neurons, but the associative hypothesis has three advantages. First, it provides a straightforward, testable explanation for the differences between monkeys and humans that have led some researchers to question the existence of a mirror neuron system. Second, it is consistent with emerging evidence that mirror neurons contribute to a range of social cognitive functions, but do not play a dominant, specialised role in action understanding. Finally, the associative hypothesis is supported by recent data showing that, even in adulthood, the mirror neuron system can be transformed by sensorimotor learning. The associative account implies that mirror neurons come from sensorimotor experience, and that much of this experience is obtained through interaction with others. Therefore, if the associative account is correct, the mirror neuron system is a product, as well as a process, of social interaction.