A Skeptic Considers the Hype over Brain Cells Linked to Complex Behavior [Excerpt]

Are "mirror neurons," touted to give us the ability to read the intentions of others, all they are cracked up to be?
mirror neurons, from A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind by Robert A. Burton

St. Martin’s Press

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Editor's note: This chapter from A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind by Robert A. Burton (Saint Martin’s Press, April 23, 2013) relates that one of the most-heralded developments in neuroscience in recent years—the discovery of “mind reading” mirror neurons—fails to live up to the assertions of some researchers that these brain cells afford profound insights into the intentions of another individual.

Excerpted from A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us about Ourselves,by Robert A. Burton. Copyright © 2013. Available from Saint Martin’s Press.


Talking in Tongues

The original is unfaithful to the translation.
—Jorge Luis Borges, concerning the
Vathek, by William Beckford

The recent surge in the public interest in neuroscience is largely driven by the hope that scientific investigation can provide us with a better understanding of human nature than previous psychology-based theories. But the basic language of present-day neuroscience can’t provide this understanding.

It does us no good to know, as described in a recent journal article, that a person is experiencing “increased activity in regions of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the supplemental motor area, anterior insula, posterior insula/somatosensory cortex, and periaqueductal gray and that the temporo-parietal junction, the paracingulate, orbital medial frontal cortices and amygdala were additionally recruited, and increased the connectivity with the frontal parietal network.”

Such professional jargon is essentially incomprehensible and meaningless to all but a select few. Just as we need a translator to tell us what’s written on an ancient Sanskrit papyrus, neuroscientists must translate their arcane texts into a readily understandable common language. They must tell us that these regions of the brain constitute a pain matrix and that these neural structures are involved in our personal experience of pain. As a consequence, neuroscientists must wear two separate hats—investigator and translator. They ply their trade, for which they have been trained, and then take on the second role of translator and explainer of their own data. Unfortunately, this brings us back full circle; neuroscientists must translate their findings into the language of popular psychology.

The inherent difficulties in assuming this dual role of experimenter and translator cannot be overstated. Basic neuroscience is a highly complex and difficult field; most neuroscientists have a relatively narrow field of real expertise. With tens of thousands of cognitive scientists churning out new information, keeping up to date is a monumental task. For basic scientists to also be well informed in psychology is impossible. Not having the time, and often lacking the background, training, or interest, they must, to explain their findings, rely on popular psychological theories that they are often ill-equipped to judge. Experimental psychology is a field unto itself. Years of study are necessary in order to achieve even a superficial understanding of the innumerable pitfalls of experimental design and interpretation.

Similarly, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers increasingly incorporate summary conclusions of neuroscience to support their ideas, but without having the training to recognize inherent limitations of basic science methods and interpretations. The cycle is never-ending. New psychological theories become the neuroscientists’ language for translation of their own basic science data, which in turn are cited by the psychologists as evidence for their theories. Once an idea gets a foothold in the collective mind of the cognitive science community, it develops a life of its own, irrespective of its underlying validity. Unsubstantiated word-of-mouth morphs into hard fact.

To give a sense of the inherent limitations of translating hard data into the popular vernacular of folk psychology, I’ve chosen a few high visibility subjects to consider.

My goal isn’t to pick apart individual findings, as this isn’t particularly helpful in a broader context. Nor is it to launch personal attacks on the mostly well-meaning scientists. Rather, I’d like to offer a more practical way to assess the quality of any neuroscience claim. In so doing, I have picked out articles that are likely to have significant influence on our future understanding of aspects of behavior, ranging from empathy and intelligence to free will and determination of consciousness. My goal isn’t to refute the observations but to question the degree of confidence in the conclusions. Let’s begin with the discussion of mirror neurons.

Reflecting on Mirror Neurons

         In the late 1980s, Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues were studying the premotor region of the frontal lobe of a macaque monkey. Using intracellular electrodes, they were able to locate and record the electrical activity of individual cells that fired when the monkey reached for bits of food. As the story goes, one monkey was resting between studies, intracellular electrodes in place, just watching his experimenters. When one of the researchers reached out and picked up a peanut, the same cells began firing, as though the monkey were reaching for the food. Rizzolatti painstakingly determined that this region of the brain contained certain cells that would fire when the monkey performed a single highly specific hand action such as pulling, pushing, tugging, grasping, picking up, or putting a peanut in its mouth, and that these same cells would fire when observing another performing the same action. It was also noted that the movement had to appear intentional—as though the hand was reaching to grasp the peanut in order to eat it, rather than merely making the same gesture without the experimenter intending to eat the peanut. Given their combined capability of recording the observation of an action and initiating the action, these cells soon became known as “mirror neurons,” and collectively as the “mirror neuron system.”

It’s important to consider how we learn a motor action. Imagine taking up a hobby for which you have no prior experience—cello playing. You have no idea how to hold the instrument, where it fits between your legs, how to make a sound with the bow. You painstakingly learn by observing and trying to imitate what you see. (This is true for any motor act, from crawling or walking to talking or texting.) This learning process—observation and imitation—is accomplished by the creation of neural circuitry: a representational map specific to cello playing. Each time you watch your teacher play, the cello circuit is enhanced. Each time you practice, it is enhanced. If you had electrodes placed within your cello circuitry, you would be able to see increased activity under both conditions. Learning to play an instrument is the act of trying to synchronize what you’ve observed with what you are actually doing.

Let’s throw in a few more details. Your teacher’s cello is old and has a wonderful fragrance. As she takes it out of its case, you are vividly reminded of that high school field trip to hear your first concert. Afterward, you were taken backstage and given a demonstration of the various string instruments. You remember holding several very old violins in your hand, even sniffing them and envisioning what it would have been like to play them when they were new. Your teacher quickly snaps you out of this brief reverie by playing an exquisite passage from a Bach prelude. To your surprise, and completely out of character, you well up with tears. You compliment her, but instead of being gracious, she sternly reminds you that when she was your age, she practiced eight hours a day. Your tears evaporate as you shift gears and wonder how anyone could devote her life to rubbing dried horse hair across a few strands of catgut when she could be out playing ball or tweeting her friends.

Now imagine this brief scenario taking place while you are wearing a portable fMRI scanner. Most of us would expect to see increased activity in areas of the brain involved in motor performance, observation of another’s motor actions, processing of smells (olfactory regions), areas active in memory storage and recall, and the experience of vivid emotions. Any complex neural circuit, whether it represents cello playing or Proust tasting his famous madeleine, functions by coordinating the activity of a number of brain areas. Lumped together in this circuitry are both our observations of an action and the acquired motor skills to carry out this action.

A simplified schema for learning an action: Observation →Detailed Template (representational map) that is stored in memory. Over time, as learning proceeds, the neural substrate for the observation and the action merge into a single observation/action representational map necessary to carry out the learned action.

Rizzolatti’s finding of a combined observation/action system (the same neurons fire when a monkey reaches for a peanut as when it observes the experimenter reaching for a peanut) confirms at the cellular level what we already suspected at a commonsense level. What could not have been anticipated was the degree of excitement his discovery has generated. In the subsequent two decades his work has been posited as the biological basis for how we read minds and experience empathy. But how much of this speculation is justified?

By tracing the evolution of the alleged implications of mirror neurons, we can get a sense of some of the inherent problems of translating good basic neuroscience into behavioral explanations.

Shortly after Rizzolatti’s findings were published, eminent University of California, San Diego, behavioral neurologist V. S. Ramachandran predicted,

The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys,
and their potential relevance to human brain evolution,
is the single most important “unreported” (or at least, unpublicized)
story of the decade. I predict that mirror neurons will
do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide
a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental
abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible
to experiments. . . . With knowledge of these neurons,
you have the basis for understanding a host of very enigmatic
aspects of the human mind: “mind reading” empathy, imitation
learning, and even the evolution of language. Anytime
you watch someone else doing something (or even starting to
do something), the corresponding mirror neuron might fire in
your brain, thereby allowing you to “read” and understand
another’s intentions, and thus to develop a sophisticated “theory
of other minds.”

Let’s assume that a monkey’s mirror neurons can detect the difference between an intentional act (reaching out to pick up a peanut for the purpose of eating it) and a nonspecific but similar-appearing hand movement. This tells us nothing about a monkey’s ability to read another’s mind, be it another monkey’s or that of a researcher in the lab. Monkeys are good at picking up peanuts. They are also good observers of other monkeys picking up peanuts. It shouldn’t be surprising that a macaque monkey can detect subtle differences between intentional and nonintentional hand movements. But recognizing subtle differences in motor gestures is a far cry from reading minds. Though the research is less than conclusive, most studies indicate that adult macaque monkeys have little if any ability to infer the intentions of others at a level greater than simple motor movements. Even chimpanzees are quite limited in these areas. If the presence of mirror neurons isn’t a good predictor of mind-reading abilities in our closest relatives, is it a good indicator in man?

To highlight the difference between recognizing motor intention and real mind reading, imagine being in a high-stakes poker game. You are about to make a bet when you notice that the player to your left is also moving his hand forward, perhaps reaching for his chips. The movement is extremely slight; you are not sure whether he intends to bet but is acting prematurely, or he is intentionally trying to deceive you to prevent you from betting. Both are reasonable options. The better you are as an observer, the more likely you are to be able to distinguish a feigned forward movement of your opponent’s hand from an intentional but premature movement of reaching for his chips. To do this, you will rely on your past experience. In your years of playing poker, you will have laid down representational brain maps corresponding to various hand gestures of poker players. You will draw on this information to determine the probability of deceit versus premature action and infer what the player intended.

But knowledge of intention of a motor act will provide you with little if any knowledge about the more complex mental state of the player. For example, he may be making this gesture to distract you from another aspect of the game. Perhaps he is working in collusion with another player on the opposite side of the table and wishes to direct your attention away from the other player. He might be trying to create a fake “tell” to use against you in the future. By making this gesture and then turning over a bad hand, he could be setting you up for a future hand in which he makes the same gesture but has a great hand and beats you out of a monster pot. In short, interpreting the intention of his motor act is not the same as reading the player’s mind. Intention at the motor level can be created by a number of quite different mental states. Knowing the intention of the act is not the same as knowing the purpose behind the intended action.

There is no reason to believe that the monkey knows why the experimenter is reaching to eat the peanut. The experimenter may be hungry or bored, or want to see if the peanuts are stale. As one of the mirror neuron pioneers, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, acknowledges the mirror neuron system operates at the basic level of recognizing simple intentions and actions. “In academia, there is a lot of politics and we are continuously trying to figure out the ‘real intentions’ of other people. The mirror system deals with relatively simple intentions: smiling at each other, or making eye contact with the other driver at an intersection.” Philosopher and cognitive scientist Alvin Goldman agrees that our ability to recognize emotions of others based upon their facial expressions is an example of low-level mind reading. He points out that low-level cognitive processes are unlike high-level ones because they are “comparatively simple, primitive, automatic, and largely below the level of consciousness.”

Nevertheless, this leap from low-level gesture recognition to rampant speculation that a specific set of cells can read the mind of another has become popular lore. Listen to these comments by mirror-neuron researchers.

Simone Schütz- Bosbach, neuroscientist, Max Planck Institute
for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences: “Understanding
others’ actions is a key function in social communication. Reenactment
through mirror neurons probably helps us to understand
what another person is doing and why, and most
importantly, what the person will be doing next.”

Ramachandran (referring to mirror neurons): “We are intensely
social creatures. We literally read other people’s minds.
I don’t mean anything psychic like telepathy, but you can
adopt another person’s point of view.”

Iacoboni (in a striking contradiction of his earlier comment
confining mirror activity to simple intentions): “With mirror
neurons we practically are in another person’s mind.” “Neural
mirroring solves the ‘problem of other minds’ (how we can
access and understand the minds of others).”

Once mirror neurons were shown to be able to detect the intentions of another’s actions, and, by inference (incorrect), to give one the ability to read another’s mind, experiencing empathy might seem like a logical next inference. The argument is that if we can put ourselves in the mind-set of another, we are better able to empathize with him, or in the vernacular of the day, “feel his pain.”

To test this claim, let’s take a short look at the present-day understanding of empathy. But first, let me make the distinction between the ability to intellectually understand another’s mental states—“You look sad”—and affective empathy, in which we actually experience another’s sadness. The former is purely a cognitive and intellectual recognition of a mental state; the other is the shared emotional experience. For this discussion, I am using the term “empathy” to refer to the affective component—feeling what another is feeling.

One critical piece of evidence for mirror neurons playing a vital role in the human experience of empathy comes from a 2010 UCLA study on 21 epilepsy patients undergoing preoperative electrical cortical mapping. Such patients routinely undergo intracranial electrode placement (while awake) in order to identify vital areas of the brain to be avoided during the surgical removal of the area of the brain causing the  patient’s seizures. As some of the patients had abnormalities in the medial temporal region, neuroscientist Roy Mukamel and colleagues looked at a function well correlated with this area of brain: the recognition of facial emotional expressions. When shown a number of such facial expressions and then asked to mimic them, the patients demonstrated similar degrees of electrical activity in a small subset of neurons. Cells in the temporal lobe that responded to observed emotional responses also fired when the subjects made facial expressions. Mukamel’s discovery was headlined in the media as “Empathetic Mirror Neurons Found in Humans at Last.”

If mirror neurons are the underlying common pathway linking imitation, mind reading, and empathy, we should expect these behaviors to be clustered together. Those who are better at reading the minds of others would be more likely to be empathetic, and vice versa. But common experience paints a different picture.

A great baseball player can watch old baseball movies and pick out subtle swing changes in former greats that are lost on a lesser batter. This same player can be mind-blind, bereft of the slightest degree of understanding of others and/or feelings for others. In this case, you could argue that he has great mirror neurons for motor actions, but that motor-mirroring skill doesn’t translate either into mind-reading abilities or feelings of empathy.

Others are great at mind reading but lack any emotional empathy. Bernie Madoff comes to mind. I’m tempted to say that to have played his investors as flawlessly as he did for several decades, Madoff knew his investors’ minds better than they did—presumably good evidence for a well-functioning mirror neuron system. But contrary to Ramachandran’s view that mirror neurons are synonymous with “empathy neurons,”

Madoff gets a zero in the empathy department. Contrast his contempt and disregard for his accusers with his savvy, sophisticated understanding of what his neighbors might expect from him, and we get a sense of the disconnect between understanding the thoughts of others and genuinely sharing their feelings. Shortly after his arrest, Madoff posted the following letter in his apartment building entranceway:

Dear neighbors,

Please accept my profound apologies for the terrible inconvenience
that I have caused over the past weeks. Ruth and I appreciate
the support we have received.

Best regards,

Bernard Madoff

Conversely, we can feel great empathy without the slightest sense of reading another’s mind. Perhaps the most compelling example is the degree of empathy we can feel for animals that we doubt have any significant consciousness or self-awareness. On a recent walk, I noticed a centipede slowly make its way around a rock. As silly as it might sound, I felt a powerful sense of connection with the centipede. I can even recall sensing the degree of effort it had to exert just to make its way across the path. The point is too obvious to belabor. Empathy toward other creatures can’t have anything to do with mind reading if you don’t think that the creature has a mind. (It is often easier to be empathetic when you don’t know what another person is thinking.)

To challenge the notion that observation and imitation are at the root of empathy, consider how those who have never felt pain can still empathize with another’s pain. French neuroscientist Nicolas Danziger studied a group of patients with congenital insensitivity to pain—a rare genetic sensory nerve disorder present at birth. People with this disorder know pain only as a concept, not as a personal experience. Interested in seeing how these patients would respond to seeing others in pain, Danziger showed them photos of a person getting her finger caught in gardening shears and a video clip of quarterback Joe Theismann’s leg being broken on Monday Night Football.

To Danziger’s surprise, some of the pain-insensitive patients responded on fMRI similarly to normal controls—their pain-perception regions lit up. Others had the anticipated lack of response. Danziger found that the response neatly correlated with the degree of empathy each subject displayed on a standard empathy assessment questionnaire. Despite lacking the ability to physically appreciate the pain of another, those who scored highest on the series of questions designed to assess one’s general degree of empathy had the highest degree of emotional experience of the suffering of another. The degree of empathy elicited had nothing to do with any prior experience or observation of personal pain, but, as the authors concluded, was a separate predisposing “empathy trait.” By trait, the authors meant a general predisposition not accounted for by prior direct learning—an observation that is supported by a growing body of literature suggesting that the degree of one’s empathy is strongly influenced by genetics. If true, this would argue against the feeling of empathy primarily originating in the observation and mirroring of others.

For me, empathy is the social glue for our civilization. From rudeness and indifference to outright hostility and aggression, lack of empathy is antithetical to the well-oiled running of society. Understanding the biological components of empathy and the degree to which they can be affected through training and education is one of the great challenges at both the social and the neuroscientific level. The question of rehabilitation of the chronic criminal offender—the callous individual without remorse—will depend on whether or not we decide that empathy can be instilled, enhanced, or induced. Whether trying to figure out how to reduce political tension or to find common ground between science and religion, we inevitably end up relying on our intellectual understanding of empathy along with how strongly we feel for others (affective empathy). Premature and/or simplified conclusions about this complex problem aren’t helpful. Making the unwarranted leap that empathy arises from a collection of specialized brain cells poses more problems than answers.


Wrong-Level Thinking

         To design meaningful studies, scientists must begin by controlling for as many variables as possible. The smaller the scope of the project, the more accurate can be the observations. For example, in studying vision, one tries to isolate a single component such as the detection of edges or borders, or linear movement, or color. By piecing together these observations on individual components, we can draw a composite picture of how vision is generated. But this method is dependent upon having a good working knowledge of how the components function both individually and collectively. In the 1950s and 1960s, intracellular recording studies uncovered what were thought to be cells specific to particular visual functions. It was believed that some cells responded exclusively to lines, others to movement, and yet others to edges and borders. The latter were dubbed “edge detector neurons.” A half century of further research has shown that this picture is far too simplistic; seeing something as simple as an edge results from the complex interaction of hundreds of cell types. There is no such thing as a specific “edge detector neuron.”

The brain is a patchwork of related functions that have evolved over aeons. Other than the most primary movements, such as the twitch of a single muscle, events such as thoughts and actions are the product of complex, widely distributed, and interrelated circuitry. There is no brain center for gratitude or remorse. The feeling of empathy has been ascribed to at least ten brain regions. Though science works by looking at the smallest possible subunits, it is important not to confuse these lower-level findings with higher-level functions. Terms like “empathy neurons” mix different levels of function and action, effectively reducing the enormous complexity of brain actions to cartoonish and often misleading sound bites. No neuron causes any specific complex behavior. One cannot reduce higher-level behaviors to lower-level neuronal activities. Just as you cannot expect to read a great novel by staring at the alphabet, you can’t find behavior at the cellular level.

Cells Don’t Behave

         A side product of assigning behavioral properties to individual types of brain cells is the mistaken assumption that the presence of particular cells is proof of the behavior. Case in point: the spindle cell. The large spindle neuron with its single axon and dendrite is found in areas of the human brain that have been implicated in emotional processing, including feelings of empathy. Originally thought to be confined to humans and great apes, they have also been found in several marine mammals, including dolphins and whales. The discovery has been hailed as anatomic evidence for whales having the capability of feelings for others. The line of reasoning: Spindle cells exist in areas of the human brain that process emotions and also exist in similar regions in the whale brain. Therefore whales experience similar emotions. In effect, we are validating our observations about higher-level animal behavior, from social organization to communication, by assigning this behavior to a particular cell type.

Complex behaviors such as empathy can’t be determined by the presence or absence of a particular brain cell type or a particular anatomic configuration of the brain. If this were true, we could ignore behavioral observations and skip directly to the alleged bottom line: if the brain of a particular species was thoroughly dissected and no spindle cells were discovered, we could simply write off that species as being without empathy. Nothing could be more shortsighted. Presently we have little idea of the function of spindle cells. The same argument applies to mirror neurons. Though they have been electrically isolated, there has been no histological (microscopic) confirmation that mirror neurons represent a particular cell type with a unique biochemical makeup and function.

It’s true that uncovering the presence of spindle cells in other species is of great value in furthering our understanding of the brain’s evolution and our relationship to other species.

But the interpretation of individual cells as being responsible for complex behavior runs the long-term risk of establishing technology as the final arbiter of what another is experiencing. I can remember a time when the pejorative “anthropomorphism” was raised whenever one attributed a specific trait to another species based upon our presumption of what that animal was experiencing. There is an obvious element of truth to this criticism. We cannot know what being a bat feels like. Assigning specific behaviors to individual cells is on equally shaky ground. Rather than hope that neuroscience will bail us out of a seemingly irresolvable predicament, we are better off acknowledging that empathy arises from the brain but cannot be found within individual cells or their connections. Cells and circuits feel nothing. It is only by their collective actions and via as-yet-unknown mechanisms that we experience feelings such as empathy.

The inability to reverse-engineer behavior into its basic building blocks applies to all aspects of mental states and is the central deterrent to our understanding of consciousness. We are a long way from understanding individual neurons, and even further from understanding how they interact both within individual systems and more globally within the brain. A recent Journal of Neurophysiology editorial sums up our present state of ignorance: “The processes and mechanisms whereby individual neurons integrate and compute converging information from multiple sources remains as one of the more intriguing issues in neuroscience.”

Window of Opportunity

         The path of discovery of the mirror-neuron system underscores how the very design of an experiment can have unsuspected and unwarranted long-term effects. Because Rizzolatti was investigating hand movements in monkeys, the original description of “mirror neurons” was confined to the corresponding motor regions. Had he been studying facial expressions, the mirror-neuron system would have had a different anatomic localization. It’s no wonder that the extent of the mirror-neuron system is rapidly growing as other regions are being studied. At the same time as the UCLA researchers were finding mirror neurons in the medial temporal lobe of humans, Rizzolatti discovered mirror neurons in another region of the monkey temporal lobe (the insula). It is likely that as more areas are studied, the mirroring process will be regarded as a generalized neurophysiologic phenomenon widely distributed throughout the brain.

I doubt that the general mirror mechanism is confined to motor actions. Consider how we learn a new idea. If you are listening to talk radio and hear a political diatribe on immigration policy, elements of the original talk will be stored as a memory. At a later date it might be delivered back into consciousness during your ruminations over the best presidential candidate. Though the original memory might be processed and stored in a different area of the brain than your presidential rumination, both will be intimately connected to each other as part of a neural network for evaluating which presidential candidate has the best stance on immigration. If we see thoughts as the mental actions of our mind, then the observation (hearing the idea on talk radio) and your new mental action (considering who’s the best presidential choice) will both arise from this neural network. Of course, this process won’t show up on fMRI as part of the mirror-neuron system, as it doesn’t represent a physical motor action. What we will see are different areas of the brain lighting up during different types of observations and mental actions. But the same underlying general principle will apply: Observation and action will be generated by the same constellation of neurons. As mirror neuron expert Simone Schütz-Bosbach has said: “Research in the last few years seems to suggest that perception and action are tightly linked rather than separated.”If so, we should expect mirroring wherever and whenever perception and physical or mental actions take place.

The brain mirrors what it sees and hears. That is how we navigate the world. Whether there are indeed cells specific to this task will remain unknown until we have unraveled the detailed neuroanatomy and physiology of every cell and every synapse, and their interrelationships—at best a wonderful dream.

Now let’s take a moment to ask whether involuntary mental sensations might play a role in what appear to be excessive claims for mirror neurons. Ramachandran readily admits that “our current understanding of the brain approximates what we knew about chemistry in the 19th century.” But a quick look at his reasoning on mirror neurons brings us back to the familiar problem regarding our “sense of uniqueness.” In the 2005 PBS documentary on mirror neurons, Ramachandran begins with: “Everybody’s interested in this question: ‘What makes humans unique?’ What makes us different from the great apes, for example? You can say humor—we’re the laughing biped—language certainly, okay? But another thing is culture. And a lot of culture comes from imitation, watching your teachers do something.”

Perhaps one of the major driving forces in modern neuroscience is the belief that we are unique and that this uniqueness can be established through biological evidence. How ironic, given that our own sense of uniqueness is itself driven by our biology. It is our sense of agency, ownership, and a unique sense of self that propels both our need to understand our uniqueness and the concurrent sense that we have the intellectual capabilities to make this determination. I am reminded of the myth of Sisyphus, where poor old Sisyphus is condemned for all eternity to push the rock up the hill, watch it roll down to the bottom, and then begin again. If it is our fate to have evolved a brain that believes it can solve a problem it is instrumental in creating, aren’t we better off recognizing this paradoxical aspect of our biology rather than continuing to draw far-reaching metaphysical conclusions about the nature of man based upon our inherent mental limitations?

Perhaps even more ironic is that we would look to the presence of similar neural systems in monkeys and man to establish this difference, particularly since Ramachandran points out that, in his view, these very same mirror-neuron-equipped monkeys have no language, humor, or culture. Even if monkeys don’t have well-developed language skills, what are we to make of the other modes of communication between other species? Is language the only form of communication that counts? If one of us speaks in English and another in sign language, we don’t think of these as being fundamentally different as to purpose and function, but only as to form. As for other animals not having culture, you need look no further than Japanese snow monkeys (macaques), who have taught each other to enjoy sitting in hot springs, to make snowballs, and to wash potatoes instead of brushing off the dirt. As regards humor, I have a friend with profoundly disabling parkinsonism. He’s always had a wicked sense of humor and irony, but now, with his face frozen into an expressionless mask, he no longer exhibits any facial characteristics of being amused. There is no laughter or crinkling around the eyes, no grin or guffaw. He remains statue still. And yet, via a laptop, he can tap out, “LOL.” If animals have a sense of humor but express it differently and don’t have the capacity to tell us their feelings, we cannot conclude that they don’t have a funny bone. Perhaps they are laughing on the inside, just like my friend.

It is hard to imagine how we might think of ourselves if we could step back from those involuntary mental sensations that steer our thoughts about the mind into a maze of blind alleys and inescapable paradoxes. Even so, such a vision must be our idealized albeit unobtainable goal. Though we cannot step outside the cognitive constraints imposed by these involuntary mental sensations, we can at least acknowledge the profound role they play in generating our thoughts about our minds. The mirror-neuron story should serve as a cautionary tale of good basic science being used to advance unwarranted claims about the unique nature of humans. If there is anything unique about the human condition, it is our biologically prompted feeling of uniqueness that drives much of contemporary thought about the human condition.


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