Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Much Ado About Mirror Neurons

Fewer "discoveries" in neuroscience have garnered more undue hype than that of mirror neurons. Discovered by some Italians in the late 90's, mirror neurons were hailed as some major discovery. Here is an excerpt from an article written earlier this year by New York Times writer, Sandra Blakeslee:

"It took us several years to believe what we were seeing," Dr. Rizzolatti said in a recent interview. The monkey brain contains a special class of cells, called mirror neurons, that fire when the animal sees or hears an action and when the animal carries out the same action on its own. But if the findings, published in 1996, surprised most scientists, recent research has left them flabbergasted.

Flabbergasted? Get serious, Sandra!!    Mirror neurons, which are found predominantly in premotor cortex, are obviously involved with motor imagery, which we perform both when we watch others performing actions and also when we perform the same actions. There's no mystery here, and nothing surprising. In fact, when I first heard about mirror neurons some years back, I thought, "So what, big deal!". The existence of mirror neurons should have come as no surprise. The Italian researchers, by disingenuously choosing to call these neurons "mirror neurons", set the stage for the hype that was to follow and for misinterpretations galore.

Just for kicks, try googling for "mirror neurons" and you'll get 173,000 results, whereas googling for "cortical column" only returns 27,800 results. Why is that? The cortical column is a much older, more established, and more surprising discovery than mirror neurons, yet the internet is rife with the mirror neuron literature, as if this were some important discovery.

I have even met people who believe that mirror neurons are involved with telepathy and supernatural abilities! This is a direct consequence of all the excessive media hype which surrounds mirror neurons. This hype is complete nonsense. It is just adding more noise and obscures what is truly profound about the brain.

Shame on you, media specialists and science writers, for propagating this nonsense! You do the field of neuroscience a great disservice by turning it into a circus of stupidity and disinformation. If you are unable to report on neuroscience discoveries competently, then you should have the moral sense to choose not to report on them at all.

Are the Italian researchers also at fault for allowing this mirror neuron nonsense to explode out of proportions? Yes, but seriously, people should know not to believe everything other people tell them, and this includes scientists who seek their own advantage at the cost of truth and the greater benefit to all. The Italian researchers were either 1) deluded into believing they had made some great discovery, or more likely, 2) were just trying to garner public and media attention to their work regardless of the merit of said work. Their work clearly does not merit the media attention it has received, and it is the fault of both the researchers who falsely pump up their results into "great discoveries" and of the media and science-tech writers who don't have the intellectual acumen to assess the significance of neuroscientific results.

6 Comments:

Blogger Chris Chatham said...

I guess I could be accused of just buying into the hype, but I actually do think that mirror neurons have directly caused as least one significant theoretical advance. A recent review paper by Adele Diamond suggests that research on mirror neurons and research on the developmental time course of abstract thinking may be "missing the forest for the trees." In other words, the important feature of premotor and iVLPFC is not that they contain mirror neurons, or that fMRI shows them to be active during generalization tasks. Instead, the important feature of this region is that it is fundamentally responsible for associating things that are not physically connected.

Granted we haven't reaped the benefits of this "advance" yet, but it certainly made things click for me.

All the same, I agree that mirror neurons have certainly gotten more press than they deserve, while other important neuroscience discoveries go relatively unnoticed by the mainstream press.

9:19 AM  
Blogger STS said...

Any comment on this announcement from Stephen Grossberg?

http://www.bu.edu/phpbin/news/releases/display.php?id=1159

or more substantively, at:

http://cns.bu.edu/Profiles/Grossberg/

first paper listed for 2006 (you have to scroll down some).

11:09 AM  
Blogger neubrain said...

Thanks for the link, Chris. Will look into it today and get back to you.

STS, Grossberg is a prolific publisher over neural network architectures and an Editor-in-Chief of the Journal Neural Networks. I believe he is on the right track but it does not seem he has made any really significant breakthroughs, yet; rather, he is pointing towards the right way to apply neural network modeling to neurobiological systems. The researchers claim that iSTART is any sort a breakthrough is very likely hype and self-promotion since all I have been able to gather from the iSTART model is that it's a relatively simplistic neural network model, and any neural network model should be regarded with caution because it is very easy to 'dumb down' and 'abstract away' many essential details and features of neurobiological and neuroanatomical significance. But in spite of these reservations, I should reiterate that I believe Stephen is on the right track.

I could criticize his excessive use of unnecessary acronyms for various neural net architectures, but I won't since I too have a sense of humor.

Thanks for the link. I will read up more closely on Stephen's recent work.

12:18 PM  
Blogger Out said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:20 PM  
Blogger Out said...

You say (in 2007):
Mirror neurons, which are found predominantly in premotor cortex, are obviously involved with motor imagery, which we perform both when we watch others performing actions and also when we perform the same actions. There's no mystery here, and nothing surprising.

In 2010 the following article appears:

First Direct Recording Made of Mirror Neurons in Human Brain.
[..] The researchers recorded both single cells and multiple-cell activity, not only in motor regions of the brain where mirror neurons were thought to exist but also in regions involved in vision and in memory.

[..] The mirror neurons making the responses were located in the medial frontal cortex and medial temporal cortex, two neural systems where mirroring responses at the single-cell level had not been previously recorded, not even in monkeys. This new finding demonstrates that mirror neurons are located in more areas of the human brain than previously thought. Given that different brain areas implement different functions -- in this case, the medial frontal cortex for movement selection and the medial temporal cortex for memory -- the finding also suggests that mirror neurons provide a complex and rich mirroring of the actions of other people.


Source: ScienceDaily.com (Apr. 13, 2010)

I say:
Well I don't know much about neurology so I can't say much, but.. Isaac Newton thought his theories were the absolute truth. Then came quantum physics...

A religions view never changes, while in science views evolve. Researchers get rewarded for bringing about new theories. Seeing a view as an absolute truth and defending it aggressively resembles an religious act.

I think its good to try to keep an open mind, even if it goes against the believes of the day. Scientific views of the past have evolved. Why would today be the day that can't be disproven by tomorrow anymore?

Maybe there is a link between mirror neurons and telepathy. Or maybe there isn't. Who are we today to say?

4:34 PM  
Blogger Martin said...

Dear Out,

"If You Open Your Mind Too Much Your Brain Will Fall Out (Take My Wife)"

If anyone can show me one example in the history of the world of a single psychic who has been able to prove under reasonable experimental conditions that they are able to read minds

And if anyone can show me one example in the history of the world of a single astrologer who has been able to prove under reasonable experimental conditions that they can predict future events by interpreting celestial signs

And if anyone can show me one example in the history of the world of a single homeopathic practitioner who has been able to prove under reasonable experimental conditions that solutions made of infinitely tiny particles of good stuff dissolved repeatedly into relatively huge quantities of water has a consistently higher medicinal value than a similarly administered placebo

And if anyone can show me one example in the entire history of the world of a single spiritual or religious person who has been able to show either empirically or logically the existence of a higher power with any consciousness or interest in the human race or ability to punish or reward humans for there moral choices or that there is any reason - other than fear - to believe in any version of an afterlife

I’ll give you my piano
One of my legs

...and my wife

-Tim Minchin

5:00 PM  

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