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Mindful : June 2014
28 mindful June 2014 mind science what someone thinks, believes, or feels. Broken mirror neurons were invoked to explain autism, which is cha racterized by a n inability to intuit others’ feelings and state of mind. One scholar invoked mirror neurons to arg ue for the superiority of face-to-face diplomacy, which, he said, allows negotiators “to transmit information and empathize with each other.” The media piled on. Popula r stories have invoked mirror neurons to explain everything from crying at movies to selfless acts of heroism and why hospital patients feel better when they have visitors. To some neuroscientists, it was all a bit much. After giv- ing a speech at the University of California, Davis, in 2010, I had dinner with members of the psychology depar tment, and innocently asked about mirror neurons. From the collective eye roll, you’d think I’d asked about creation- ism. And as the number of scientific papers on mirror neurons approached 800 in 2012, Christian Jarrett of the British Psychological Societ y called them “perhaps the most hyped topic in neuro- science.” Psychology profes- sor Morton A nn Gernsbacher of the University of Wiscon- sin told me recently, “Mirror neuron theory is being used as an explanation for many phenomena in social cogni- tion without the claims being supported with actual data.” Let’s try to separate wheat from chaff. Do humans have mirror neurons? Given the similar- ities between our brains and monkeys’, we should. But clear evidence has been hard to come by, mostly because the most direct test—using electrodes to detect the firing of individual neurons to be sure the same ones fire during observing an action a nd executing it—is too invasive to be ethically done on healthy volunteers. In 2010, however, Iacoboni and his colleag ues pigg y-backed on epilepsy surgery, in which such electrodes are tempo- rarily implanted into patients’ brains. Result: certain neu- rons fired when the patients both observed (on a laptop) and performed grasping actions and facial gestures. Unfortunately, the study used only 21 patients and has not been independently confirmed. Also, the pur- ported mirror neurons were not where monkeys’ neurons are but, a mong other places, in regions involved in memory. That raised concerns that the neurons firing during both obser vation and execution were involved in remember- ing the action, and thus not true mirror neurons. As a 2013 review put it, research results “cannot yet furnish conclusive proof” that humans have them. If we do, ca n mirror neu- rons cause us to feel other people’s emotions a nd there- fore underlie empathy? Here’s the logic: the mirror circuitry that’s activated during both the performance and obser- vation of an action is proba- bly wired into the circuitry that “knows” the goal of that It was like a starter’s pistol had gone off in the neuroscience lounge. The discovery of mirror neurons would launch a “revolution” . . . UCSD Center for MinDfUlneSS UpCoMing training anD retreatS ATT: Advanced Teacher Training for MBCT and MBSR Teachers July 20-25, 2014 / Batavia, NY MBSR: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction September 20-26, 2014 / Petaluma, CA September 13-19, 2015 / Lucerne Valley, CA MSC: Mindful Self-Compassion April 21-26, 2014 / Clinton, WA December 7-12, 2014 / Joshua Tree, CA MSC: Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher Training June 2-8, 2014 / Petaluma, CA SOLD OUT August 18-24, 2014 / Batavia, NY SOLD OUT February 8-14, 2015 / Petaluma, CA June 21-27, 2015 / West Hartford, CT November 8-14, 2015 / Petaluma, CA (858) 334-4636