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Mindful : June 2014
June 2014 mindful 29 action, Iacoboni told me, since “actions come with inten- tions. Mirror neurons activate mea ning or intention circuits from within. It’s deeper than cognitive understanding.” Simila rly, the circuitry that produces smiles, frowns, or other expressions seems to be connected to circuits that encode the associated feeling (hence the common experience of feeling a little happier if you make yourself smile). Since mirror circuitry fires at the sight of someone else making a face, that would trigger the same “feeling ” circuits as are tripped when we make the face. Presto: A mechanism for inferring what another person feels. Skeptics point out, how- ever, that we don’t need to perform an action in order to understa nd why someone is doing it or what it feels like. I understa nd my husband’s goal when he removes an outlet plate and sta rts pulling out wires even though my own motor neurons have never rewired a circuit. “ We’re able to understand many actions— and the goals of those actions—which we’ve never executed ourselves,” Gerns- bacher argued. “And there are people who can decipher the emotion in facial expression without being able to ma ke the expressions themselves” due to brain damage or other disability. That suggests a mirror system, even if we have one, is not necessar y for empathy or theory of mind. Many scientific papers promise “evidence for mir- ror neuron dysfunction in autism,” but only some are confirmed by other labs. Even fewer use bulletproof meth- odology. Some of the autism/ mirror-neuron studies, for instance, used neuroimaging to measure brain activity when people with autism executed movements on their own or imitated gestures in a picture. The region suspected of harboring human mirror neurons showed less activity, compared to normally devel- oping participa nts, during the imitation task. But it’s not clear that imitating has much to do with autism, Gernsbacher and other critics point out. “Many studies have found that neither autistic children nor autistic adults have any difficulty understa nding the intention of other people’s actions,” as would be pre- dicted by the mirror-neurons/ autism hypothesis, she said. “The bulk of brain imag ing studies fail to support it.” Mirror neurons were indeed a pa radigm-chang ing discovery. From the obser- vation that some premotor neurons fire when action is obser ved rather than per- formed, however, it is quite a leap to empathy, autism, and the rest. It’s natural to root for the human brain to have as many cool components as possible, and enticing to think that one of them offers a simple and elega nt a nswer to the question of what make us huma n. But even if it turns out that we don’t have these nifty mirror neurons, it doesn’t ma ke us any less empathetic. We just lack a simple neurological explana- tion for it. Tomorrow’s sociologists will have a field day studying how claims about mirror neurons became part of the popular culture even as neuroscientists became skeptical of the unbridled exuberance. It’s a g reat case study of how once a scientific notion takes hold in the popu- lar mind, it’s hard to jam it back into Pandora’s box. ● Tap into your own natural resources to reduce stress anywhere, anytime with skills learned in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)* course offered through our live, online classroom. In this evidence-based program, you can practice sustainable, non-judgmental skills that provide support to: • Practice self-compassion, leading to empathy and better relationships • Enhance awareness, supporting behavioral changes that can eliminate smoking, binge eating, substance abuse, insomnia, chronic pain and more • Improve overall quality of life Join eMindful for this 8-week course based on recognized mind-body healing practices for learning, nurturing, and positive transformation. Regularly $495 Mindful readers: $395 Register at emindful.com/courses/mbsr Promo Code: mindfulmag Accountable Wellness Tap Into Your Inner Wisdom *Developed by Jon Kabat-Zin at UMass Medical Center