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Mindful : June 2014
26 mindful June 2014 When researchers discovered neurons in monkey brains that fired when an action was performed or observed, they were dubbed “mirror neurons.” And they quickly became the go-to explanation for empathy. Decades later, says Sharon Begley, the evidence that human beings have them is sketchy at best. Sharon Begley is the senior health and science correspondent at Reuters, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and coauthor with Richard Davidson of The Emotional Life of Your Brain. In 1992, scientists at Italy’s University of Parma announced the genuinely exciting discovery that cer- tain neurons in the premo- tor cortex of macaques fire under two quite different conditions: when the mon- keys execute a specific action like reaching for food and when they merely obser ve an experimenter performing that action. Until then, the text- book wisdom in neuroscience had been that brain cells execute an action or obser ve one—not both. The Pa rma find seemed to show that “cells in the motor system fire when I see you make a movement, and they’re the same ones that fire when I make that move- ment,” according to neuro- scientist Marco Iacoboni of the University of California, Los Angeles. “ We didn’t think the brain was organized this way.” In 1996, these cells got their intriguing moniker, reflecting that the neurons “mirrored” observed behavior by firing as if the obser ver were not just seeing the action but also executing it. It was like a starter’s pistol had gone off in the neuro- science lounge. The discovery of mirror neurons would launch a “revolution” in understa nding empathy and cooperation, predicted one researcher. Mirror neurons were “the driving force” behind the “g reat leap forward” in brain evolution, claimed a nother. They “will provide a unifying framework and explain a host of mental abilities that hitherto remained mysteri- ous,” asserted a third, calling these cells “the neurons that shaped civilization.” Other researchers asserted that mirror neurons spurred the development of lang uage (the human analogue of the monkeys’ premotor region is Broca’s area, which is involved in producing spoken language) and of theory of mind, our ability to infer → The Trouble With Mirror Neurons mind science Illustration by Gavin Potenza