Psych 101 Critical Thinking Exercise #3
Philosophers have said that in order to truly understand something, you must experience it. Neurophysiologists at the University of Parma, Italy, were researching the role of simple goal-directed neurons in hand and mouth actions when they made a serendipitous scientific discovery to support this philosophical statement: the same brain neurons fired when a monkey not only performed an action, but also when it observed the same action performed by one of the researchers. Giacomo Rizzolatti, Leonardo Fogassi and Vittorio Gallese describe their experiments, findings, and the implications in the Scientific American article “Mirrors in the Mind.”
The Accidental Discovery of Mirror Neurons
The discovery occurred when the group was performing experiments to study the firing patterns of individual neurons in area F5 of the motor cortex in the brains of macaques. To determine if their accidental finding was accurate, the researcher had to conduct additional experiments. Due to the complexity of the network of mirror neurons in the brain, which spreads through the pre-motor and parietal cortices, the researchers were challenged with developing an experiment that would clarify whether mirror neurons play a role in understanding, and not just visually registering, an action without causing broad cognitive issues. In the end, they conducted two experiments. The first experiment determined if the macaques could recognize actions based on sounds. The second tested if the animals could identify an action when it occurred behind a screen.
Why We Understand… What We Understand
Based upon the results of these studies, which indicated that actions performed by one person can stimulate the same motor pathways in another person, the group proposed that there is a neural basis for our ability to understand, and subsequently, predict actions and emotions based upon visual and aural cues. The researchers also discovered that survival or biological based actions (drinking) were given preference over cultural ones (cleaning). In addition, the group discovered a series of motor actions, serving as proof of a neural chain which may develop as the brain forms “templates” for specific actions. The scientific findings of these researchers ultimately changed “our understanding of what we understand.”
Mirror Neurons Linked to Autism… Or Not?
Because autism is associated with a lack of social and communication skills, including an inability to mimic emotions, scientists began studying the brain’s network of mirror neurons in patients affected with the condition. One study, conducted in 2005 at the University of California, San Diego, determined that mirror neurons do not fire when an action is observed by an autistic patient. The researchers theorized that a dysfunction in the motor neurons caused autism. However, a more recent study, supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, Cure Autism Now, and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, was published in the May 2010 issue of Neuron. In the article, scientists challenged the original theory by arguing that the research was flawed because the experiments did not account for movement-selection actions. Based upon the results of fMRI scan, the researchers concluded that autistic subjects responded normally when the experiment was adjusted to include movement-selective actions. Even more interesting, another University of California, San Diego, study in 2007 by Jaime Pineda, PhD, suggested that the mirror networks in autistic children function differently based upon their relationship with the person performing the observed action.
As humans, our ability to infer intentions is fundamental to our survival. It helps us with everything from avoiding potentially dangerous situations to developing successful interpersonal relationships. Although the research is conflicting at this time, two things are clear… First, mirror neurons play an important role in our ability to understand and interpret actions and emotions, without the need for explicit reasoning. Second, we simply don’t know enough about how mirror neurons function in order to understand how they may or may not be operating differently in a person with autism.
The brain is one of the most complex systems in nature. Therefore, the cause of any condition that affects it (good or bad) is as equally difficult to understand. Although a dysfunction in mirror neurons may not be the exact cause of autism, due to the underlying function of these cells, it is likely that additional research, including how these neurons interact and interrelate with other brain functions, will confirm they are still highly related to autism.
Whether the cause of autism stems from exposure to a foreign chemical or element, as suggested by anti-vaccine supporters, or the development of underlying biological dysfunction in another region of the brain further down the neuron chain that “misinterprets” signals generated by the mirror neurons, continued research into the function of mirror neurons will not contribute not only to a better general understanding of the brain, but also potentially a cure for autism and other conditions that manifest in the form of cognitive problems related to interpreting and reacting to behavior and emotions.