Alison Gopnik at Slate:
A few months ago, a construction worker named Wesley Autrey leapt in front of a moving subway train in New York City to save a stranger who had just collapsed onto the tracks. Five days later, the New York Times speculated that this act of apparent altruism—”I just saw someone who needed help,” Autrey said—might be explained by a bunch of cells thought to exist in the human brain, called mirror neurons. …
Mirror neurons have become the “left brain/right brain” of the 21st century. The idea that these cells could make a hero out of Wesley Autrey began with a genuine and important discovery about the brains of macaque monkeys. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, neuroscientists found a population of cells that fired whenever a monkey prepared to act but also when it watched another animal act. They called these cells “mirror neurons.” It didn’t take long for scientists and science writers to speculate that mirror neurons might serve as the physiological basis for a wide range of social behaviors, from altruism to art appreciation. Headlines like “Cells That Read Minds” or “How Brain’s ‘Mirrors’ Aid Our Social Understanding” tapped into our intuitions about connectedness. Maybe this cell, with its mellifluous name, gives us our special capacity to understand one another—to care, to learn, and to communicate. Could mirror neurons be responsible for human language, culture, empathy, and morality?