The Mirror Neuron Revolution: Explaining What Makes Humans Social

From Scientific American:

Neuro Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, is best known for his work on mirror neurons, a small circuit of cells in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex. What makes these cells so interesting is that they are activated both when we perform a certain action—such as smiling or reaching for a cup—and when we observe someone else performing that same action. In other words, they collapse the distinction between seeing and doing. In recent years, Iacoboni has shown that mirror neurons may be an important element of social cognition and that defects in the mirror neuron system may underlie a variety of mental disorders, such as autism.

His new book, Mirroring People: The Science of How We Connect to Others, explores these possibilities at length. Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer chats with Iacoboni about his research.

LEHRER: What first got you interested in mirror neurons? Did you immediately grasp their explanatory potential?

IACOBONI: I actually became interested in mirror neurons gradually. [Neuroscientist] Giacomo Rizzolatti and his group [at the University of Parma in Italy] approached us at the UCLA Brain Mapping Center because they wanted to expand the research on mirror neurons using brain imaging in humans. I thought that mirror neurons were interesting, but I have to confess I was also a bit incredulous. We were at the beginnings of the science on mirror neurons. The properties of these neurons are so amazing that I seriously considered the possibility that they were experimental artifacts. In 1998 I visited Rizzolatti’s lab in Parma, I observed their experiments and findings, talked to the anatomists that were studying the anatomy of the system and I realized that the empirical findings were really solid. At that point I had the intuition that the discovery of mirror neurons was going to revolutionize the way we think about the brain and ourselves. However, it took me some years of experimentation to fully grasp the explanatory potential of mirror neurons in imitation, empathy, language, and so on—in other words in our social life.

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