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Mirror Neurons and Social Functioning Essay

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Updated: Jul 26th, 2020

How Mirror neurons are Involved in Social Functioning?

A wide range of studies assigns mirror neurons a crucial role in the process of complex social functioning. In particular, scholars emphasize the role of active participation of mirror neurons in socio-cognitive activities. Kilner and Lemon (2013) claim that social cognitive functions include obtaining information, interpreting it, and forming a response to the intentions, opinions, and behavior of other people that underlie social interaction.

In other words, social functioning determines how people think about themselves and others in a social context (Cook, Bird, Catmur, Press, & Heyes, 2014; Kilner & Lemon, 2013). The core difference between social cognitive functions and non-social ones is in their content associated with social interaction.

The discovery of mirror neurons is considered one of the most remarkable and essential ones among the latest achievements in neuroscience. Hamilton (2013) defines mirror neuron system (MNS) as “the set of brain regions which are active both when participants perform an action and when they observe another person performing the same action” (p. 95). These neurons reflect the actions of others by transferring them from the observed one to the observer and activating the motor skills of the latter that assumes the use of his or her experience to recognize or discern the observed action. The significance of mirror neurons lays in the fact that they opened access to neural mechanisms that allow understanding other people (Borg, 2013).

With the exploration of mirror neurons, it becomes clear that the brain can understand the actions of others through the implementation of others’ actions or, in other words, feeling what they experience while executing the same action.

One of the arguments in favor of MNS is the theory of mind that is inherent only to a man and refers to the ability to understand the consciousness of another person and/or conclude his or her intentions. The term encompasses a wide range of skills and includes an understanding of false beliefs, hints, intentions, deceptions, metaphors, ironies, mistakes, etc. (Bohl & van den Bos, 2012; Simonetti, 2014). Such comprehension can be carried out using motor mechanisms, and mirror neurons can be involved in the theory of mind. There are at least three arguments that support the role of mirror neurons.

First, it is possible to compare the regions of the brain involved in the social functioning, the activity, and the system of mirror neurons (Gallese, 2013). If the theory of mind relies on the activity of mirror neurons, then it is expected to observe their activity in practice. For example, studies regarding the theory of mind with the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or positron emission tomography (PET) give similar results to the activation of brain structures that are obtained in studies of a system of mirror neurons, as stated by Mehta, Thirthalli, Basavaraju, Gangadhar, and Pascual-Leone (2013). It is possible to suggest then that the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior temporal, and temporal poles participate in the formation of the theory of mind (Mike et al., 2013). Secondly, some studies were developed specifically aimed at assessing the understanding of the intentions behind an action. Thirdly, the social function of mirror neurons in people with disorders of the theory of mind can be studied to understand such phenomena as autism or aphasia.

Empathy presents one more argument that can be explained as a consequence of mirror neurons. It is determined by the ability of a person to put himself or herself in the place of another, thus attributing thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. As noted in the study by Lamm and Majdandžić (2015), the recent experimental evidence strongly supports the view that one can understand other people’s intentions, beliefs, or feelings, imitating them inside, as if he or she is experiencing similar mental states, emotions, or sensations.

This phenomenon is called the chameleon effect: the more people tend to imitate others, the more they tend to be empathetic (Oosterhof, Tipper, & Downing, 2013). One of the ways to empathize is to imitate the facial expressions and postures of other people. Thus, taking into account the role of mirror neurons in imitation, it is also rational to assume their role in empathy.

Social interactions also play an integral role in social functioning and are caused by mirror neurons, predicting the actions of the observer. In particular, they create a link between the behavior of social partners. This relationship is mutual. During most social interactions, there is not one observable or one observer, since both partners act as the source and as the goal of the social situation. Therefore, it is rather important to study the nature of mutual influence in social relations within the framework of a system of mirror neurons. Kasai, Fukuda, Yahata, Morita, and Fujii (2015) conducted a study, recording the activity of the brain simultaneously in two interacting monkeys and demonstrated how this system of mirror neurons acts with the help of modern analysis techniques. Whenever monkeys cooperate to achieve the goal together, an important element of social interaction goes beyond the action itself: both partners need to keep the goals and rules in mind.

Another argument that specifies the role of mirror neurons in social functioning refers to emotions. Many experiments indicate that brain regions, especially those coding for specific sensory modalities or emotions that one feels, also become active, when one looks at other persons and feels the same sensations or emotions. It is assumed that the mirror mechanism takes effect not only when one evaluates others’ actions, but also when he or she as if experiences other people’s feelings.

So, observation of photos or videos with different facial expressions that convey emotions, be it discomfort, happiness, pain, or a combination of different emotions, activates the regions of the anterior islet (central lobe) that is also activated as a result of various emotional states provoked by olfactory, taste, or nociceptive stimuli (Maranesi et al., 2013). For example, the appearance of wounded body parts implying pain can indirectly cause activation of mirror neurons. Thus, these data suggest that the concept of emotional states can be triggered by various sources of information that signal that another individual experience similar emotional states.

Arguments Against the Role of Mirror neurons in Social Functioning

Despite the evidence that supports the role of mirror neurons in social functioning, some studies argue that it is not clear and completely correct. For example, it is debatable how important the language is with regards to them (Kana, Libero, Hu, Deshpande, & Colburn, 2012). The above work demonstrates that the areas that are involved in the language process, also provide the theory of mind. Some approaches indicate that the language is not required for the mentioned concept. For instance, children with certain language disorders and even patients with severe aphasias do not experience difficulties with the theory of mind, as noted by Perlovsky and Ilin (2013). This probably means that the language is not a mandatory requirement in this case.

Speaking of MRI studies, it should be noted that skeptics argue that magnetic stimulation causes involuntary twitching of the facial muscles, and this can greatly distract a person from thinking about the actions of another, which means that the result of those experiments is difficult to unambiguously interpret. Mirror neurons help scholars to interpret someone else’s behavior. However, for example, and Hauser (2014) working at the University of California at Irvine, the US believes that the effect observed in the experiment is too small to be able to speak of a disturbing interpretation. According to them, “motor actions alone are insufficient to explain

action understanding, that animals comprehend many actions that they cannot execute, and that sensorimotor learning can transform the mirror system ” (Hickok & Hauser, 2014, p. 594). The authors of the work respond to this that the magnetic effect only suppresses, but does not completely disable the work of neurons, so it would be inappropriate to expect a full effect in this case.

In their turn, Enticott et al. (2013) reckon that the major problem is that mirror neuron are responsible only for observation and execution. They are activated only in cognitive processes, although nothing indicates a causal mechanism. All available evidence indicates that they are only the result of imitation, intersubjectivity, language, and involvement, but not their cause (Spaulding, 2013). It should also be stressed that the attributes of participation and imitations arise in the brain of a thinking person, and not actually in the information that shows only the co-activation of these neurons in the performance of execution and observation functions.

Spaulding (2012) also warns that it is necessary to carefully perceive the conclusions obtained based on neural images as scholars merely beginning to understand the coherence of the work of the brain. The fact of activation of one of the brain areas in itself does not provide much information about the processes taking place at this time. One more purely observation can be noted: although this has not yet been fully clarified, the activation observed in functional magnetic resonance seems to simultaneously excite and inhibit the activity of brain neurons (Mier et al., 2012). As a result, people are most likely tend to assume that when one of the brain areas is activated, it is a unitary process, even though it can be different or caused by the opposite processes.

Considering the arguments for and against mirror neurons’ role in social functioning, it seems critical to emphasize that such studies still help to better understand how people understand others, even if it does not depend on the mirror neurons. The desire of people to understand their brain and how it acts is one of the most fascinating tasks that humanity has set to accomplish. However, despite the considerable achievements, its solution is only at the very beginning of the path, and every study is essential.


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