An essential reconsideration of one of the most far-reaching theories in modern neuroscience and psychology.
In 1992, a group of neuroscientists from Parma, Italy, reported a new class of brain cells discovered in the motor cortex of the macaque monkey. These cells, later dubbed mirror neurons, responded equally well during the monkey’s own motor actions, such as grabbing an object, and while the monkey watched someone else perform similar motor actions. Researchers speculated that the neurons allowed the monkey to understand others by simulating their actions in its own brain.
Mirror neurons soon jumped species and took human neuroscience and psychology by storm. In the late 1990s theorists showed how the cells provided an elegantly simple new way to explain the evolution of language, the development of human empathy, and the neural foundation of autism. In the years that followed, a stream of scientific studies implicated mirror neurons in everything from schizophrenia and drug abuse to sexual orientation and contagious yawning.
In The Myth of Mirror Neurons, neuroscientist Gregory Hickok reexamines the mirror neuron story and finds that it is built on a tenuous foundation—a pair of codependent assumptions about mirror neuron activity and human understanding. Drawing on a broad range of observations from work on animal behavior, modern neuroimaging, neurological disorders, and more, Hickok argues that the foundational assumptions fall flat in light of the facts. He then explores alternative explanations of mirror neuron function while illuminating crucial questions about human cognition and brain function: Why do humans imitate so prodigiously? How different are the left and right hemispheres of the brain? Why do we have two visual systems? Do we need to be able to talk to understand speech? What’s going wrong in autism? Can humans read minds?
The Myth of Mirror Neurons not only delivers an instructive tale about the course of scientific progress—from discovery to theory to revision—but also provides deep insights into the organization and function of the human brain and the nature of communication and cognition.
About the Author
Gregory Hickok is a professor of cognitive science at University of California, Irvine, where he directs the Center for Language Science and the Auditory and Language Neuroscience Lab.
Every now and again an idea from science escapes from the lab and takes on a life of its own as an explanation for all mysteries, a validation of our deepest yearnings, and irresistible bait for journalists and humanities scholars. Examples include relativity, uncertainty, incompleteness, punctuated equilibrium, plasticity, complexity, epigenetics, and, for much of the twenty-first century, mirror neurons. In this lively, accessible, and eminently sensible analysis, the distinguished cognitive neuroscientist Greg Hickok puts an end to this monkey business by showing that mirror neurons do not, in fact, explain language, empathy, society, and world peace. But this is not a negative exposé—the reader of this book will learn a great deal of the contemporary sciences of language, mind, and brain, and will find that the reality is more exciting than the mythology.
— Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate
A devastating critique of one of the most oversold ideas in psychology.
— Gary Marcus, cognitive psychologist and author of the New York Times bestseller Guitar Zero
This book is the scientific analog of a courtroom thriller: against long odds, the brilliant underdog logically, methodically, and with disarming grace and hard facts takes down his fashionable opponent—the ‘Mirror Neuron’ colossus, long the darling of the don’t-look-too-closely crew. Hickok does not leave us empty-handed, however, but outlines what an alternative to mirror theory might look like.
— Patricia Churchland, professor of philosophy emerita at the University of California, San Diego
[Hickock’s] impressive handling of basic neuroscience makes a complex topic understandable to the general reader as he delves into cutting-edge science.
A bold look at one of the most exciting theories in neuroscience [and] an inspiring example of experimental science at work: The initial theory of mirror neurons may have had a false start, but it inspired an even more complex and interesting story that is just beginning to unfold.