- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (August 18, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393089614
- ISBN-13: 978-0393089615
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 20 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #329,107 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition 1st Edition
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“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.”
- Publishers Weekly
“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.”
- Kirkus Reviews
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.
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For me its greatest value lies in that it is exceptionally as a critique. It points to mirror neurons strengths as well as weaknesses throughout the book, and the way to the conclusion underplays nothing as far as this lay-reader can see.
I would highly recommend this, especially those interested in social behavior and/or language.
* * *
In the Preface, Hickok quotes this passage from V.S. Razmachandran's conversation (in 2000) with John Brockman, featured by Edge.org: "I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide the unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments." Fourteen years later, in this book Hickok share revelations from recent research in neuroscience that can help almost anyone think and communicate much more effectively. Several of these breakthroughs occurred during research on pigtail macaque monkeys. Hickok suggests that the behavior of mirror neurons is modest, at least in the context of the human abilities they are claimed to enable...Mirror neurons are no longer the rock stars of neuroscience and psychology that they once were and, in my view, a more complex and interesting story is gaining favor regarding the neuroscience of communication and cognition"
In other words, the real neuroscience of communication and cognition repudiates and invalidates the myth of mirror neurons.
I very much admire the energy of his analysis and circumspection of his perspective. These are among the subjects of greatest interest to me that Hickok discusses with rigor and, when appropriate, restraint:
o Assuming that humans have mirror neurons, what are their primary functions and limitations? What differentiates them from mirror neurons of a macaque monkey?
o For example, to what extent do they "unlock the secrets of language, mind reading, empathy, and autism"?
o What is the Parma Theory and why is it significant?
o What are the most significant anomalies in the search for mirror neurons in humans?
o What does each of these anomalies suggest? So what?
o What are the defining characteristics and primary functions of a "talking brain"?
o What is an embodied brain"? What is its relevance to "the real neuroscience of communication and cognition"?
o What are the core principles of a neural base of action understanding?
o Why and how is imitation "at the core, the very foundation of what it means to be human both culturally and socially"?
o Why do humans "ape better than apes ape"?
o To what extent (if any) is there a causal link between autism and sociopathic behavior?
o In a robotic arm situation, what is the significance of the fact that the brain "models or predicts the current and future state of the limb internally using motor commands themselves rather than sensory feedback alone"?
o To what extent will mirror neurons have a role to play in our models of the neural basis of communication and cognition"?
Although to the extent possible, Hickok presents the material in language that non-scientists such as I can understand, this was by no means an "easy read" and I plan to re-read it again in a few weeks, first re-reading the two appendices: "A Primer on Brain Organization" and "Cognitive Neuroscience Toolbox." (I wish I had done so the first time around.) Brilliantly, they frame the issues and ambiguities that are discussed with consummate skill.
I agree with Gregory Hickok: "Placed in the context of a more balanced and complex structure, mirror neurons will no doubt have a role to play in our models of the neural basis of communication and cognition." So much more research in neuroscience remains to be conducted and evaluated. I am grateful to anyone who increases my understanding of "mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments." In other words, I am grateful for whatever helps me to gain a better understanding of myself.
A good deal of our cognition is embodied in the sense that it's heavily dependent on sensory and motor activity. But we have many high-level thoughts that don't fit this model well, such as those we generate when we don't have sensory or motor interactions that are worth our attention (often misleading called a "resting state").
Humans probably have mirror neurons. They have some value in helping us imitate others. But that doesn't mean they have much affect on our ability to understand what we're imitating. Our ability to understand a dog wagging its tail isn't impaired by our inability to wag our tails. Parrots' ability to imitate our speech isn't very effective at helping them understand it.
Mirror neurons have also been used to promote the "broken mirror theory" of autism (with the suggestion that a malfunction related to mirror neurons impairs empathy). Hickok shows that the intense world hypothesis is more consistent with the available evidence.
The book clarified my understanding of the brain a bit. But most of it seems unimportant. I had sort of accepted mild versions of the mirror neuron and left-brain, right brain hype, but doing so didn't have any obvious effects on my other beliefs or my actions. It was only at the book's end (discussing autism) that I could see how the hype might matter.
Most of the ideas that he criticizes don't do much harm, because they wouldn't pay much rent if true. Identifying which neurons do what has negligible effect on how I model a person's mind unless I'm doing something unusual like brain surgery.