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Mirror neurons: Solving a problem that doesn’t exist?

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At Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists, Andrew Wilson (the other is Sabrina Golonka) reflect on, “Mirror Neurons, or, What’s the Matter with Neuroscience?” (August 9, 2011), noting,

… there’s no such thing as theory-free observations – all data comes from this experiment rather than that experiment, and even simply reporting a result is laden with theoretical assumptions, even when these aren’t explicitly identified.

One thinks immediately of all the cunningly designed experiments to “demonstrate” that humans are really selfish and that chimpanzees are really altruistic. The researchers’ evidently have an emotional need to use science to demonstrate that their materialist worldview is … science, and must be accepted by all, irrespective of the usual, normal evidence.

Here the subject is “mirror neurons,” which fire whether you are doing something or watching someone else do it. As the infant macaque below is:

File:Makak neonatal imitation.png
Evolution of Neonatal Imitation. Gross L, PLoS Biology Vol. 4/9/2006, e311

Great hopes abound that mirror neurons will resolve conundrums about the mind. But Wilson sees them thus:

The worst offenders, in terms of theory-laden data disguised as ‘merely the observed facts’, are mirror neurons. They are, I think, the text book example of what’s the matter with neuroscience, …

The theory around mirror neurons and the resulting studies attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, he says, arguing for an ecological perspective:

perception and action are not separate domains which must somehow come into alignment. There is, instead, the single domain of ‘perception-action’; this system is how we interact functionally and successfully with the environment. The reason neuroscience looks to mirror neurons as so wonderous and amazing is that it looks to anatomy and says ‘these two things are separate, we must find out how they talk to each other’.

… anatomy is not the final arbiter here, function is. Perception-action is the function of a broad, integrated system, not the labels of distinct entities. So ‘motor’ cortex responding to ‘perceptual’ input is only astonishing if you believe these are two separate functions of the system.

There is a large range of questions that mechanism and reductionism not only don’t answer but where they actually create just these sorts of meaningless problems. In this case, the resolution is quite simple: Perception is a form of action – it is a mental action – the act of perceiving.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

Me too, but then that's the exciting thing for me about the whole perception and action link - the idea of the "forward model", and that we can simulate the results of actions before execution, thus enabling us to select the action that matches our goals - enables us to "intend", in other words. The old "feedback" models were far to slow to account for the way we actually do stuff, like catch and throw. Elizabeth Liddle
Perception and action doesn't interest me half as much as intention and action. I send my intention out into my body, and even though I have no idea how to convert chemicals into energy, or make neurons fire, or what pathways to stimulate, or how to make muscles work, nor any idea how to sort through and activate "how to" instructions or memories or knowledge stored in brain, I can commit my body to an enormous, deep, and unfathomably complex set of chain reactions (which I can stop at any time with yet another simple intention) to perform complex and intricate tasks. Take for example, a basketball star about to shoot a 3-pointer; if the player had to actually think about every bodily act necessary to dribble the ball and move, then jump and shoot, and had to figure the math, physics, angle, momentum, and muscle tension necessary to toss the ball through a small hoop some 24 or so feet away, who could do such a thing? Yet, just with the intention to perform, and ongoing adjustable split-second intentions to account for the defenders, this feat can be performed. I can intend to write a story, and just from that intention, ideas begin arriving; I can intend to write a rebuttal, and the form and points of the rebuttal spring forth; I can intend to make my wife happy, and options and actions immediately arrange themselves before me. The power of intention and it's ability to organize both thought and a cascade of complex & deep physical activity both invisible and observable is absolutely stunning. Meleagar
Perception is a form of action – it is the act of perceiving
That's an aporia, not a solution! The whole point of the integrated perception/action concept is that it links perception to the motor system - to motor actions. Simply labeling perception as a (non-motor) action doesn't resolve anything, it just denies the insight that the perception-motor action connection gives us. Which is profound, and extremely well supported by evidence. Elizabeth Liddle

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