When a new type of neurons was identified over twenty years ago, scientists reported that a new class of neurons, called mirror neurons, was discovered. These mirror neurons get activated not only when a person performs an action, but when one observes another person performing an action. The discovery of mirror neurons and a mirror neuron system (MNS) has led to numerous studies in the field of neuroscience. The topic of the role that mirror neurons play remains highly debatable. For example, some scientific writings argue that MNS in humans form a foundation for a broad range of experiences ranging from, pain to emotions, speech and empathy (Ward, 2010; Pinel, 2014; Marshall, 2014). The analysis of the research on the influence that mirror neurons have on humans demonstrates that they play the role of (a) understanding intentions, facilitating skill learning, and imitating movements in sensorimotor processes and the role of (b) influencing the social cognition and behavior in cognitive processes.
The Roles of Mirror Neurons in Sensorimotor Processes: Understanding Actions and Intentions, Facilitating Skill Learning, and Imitating Movements
The literature on mirror neurons explains that mirror neurons get activated when people see others performing an action. While the opinions of researchers frequently differ in regard to the roles that mirror neurons play, one of the main roles of mirror neurons that scientists agree on is helping people to understand goals and intentions behind actions of others. Reviewing basic properties of human mirror neurons described by Caramazza, Anzellotti, Strnad, and Lingnau (2014) demonstrates how mirror neurons help to identify, recognize, comprehend, and imitate actions of others. First, when a person observes the execution of a motor movement (such as grasping, for example), observers mirror neurons get activated in his or her motor areas by using an observers motor knowledge to understand the observed actions. In other words, the same population of mirror neurons constitutes a mechanism involved in the action production and its understanding. Second, mirror neurons produce and achieve an action understanding naturally and automatically to a considerable degree, without the involvement of high-level mental processes. Third, the mirror neurons are motor, since (a) they are found in areas that are considered motor, (b) they get activated during active moments, and (c) mirror neurons are activated during the action observation. In other words, the main role of mirror neurons is to facilitate a close interaction between sensorimotor representations and conceptual processing, enabling people to construct links that help in understanding of the observed actions. Therefore, according to Caramazza et al. (2014), mirror neurons bridge the perception of action, comprehension, and production. Consequently, the role of mirror neurons is to help people to perceive an observed action adequately, understand the actions dynamic and intent behind it, as well as enhance a persons ability to reproduce the observed action.
There is empirical evidence that supports the claim that the MNS in humans affects experiences related to music, pain, speech, and emotions. However, while the influence of mirror neurons on the aforementioned domains is debatable, in a broader sense, the role of MNS is to help humans in imagining themselves doing the same actions that other people do. In this regard, while some scientists claim that the role of mirror neurons is to help people to understand the meaning of others behavior, certain researchers claim that the role of MNS is to help people to choose their own actions and learn motor tasks; yet, according to Marshall (2014), other researchers and scholars believe that the role of mirror neurons is to predict actions that people observe without assigning a purpose to these actions. However, a careful analysis of the described roles demonstrates that each of them is a separate, yet integral manifestation of understanding behaviors and behavior-related intents of others. For example, understanding motor tasks performed by others, using the observation-based knowledge to perform this task independently and learning to recognize actions of others (even without recognizing an underlying intent) are all parts of the role of mirror neurons aimed at facilitating the overall process of understanding actions and purposes behind them. However, Marshall (2014) expands the scope of a learning role that mirror neurons play and adds that when a person observes an action that does not correspond with his or her experiences, this person engages in action to explain the difference between the individual experience and observed action. Therefore, it can be argued that the role of mirror neurons extends to creative learning. Finally, Ward (2010) corroborates Marshalls (2014) assertions about the roles of mirror neurons and states that the function that mirror neurons play is crucial in terms of the imitation and skill learning.
Another role of MNS explored by Ando et al. (2015) is to exert a modifying or controlling influence on feelings of movement in response to certain visual stimuli. Therefore, an argument can be made that another role of mirror neurons is to affect movement-related cognitive and behavioral processes. For example, an experimental study by Ando et al. (2015) sought to determine whether an inhibitory transcranial stimulation of the left inferior frontal gyrus (LIFG a putative area of MNS activity) and Vertex would impact the study participants tendency to see a human movement in abstract images. Ando et al. (2015) hypothesized that a viewer would have to experience an embodied simulation of the movement in order to see the human movement when exposed to ambiguous images. As the study results demonstrated, stimulation of the left IFG (not Vertex) led to a statistically significant reduction of the attribution of movement in response to ambiguous stimuli. Ando et al. (2015) suggested that their findings can be interpreted in the manner that when people observe ambiguous stimuli and experience a feeling of movement, this experience is a result of a link between a feeling of movement and MNS. Therefore, an argument can be made that the role of mirror neurons is to modulate movement-related cognitive and behavioral motor processes.
However, it should be noted that the scope of the role that mirror neurons play in helping people to understand actions of others has its limits. Some of the classic examples, when mirror neurons get activated in observers, are such specific movements as bringing to the mouth and grasping with a hand. Therefore, the role of mirror neurons is to specifically mobilize the particular neuroscientific action-related knowledge. In other words, the role of MNS is to respond not to all, but to specific actions that have an effect on mirror neurons. The authors interpreted their findings to mean the following. For example, according to Badie-Lacoste and Droulers (2014), there are more neurons that code grasping for bringing to the mouth than there are neurons that code simply grasping with a hand. The authors explain that the part of a learning role that mirror neurons play is to integrate the observed actions with ones personal motor experience. In other words, the role of motor neurons is to help the brain to understand an action by the motor simulation. It should be noted that mirror neurons play their role when a person is exposed to images and acts in a specific manner that activates these neurons. In other words, MNS plays its role in response to specific action-related stimuli.
Although mirror neurons are basically motor neurons, as was demonstrated in preceding paragraphs, they were found to be involved in understanding intentions and actions of others. However, MNS was found not only in motor centers of the brain, but emotional centers of the brain, as well. Mirror networks involve a motor system in helping to understand actions of others and their intentions. However, since mirror neurons can additionally get activated in emotional centers of the brain, mirror neurons enhance the human capacity to understand others by going beyond limitations of motor representations to facilitate the process of action understanding. According to Ferrari and Rizzolatti (2014), the involvement of emotions in MNS dynamics indicates that in a broader sense, the role of the mirror brain networks is to help people to understand others not merely on a motor level, but on a cognitive or emotional levels as well.
Another interesting perspective to approach the topic of the role of mirror neurons in sensorimotor processes is via examining the evidence of impaired operation of MNS function (namely, neuroimaging, motor imagery, and imitation) in adults and children with development coordination disorder. As the existing evidence indicates, MNS can be one of the determinants of development coordination disorder in children and adults. The conducted studies involving individuals with development coordination disorder revealed that these individuals suffer from a deficit of MNS functioning (both on neurological and motor behavioral levels). For example, children with development coordination disorder demonstrate a deficit in imitation of learned representational gestures. Furthermore, according to Reynolds et al. (2015), individuals with and without development coordination disorder demonstrate different brain activation patterns in the respective MNS areas (temporal, parietal, and frontal). Consequently, the existing evidence suggests that functioning of MNS can be one of the determinants of development coordination disorder in children and adults. Therefore, this causative link between MNS and motor coordination indicates that the role of mirror neurons in sensorimotor processes is to facilitate and maintain a healthy level of motor coordination.
The Roles of Mirror Neurons in Cognitive Processes: Influencing Social Cognition and Behavior
As it was noted by Ferrari and Rizzolatti (2014), mirror neurons get activated and intervene not only on a sensorimotor, but on a cognitive level, as well. However, some of the roles of MNS in terms of the cognitive domain are subject to debates, since they do not enjoy the same unity of opinions among scholars and scientists as the roles of mirror neurons in motor processes do. For example, there is a certain extent of confusion among scientists when it comes to understanding of the role that mirror neurons play in social interactions (if they play any role at all). The existing empirical evidence does not persuasively support the argument that mirror neurons are involved in the high-level action understanding. Furthermore, the data on the involvement of mirror neurons in psychological processes related to action understanding is substantially sparse. Moreover, the terms, such as action understanding, action comprehension, and action perception, should not be used interchangeably in the scope of mirror neurons research, since they have different meanings and point out at different levels and the complexity of cognitive operations. For example, according to Catmur (2014), since the term action understanding means a more high-level cognitive process than action perception, the term action understanding is applicable only when one speaks of cognitive, but not motor processes. While mirror neurons were found to be certainly involved in the action perception as a motor process, there has been no sufficient evidence yet in order to corroborate the claim that the role of mirror neurons is to facilitate the action understanding, which is a cognitive process, according to Catmur (2014). Therefore, there is a divergence of opinions among scholars and scientists on the role that mirror neurons play in cognitive processes. Consequently, claims about the role and involvement of mirror neurons in cognitive dynamics are less straightforward and subject to greater debates.
For example, while there is some support in favor of the notion that MNS plays a vital role in enhancing of feelings of empathy (Ward, 2010; Ferrari and Rizzolatti, 2014; Marshall, 2014), Lamm and Majdandzic (2015) disagree with the claim that mirror neurons play the role of construction blocks of empathy and represent the key drivers of human empathic abilities. In other words, according to the authors, mirror neurons are not the reasons why people empathize with others. They argue that the ability to empathize with others is a product of early learning processes, socialization, and culture, not the result of a biological predisposition to automatically respond to others with empathy. Lamm and Majdandzic (2015) explain that the current empirical research does not support the notion that empathic abilities are casually linked to MNS and draw a conclusion that mirror neurons do not reproduce affective experiences of others in an observers neural systems. Therefore, taking into consideration the existing contrary opinions on the role of MNS in empathy, further evidence is needed to support the notion that mirror neurons have a strong link to empathy.
The left inferior frontal gyrus (LIFG) is a brain area that plays a significant role in social cognitive abilities (Ward, 2010; Pinel, 2014). There were performed empirical transcranial magnetic stimulation studies with the purpose of understanding spatio-functional properties of the brain and determining whether MNS facilitates the motor system during goal-oriented observations in response to inanimate motions (LIFG has been chosen as a stimulation site during the experiment). According to Marshall (2014) and Mehta, Waghmare, Thirthalli, Venkatasubramanian, and Gangadhar (2015), these studies suggested that mirror mechanisms in the LIFG can be altered to cause behavioral effects and treat autism and schizophrenia. Therefore, the human mirror neuron system is flexible and can be stimulated to influence a social behavior. For example, stimulating particular brain areas may be used to improve social impairments. Thus, such characteristic of MNS as its flexibility and plasticity can be used to impact on the social cognition via an appropriate stimulation that harnesses MNS plasticity.
The role of mirror neurons in cognitive processes can be further explored both through the empirical framework of intervention experiments and a theoretical framework of MNS developmental history and system-level theory. According to Heyes (2013), while the question about the extent to which mirror neurons can perform cognitive functions remains open, the mirror neuron system is associated with heritable genetic factors and processes of sensorimotor associative learning. Since one function of mirror neurons is to support associative learning through receiving a sufficient sensorimotor experience, sensorimotor training can change mirror neurons in radical ways. Therefore, mirror neurons were not merely shaped by the evolutionary development to fulfill a specific role, but evolved into a tool that can contribute to the social cognition in a variety of ways. In other words, it would not be correct to limit the role of mirror neurons to what they seem to be designed for (motor processes). Thus, according to Heyes (2013), one can draw a conclusion that mirror neurons can play a variety of roles both in motor and cognitive processes and the scope of what they can do is significantly greater than researchers might suspect.
The current discussion and evaluation of the research on mirror neurons and their role in a sensorimotor system and cognitive processes demonstrate that mirror neurons play the roles of understanding intentions, facilitating skill learning, and imitating movements in sensorimotor processes as well as the role of influencing the social cognition and behavior in cognitive processes. However, many authors point out that the evidence in favor of effects of mirror neurons on cognitive processes is rather preliminary. Thus, further research is needed to determine the scope of MNS impact on sensorimotor processes and especially cognition. One area where knowledge of mirror neuron roles can be potentially applied is treating development coordination disorder and designing approaches to improve social impairments in autism and schizophrenia. In this regard, further research is needed to study plasticity of MNS and underlying mechanisms of the aforementioned disorders to inform intervention approaches and brain stimulation therapeutics for targeting social cognition deficits in those disorders. Therefore, it is essential to study the role of MNS in terms of cognitive processes. However, it should be noted that the research on mirror neurons in humans is constrained by the fact that scientists cannot use invasive research methods with humans as they do in researches involving animals.
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