Jeisea alerted us to what I think is a superb blog post by Greg Hickok Center for Cognitive Neuroscience University of California, Irvine on mirror neurons, inspired by a study out of UCL in London and published in the excellent journal Current Biology.
The paper shows that mirror neurons undergo sensorimotor learning. This doesn’t seem very profound, and it is consistent with our understanding of neurons in general, but have a read of Greg Hickok’s post because it points out that, actually, some of the fuss about mirror neurons, including the assertion that they do almost everything in the human brain, sort of depend on them being hard wired, which clearly they are not. Anyway, we will do no justice trying reword a great post from a great cognitive scientist, so just read it: Mirror Neurons – rock stars or Backup Singers
and here’s the published summary of the Current Biology paper
Sensorimotor Learning Configures the Human Mirror System
Cells in the “mirror system” fire not only when an individual performs an action but also when one observes the same action performed by another agent. The mirror system, found in premotor and parietal cortices of human and monkey brains, is thought to provide the foundation for social understanding and to enable the development of theory of mind and language. However, it is unclear how mirror neurons acquire their mirror properties—how they derive the information necessary to match observed with executed actions. We address this by showing that it is possible to manipulate the selectivity of the human mirror system, and thereby make it operate as a countermirror system, by giving participants training to perform one action while observing another. Before this training, participants showed event-related muscle-specific responses to transcranial magnetic stimulation over motor cortex during observation of little- and index-finger movements. After training, this normal mirror effect was reversed. These results indicate that the mirror properties of the mirror system are neither wholly innate nor fixed once acquired; instead they develop through sensorimotor learning. Our findings indicate that the human mirror system is, to some extent, both a product and a process of social interaction.
Catmur C, Walsh V, & Heyes C (2007). Sensorimotor learning configures the human mirror system. Current biology : CB, 17 (17), 1527-31 PMID: 17716898