MOTOR NEURON-BASED EXPLANATIONS OF ACTION
The discovery in the macaque monkey brain of “mirror” neurons had remarkable effects on the field of cognitive science and beyond. Mirror neurons seemed to discharge not only when the monkey performed an action but also when observing an experimenter or another monkey performed the same action (di Pellegrino et al., 1992; Fogassi et al., 1998). The similarity between the action observed and the action performed was quickly put in relation with notions like mimicry and imitation. The idea caught on and worked its magic across a number of areas that welcomed the notion of a mechanistic explanation of complex interindividual processes. What was hitherto a steady stream of ideas variously inspired by the notion of sensorimotor loops ran into the rapids, and the canoe on the stream soon became an overloaded life raft. Since its first formulation, mirror neuron theory (or the cluster of claims now identified as such) has been viewed as promising for a number of fields including, speech perception, visual arts, and music perception and for explanations of a broad range of abilities and deficits including empathy, altruism, emotion, theory of mind, imitation, and autism spectrum disorder, among others.
When functional MRI (fMRI) studies of human action observation started reporting activations in areas, the impression was created that this phenomenon, which rapidly came to be called mirroring, was among the most fundamental mechanisms of action perception. Neuroimaging studies revealed parietal and premotor activations during both execution and action observation, suggesting that action observation automatically triggers action representations. Starting from the original idea of sensorimotor perception, the mirror neuron system rapidly was put in charge of explaining the intentions of others and, then onto ward, the key to understanding the emotions of others. This broader picture is now culminating in the merging of arguments for mirror neurons, simulation, theory of mind, embodiment perspective, and direct perception theories, of which we hear more in chapter 10. Here we look at various arguments about action perception that are all intertwined in the notion of mirror neurons.