Perhaps few findings in the cognitive sciences have received more press in recent years than the discovery by Rizolatti and colleagues in macque monkeys of mirror neurons; that is, neurons that preferentially activate both when a monkey performs some action and when observing someone else perform the same action. There is evidence that these neurons exist in humans, although it’s indirect (however, see Keysers 2010). They’ve quite captivated the publics’ attention, these crafty little neurons.
The mirror neuron system is thought to help primates, non-human and human, understand what others are doing by simulating the motor plan of an observed action and also allowing for prediction of the most likely outcome of an observed action. In other words, mirror neurons are sensitive both to actions and outcomes, and to some extent, inferring the why behind the what. Many have suggested that they play a significant role in comprehending mental states and empathic processes. But it’s in regards to these latter claims where the evidence is not as clear.
So, how does the brain intuit others’ inherently unobservable mental states in the absence of biological action? Much of the research evidence points to the mentalizing system, also known as the theory-of-mind network, as the neural network tasked to the job (see meta-analysis by Van Overwalle and Baetens, 2009). Anatomically speaking, these networks are distinct, with the mirror neurons located primarily in the ifraparietal sulcus, superior temporal sulcus and the prefrontal cortex, while the mentalizing system constitutes a distinct set of brain regions that lie along the cortical midline and in the temporal lobes, including the mPFC, TPJ, temporal poles, PCC and posterior STS.
One of the big challenges in this area of research is in designing tasks that are able to effectively disentangle processing of motor action from mentalizing. This is quite a challenge because it’s difficult to know what kind of mental process participants are applying to any given set of social stimuli. Do participants engage in higher-order abstract mentalizing automatically, and even when the stimuli might not necessarily demand it? How can we know what mental process subjects are engaging in? In other words, how might one capture the distinction between perceiving what others are doing vs. obtaining a more abstract representation of why they might be doing it?
UCLA’s Bob Spunt and colleagues (2011) designed a study that would attempt to do just that. They had participants observe short video clips of a human performing an action and directed the participants, in the scanner, to covertly describe each video clip in terms of (1) what an actor was doing, (2) why he was doing it, (3) how we was doing it or (4) to just passively view the video. They were to start the process of covert description once the video started playing, begin their description with the word “he” (e.g. he is reading) and to press a button once they were done.
(Thanks to the researchers for providing the video)
For example, in the above example, participants might have covertly described that the man is reading (WHAT), that he wants to learn or is bored (WHY), or that he is flipping pages or gripping the book (HOW).
This had the effect of creating three levels of mentalizing “depth” while holding the action component constant. If the mirror neuron network was involved in the mentalizing process, then one would expect to see neural activation increases in the mirror neuron network covarying with the increase in participants presumed mentalizing about the actor. And if the mirror neuron network was involved in mentalizing, then one would expect to see increased activations in neural regions which have been previously suggested to contain mirror neurons.
In support of the theory that mirror neurons don’t play a significant role in mentalizing, the researchers found no increase in the mirror neuron network in response to increases in mentalizing. But they did find increased activation in brain regions associated with mentalizing, including dorsal and ventral medial pFC, posterior cingulate cortex, and the temporal poles.
The study does provide another piece of support to the position that although the mirror neuron system might be necessary in understanding actions of the body, it’s not sufficient to explain the cognitive processes required to infer unobservable mental states.
Spunt, R., Satpute, A., & Lieberman, M. (2011). Identifying the What, Why, and How of an Observed Action: An fMRI Study of Mentalizing and Mechanizing during Action Observation Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23 (1), 63-74 DOI: 10.1162/jocn.2010.21446
Keysers, C., & Gazzola, V. (2010). Social Neuroscience: Mirror Neurons Recorded in Humans Current Biology, 20 (8) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.03.013
Van Overwalle F, & Baetens K (2009). Understanding others’ actions and goals by mirror and mentalizing systems: a meta-analysis. NeuroImage, 48 (3), 564-84 PMID: 19524046