6.28.2006

Mirror Neurons Revisited: The Theory of Mindblindness

Previously posted on Annotate
January 2006

Okay, so let’s do a quick recap. How exactly do mirror neurons work? And why do they suggest that normally functioning human beings are hard wired for empathy?

Here’s my working definition. (Those with a firmer grasp on the specifics will be sure to correct any faulty assumptions.) Mirror neurons are, in essence, physical and emotional templates that your brain starts hoarding at birth. The first time you throw a Frisbee, for instance, a few mirror neurons are requisitioned. They become the “Frisbee Throwing Templates,” encoding all the information you need to repeat the movement with relative ease. They fire when you throw the Frisbee and when you see someone else perform the same action. This type of MN is devoted to mapping physical movement. Let’s call them the Athletes.

Other MNs get charged with a more visceral task: they store information about emotional experiences related to given situations. For example, a clutch of MNs might be enlisted to store information about your first Frisbee-related trauma. They remember what you felt like that time you lobbed the Frisbee into the neighboring parking lot during that all-important Frisbee championship. When you stumble upon some unfortunate preparing to repeat this blunder, these MNs allow you to replicate her feelings of shame and humiliation. These are the Deanna Troi of mirror neurons. We’ll dub them the Empaths.

When scientists discovered the MNs formed what writer Sharon Begley calls the “neural basis of empathy,” (How Mirror Neurons Help Us) theorists made a conceptual leap. Could hypersensitive people, like artists and depressives, have a surfeit of mirror neurons, they wondered? Quite possibly, as it turns out. What, then, would someone with a deficit look like? Well, they’d probably look a lot like autistics, according to psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, of Cambridge University.

Autistics suffer from what Baron-Cohen calls “mindblindness.” (Psychology Today) Many autistics are highly intelligent, but they find it close to impossible to imagine the world through another’s eyes. A study designed by Baron-Cohen demonstrates how an autistic person’s view of the world differs from yours or mine.

In 1985 . . . [Baron-Cohen]. . . presented autistic children with dolls named Sally and Anne, and the following story: Sally puts a marble in her basket and leaves the room. Anne takes the marble and hides it in her own box. Sally comes back and looks for her marble--where does she look?

A normal 4-year-old child says that Sally will look for the marble where she left it, in her basket. . . But autistic children don't get it right. They say Sally will look in Anne's box--because after all, that's where the marble really is. They have no notion, Baron-Cohen discovered, of where Sally might think the marble is. They [don’t understand that]. . . other people have thoughts and intentions that may differ from [their] own.

Baron-Cohen believes that this inability to empathize is directly related to a scarcity of mirror neurons. But, according to him, what they lack in MNs, they make up for in “systemizing ability”. This is why, Baron-Cohen posits, autistics are gifted at memorizing the stats of a baseball team’s entire roster and train schedules. Okay, this makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. But he doesn’t stop there. According to Baron-Cohen, the “essential difference between men and women . . . is that women are better at empathizing and men at systemizing.” He stresses that this is “on average” and covers himself by saying that there are “male” brains in female bodies and “female” brains in men. Still, according to him, Autism can be most easily understood as “extreme male brain.” He and his team are currently conducting studies to determine if Autism is related to the amount of testosterone a fetus is exposed to during the first trimester of pregnancy, “a critical time for brain development.”

This is a fascinating, albeit politically charged, theory. But it leaves me with some unanswered questions. For instance, Baron-Cohen seems to subscribe to his colleague Uta Frith’s thesis that autistics have an “inability to draw together information so as to derive coherent and meaningful ideas.” (Psychology Today) This explains, according to Frith, why austics can memorize “strings of nonsense words” and “do jigsaw puzzles without the picture.” Huh?

But isn’t “systematizing” all about building a coherent framework to explain the relationship between disparate facts? Does storing up numerical sequences and committing Pig Latin to memory really qualify as “systematizing?” It seems more like rote memorization to me.

As elegant as Baron-Cohen theory is, I also think there’s a hole in it. Okay, a deficit of MNs might explain an autistic’s failure to empathize. But don’t mirror neurons do a great deal more than empathize? What about the Athletes? If an autistic person lacked the necessary number of mirror neurons, wouldn’t they have trouble performing the most basic physical movements?

From my limited reading, I gather that MNs don’t start out specialized. You aren’t born with “X” number of Athletes and “Y” number of Empaths. Mirror neurons are allocated for certain tasks, but, in the beginning, the template is blank. So what gives?

Am I missing something here? Anyone more scientifically adept care to address these questions?

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