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Mirror neurons and free will


Centro Universitario Internazionale, Città di Monte S. Savino (Arezzo), Italy

* Scuola di Psicologia e Scienze della Formazione, University of Bologna, Italy












Progress in Neuroscience 2013; 1 (1-4): 51-56.

doi: 10.14588/PiN.2013.Lavazza.51







As among the prerequisites of free will is the intentionality of action (the action must be voluntarily directed towards a specific purpose), the object of analyses of the mirror neuron system, we intend to explore the as-yet speculative difference between free will in the “ontological” sense (“in the third person”, one could say) and free will deriving from a broader “phenomenological” perspective (“in the first person”) of the perception of intentionality in human actions. The former can be traced back to Libet’s famous research on the timing of volitional acts. The counterintuitive - revolutionary according to many - results of Libet’s experiments lie in the comparison of subjective decision timing with neural timing: the brain activity involved in the initiation of action began in the prefrontal motor cortex well ahead of the moment in which the subjects seemed to have made a decision. The “phenomenological” perspective has to do with the psychological “construct” of the intentionality of others. A robust body of literature now exists that tries to comprehend moral reasoning by exploring its potential “pre-moral” constituents, or the construct of the intentionality of others. The idea, tackled from several different perspectives, is that in order to understand moral judgment, one must first understand the mechanisms used to build the “grammar of action”, or the deciphering of observed behaviour. In this sense, the mirror neurons make it possible to understand the actions of others “from the inside”, encoding them in terms of one’s own motor possibilities. In the judicial category of the subjective element of crime, we believe we can identify phenomenological free will, or the phenomenon on the basis of which the actions of others appear to us as free and agential: this is a necessary premise so that these free actions can be considered, upon further mental evaluation, punishable.

KEY WORDS: Free will, Intentionality, Mirror neurons, Neurolaw, Phenomenology.










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