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Just how consistent is the mirror neuron system paradigm?


Centro Interdipartimentale di Ricerca sulla Cultura e la lingua del Friuli “Josef Marchet” (CIRF),

University of Udine, and International Centre of Mechanical Sciences (CISM), Udine, Italy

* Dipartimento di Neuroscienze, SOC di Neurologia, Azienda Ospedaliero-Universitaria “S.M. della Misericordia”, Udine, Italy












Progress in Neuroscience 2013; 1 (1-4): 29-43.

doi: 10.14588/PiN.2013.Pascolo.29







The purpose of this work is to challenge the existence of mirror neurons and the so-called mirror

effect by conducting a detailed analysis of some of the experimental measures used on monkeys that led to the formulation of the mirror neuron system paradigm, as well as the non-invasive experiments since performed on humans. It is the Author’s conjecture that once the literature often cited in support of mirror neuron theory has been carefully examined, numerous lacunae become evident, which, together with a modest dose of common sense, would seem to cast considerable doubt not only on the science behind the evidence, but also the logic behind the paradigm itself. First and foremost, the experiments carried out by many mirror neuron system

theory supporters have been performed in an artificial laboratory context in which the participants were measured for, and ascribed, particular properties that are as yet unverifiable and not yet fully understood. This appears to have opened the door to an “optimistic” interpretation of the data, particularly concerning complex phenomena such as empathy, imitation, etc., that do not yet share unified semantics. Furthermore, techniques used to measure such properties, for instance functional magnetic resonance imaging, suffer from gross limitations, and there are some notable discrepancies in terms of timing, among other things. Hence the results reported so far, and the mirror theory itself, should be treated with extreme caution, and the current trend in applying this hypothesis to real-world treatment protocols, which is currently underway in rehabilitation and autism spectrum disorder should be halted or even reversed until such time as the situation is clarified.

KEY WORDS: Action understanding, Autism, Mirror Neuron System.










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