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Benjamin C. Kinney @BenCKinney
, 14 tweets, 4 min read Read on Twitter
So glad this one came out! "After Midnight at the Zap Stop" by @ouranosaurus is an awesome story - full of late-night grease, and the luckless & the worthy. But also because it's a #neuroscience teaching opportunity. Might even be a #NeuroThursday!
One offhand line explains a technology as "stimulating a particular set of mirror neurons." Which works as a story element just fine. It sounds plausible and authoritative! But as a neuroscientist, I have strong opinions about #mirrorneurons. I don't think they're real.
To be clear, mine is a controversial opinion. Many neuroscientists would disagree. But it's a hill I'm willing to fight on, especially given how often "mirror neurons" crop up in popular science.
Supposedly, mirror neurons are brains cells that get involved both in action and action-observation. Whether you eat an apple, or watch someone else eat an apple. Linking self to other, the foundation of empathy and learning.
If you aren't familiar with mirror neurons, their Wikipedia page is pleasingly skeptical. But my issue goes deeper: I think mirror neurons are a nonsense concept.…
"Mirroring" - linking other to self - is a critical human function. It underpins learning, socialization, empathy. But critical human behaviors aren't performed by single cells.
To ask "which neuron is the mirror neuron?" is like asking "which wire drives the car?" It's a bad question. The car operates because many wires (and many other things) are acting in concert.
You can find a single neuron that appears to act in a mirror-like way. But that's mistaking the output for the whole system. It's like saying the car works because of its wheels.
And on top of that conceptual issue, there's a problem in the data too: mirror neurons arise as a *result* of learning. Not so likely then to be the *cause* of learning.
It's fair to say that your brain has a "mirror neuron system." But that's a "mirror (neuron system)," not a "(mirror neuron) system." To reuse the metaphor from before: you definitely have a car!
But to assign carhood to individual components, to assign mirror function to individual neurons? Not so much.
If you want to hear more about mirror neurons, I rambled about 'em in a one of my first #NeuroThursday episodes last year:
Now you can go back and listen to "After Midnight at the Zap Stop," and when that one offhand line comes up, you can smile and nod in your superior neuroscience wisdom, and continue to enjoy the story!…
With that, I return to #readercon! If you're around, come say hi! And consider this little discussion a sneak preview of my talk tomorrow afternoon.…
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