Mirror Neurons
Lindsay M. Oberman, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

The Mirror Neuron System was originally described by Rizzolatti and colleagues based on studies of the macaque premotor cortex. Using single-unit electrophysiology, Rizzolatti and colleagues discovered that a portion of neurons in the macaque premotor cortex responded not only when the monkey performed an action, but also when the monkey watched the researcher perform a similar
action (Di Pellegrino et al., 1992). The team named this system of neurons the “Mirror Neuron System”, because it appeared that the observed action was “mirrored” or simulated within the monkey’s own motor system. Since this time, several labs have provided evidence that an action observation/execution matching system, similar to that found in the macaque, exists in the human brain.
Though there is ample evidence for the existence of the MNS, its function has yet to be clearly delineated. Mirror neurons are primarily thought to be involved in perception and comprehension of motor actions (Rizzolatti et al., 2001), but they may also play a critical role in higher order cognitive processes such as imitation (Iacoboni et al., 1999; Rizzolatti et al., 2001), theory of mind (Gallese and Goldman, 1998), language (Rizzolatti and Arbib, 1998), and empathy (Carr et al., 2003).

The role of these types of neurons in so many aspects of cognition makes the mirror neuron system relevant to a number of fields including evolutionary biology, clinical psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, social psychology, and philosophy. This session aims to share the wealth of knowledge that has been gained from researchers studying this newly identified system and how these neurons
may be involved in everything from what makes us human to the mental disorder, autism. V.S. Ramachandran, a pioneer in neuroscience research, predicted that these neurons would “do for psychology what DNA did for biology.” It is with that lofty goal and excitement for the future that we share these findings with you.

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