PhD Thesis Abstract & Info


Title: Moving Beyond Mirroring 

A Social Affordance Model of Sensorimotor Integration during Action Perception

Link to electronic publication & PDF

Advisor: Jesse Prinz

Additional Committee members:                                                                                                 
Nickolas Pappas, Barbara Montero, Massimo Pigliucci & David Rosenthal

Short Abstract:

Mirror neurons have due to their symmetric response to own and socially perceived action been hailed as basic building blocs for social cognition. I propose a social affordance based re-interpretation of the sensorimotor integration found in mirror neurons. I argue that these visuomotor neurons do not as generally proposed constitute a context-independent or   symmetric mirror mechanism. Rather these neurons are part of broader sensorimotor integrative circuits, which represents the intentional relations to elements of the environment and help us navigate and predict the social affordance space that we meet others in.

On a philosophical level I use the discussion of the empirical research in this hot neuroscientific field to push a move away from an understanding of social cognition as mainly being about attributing hidden mental states to others and from understanding the motor system as mainly an output system that can be theorized in isolation from perceptual and central cognitive processes. I suggest that an inherently sensorimotor based notion of goal and affordance representations - as the mirror neuron research provides evidence for - can support new notions of motor and social cognition and intentional action choice that begin to overcome the traditional dichotomies of perception/action, inner/outer, form/content and individual/social that persistently frames many theories of mental processes. 

Longer Abstract/Synopsis:

The discovery of so-called ‘mirror neurons’ have caused an enormous splash in the cognitive sciences and well beyond. These visuo-motor neurons were found to respond similarly to one’s own actions and the observation similar actions performed by others. Due to this self-other symmetry they have been thought to underlie a special mechanism for core social cognitive functions from intention understanding to linguistic abilities and empathy. The central idea is that these neurons let us share mental states and thereby provide a social link between people. I argue that mirror neurons are important for social cognition for rather different reasons than these.

I discuss the interpretive choices and the debate surrounding the mirror neuron research and argue that the field is marred by multiple assumptions about motor and social cognition and the sort of processing that mirror neurons support. The paradox is that the very discovery of mirror neurons and the broader sensorimotor fronto-parietal circuits of which these neurons are a part, actually challenge many of these tacitly held assumptions empirically. I point to 3 theoretical areas that shape the research and the debate, but which are empirically questionable. 

1.      Non-contextual and symmetric mechanism. Mirror neurons are interpreted in isolation from other sensorimotor neurons and circuits and their response is linked narrowly to non-contextual action features. Thus a 'mirror mechanism' that produces ubiquitous agent neutral action representations is theorized.

2.      Social cognition as 3rd person mind-reading. A strict dichotomy is assumed between observable behavior and mental states and social cognition is thought to support the process of getting from one's own 1st personal perspective to hidden mental states of the 3rd person. Thus mirror neurons role in social cognition is assumed to be about 3rd person mind-reading – rather than about intentional relations to the world and others. In other words the role of mirror neurons in 2nd person social relations is largely ignored. 

3.      Perception-action dichotomy. It is assumed that sensory and motor representations can be understood separately and that sensorimotor neurons – such as mirror neurons – connect these otherwise independently organized cognitive systems. Mirror neurons are thus thought to merely link visual and pragmatic action and goal understanding, rather than as playing a constitutive and classificatory role in the representation of intentions and teleological relations.

I claim that these assumptions are all empirically unwarranted. I show that the findings do not support the idea of a ubiquitous non-contextual agent-neutral mirror mechanism. Rather, the responses are often highly dynamic, context and task-dependent and even differentiating between actions of self and other.

To understand the findings I propose a Social Affordance model, suggesting that the broader sensorimotor findings in fronto-parietal circuits support representations and anticipations not just of other people’s actions but of the overall social affordance space. In other words it is a process that monitors action goals and teleological possibilities that the overall physical and social environment affords respectively oneself and other present agents.

With this model I hypothesize that complex parallel sensorimotor integrations are indeed essential to many social cognitive abilities but not because they are symmetric or agent-neutral or give access to other people’s heads. Rather, the sensorimotor teleological representations let us relate to others and understand their actions in a shared pragmatic and intentional context. Under this interpretation the mirror neuron research poses a serious challenge to both the dichotomy of the mental as inner and behaviors as outer and the idea of neatly distinguished sensory and motor representations.

On a pragmatic level the goal of my dissertation is to change the interpretive frameworks and experimental paradigms of neuroscientists in the field of social and motor cognition, as I use my social affordance model to underline the need for new classifications and experimental protocols for 2nd person dynamic social interactions for example.

On a philosophical level the goal is to create a positive 'post-cognitivist' framework not only for understanding the role of sensorimotor intergration in social cognition but more broadly in normal intentional action and in grounding certain mental representations. This new framework can explain the empirical findings in the field and avoids unwarranted assumptions of modularity, serial input-out processing and dichotomies of perception/action, inner/outer and form/content which have been predominant in analytic philosophy of mind and the cognitive sciences the last 3-4 decades.