Weiderhaft 1 Laura Weiderhaft Jack Lyons Mind, Brain, and Body 24 November 2009 Mental Attribution The problem of attributing mental states to other minds has been a fundamental concern for philosophers since the beginnings of modern philosophy. Philosophers agree that we can ascribe mentality to ourselves individually since each of us knows that we have our own thinking minds. The problem arises when we begin to attribute mental capabilities to others. Philosophers like Descartes doubted that we could be justified in believing that other people have minds and even doubted that we have the ability to conceptualize mentality in other people. Philosophers may never be able to reconcile the difficulty of identifying mental states in others. Instead, efforts to decode mental state attribution in humans have gravitated towards determining the mechanisms by which we assume other people have mental states and the mechanisms by which we decode these assumed mental states. Today, the primary arguments in support of mental state attribution are the theory-theory of mindreading and the simulation theory of mindreading (in this paper, mindreading is interchangeable with mental state attribution). The simulation theory of mindreading was largely ignored early in its development, but now receives much more attention in the fields of philosophy, psychology, and neurology due to the recent experiments with results that have supported its claims. Given the current research on mirror neurons, it seems extremely plausible that the simulation theory of mental attribution provides an accurate model for how we are able to assume mentality in others. Marco Iacaboni, a neurologist and proponent of the simulation
Weiderhaft 2 theory suggests that the simulation process “is an effortless, automatic, and unconscious inner mirroring” rather than the “deliberate pretense of being in someone else’s shoes” (Iacaboni 120). It is obvious that we don’t actually put ourselves in other people’s shoes when trying to decode their behaviors and emotions, but it seems that our mechanisms of mental state attribution extend beyond just a series of unconscious processes. Although unconscious processes like mirroring activity comprise a sizable portion of our mental state attribution, unconscious processes cannot fully explain the human ability to have a complex understanding of the behaviors and intentions of other humans. Alvin Goldman, in Simulating Minds, distinguishes the unconscious firing of mirror neurons involved in imitation from the type of mindreading that involves complex mental states, has components that are under voluntary control, and/or has processes that are accessible to consciousness (at least to some degree) (Goldman 147). He categorizes mental state attribution into two groups—low-level simulational mindreading and high-level simulational mindreading. The low-level simulational mindreading theory is compatible with Iacoboni’s idea of an imitation dictated entirely by the unconscious firing of mirror neurons. There is no question that this low-level mindreading occurs. The evidence gathered from multiple studies of mirror neurons in macaque monkeys, notably those conducted by the neurologists at the University of Parma in Italy, clearly points to the unconscious imitation involved in mindreading. But surely our understanding of other humans isn’t based solely on the mirroring activity that Goldman defines as “involuntary response to perceptual stimuli” (Goldman 148). Mirror neurons on their own could only account for a rudimentary understanding of behaviors, goals, and emotions since the discrepancies in firing are limited to specific grasps and specific intentions associated with those grasps. The incredible specificity with which mirror neurons fire in studies of the macaque
Weiderhaft 3 monkeys surely cannot accommodate an adequate comprehension of the environment, goals, and emotions associated with the behaviors of others. It seems as if some sort of high-level mind reading is involved in the overall process of allowing us to develop a complete picture of what it is another person is doing, planning to do, or thinking. Many of the studies of mirroring activity suggest that mirror neurons communicate extensively with a myriad of other neurons in various brain regions. This would also suggest that processes accessible to consciousness are possible contributors to the simulation of the mental states of others. Iacaboni’s study of imitation in humans using videos of teacups being gripped is a study that proves that mirror neurons fire based on the intention of the grip rather than they type of grip that is being used. The videos of the teacups featured the exact same grip on the teacup but in different context. One video included no context at all, another video included a context that suggested to the participant that the cup was being grasped in order for drinking to occur, and the last video included a context that suggested to the participant that the cup was going to be cleaned up. The mirror neurons fired most strongly when exposed to the video in which the cup was presented to be involved in drinking. The fact that these different contexts can have such an enormous effect on the discrepancy in mirror neuron activity indicates that our mental processes for evaluating the contexts and situations involved in the perception of actions are influential in the activation of our mirror neurons. Without our understanding that a dirty table means that the grasping of a cup indicates the intention of cleaning the cup, the mirror neurons could not fire with the same discrepancy that they fire with when that context is fully recognized. Essentially, we have to have an understanding of the environment for our brain to discern one potential goal from another and determine the most likely intention before our mirror neurons can distinguish between Goal A (drink from the cup) and Goal B (clean the cup). Similarly, monkeys in
Weiderhaft 4 Ferrari’s experiment with mirror neuron activation during tool use were able to develop a mirror neuron response to the use of tools due to “the repeated exposure of the animals to the sight of human experimenters using tools” (Iacoboni 42). According to Iacoboni, this means “mirror neurons can acquire new properties” (Iacoboni 42). This ties mirror neurons to mechanisms for learning, many of which operate above the effortless level of mirror neuron activation that Iacoboni claims is the basis for imitation and mental state attribution in humans. Humans and animals can also learn and affect mirror neuron activation by imagination and visualization alone. Multiple studies cited by the Blakeslees in The Body has a Mind of its Own have shown that visualization of a specific task will change the brain maps that govern the body parts involved with that specific task. A similar study measured the “abduction force” of the fingers of subjects that did not train their finger at all during a 4 week period, the fingers of subjects that “produced effortful isometric contractions,” in their fingers, and the fingers of subjects that “imagined producing these same, effortful isometric contractions” (Yue and Cole 1114). The average abduction force for the fingers that actually produced the contractions increased by 30% and the abduction force for the imagining group increased by 22% (Yue and Cole 1114). The fact that conscious visualization of an action can produce similar results to actually performing an action indicates that mirror neurons might also activate when a subject is visualizing herself performing an action or when a subject is visualizing someone else performing an action. If this is the case, it is undeniable that conscious, voluntary mental processes affect imitation and therefore mental state attribution. In order to find out to what degree visualization activates mirror neurons, an experiment would have to be devised that compares the mirror neuron activation while a subject is imagining herself performing a specific kind of task and when the same subject is imagining another person performing that same exact
Weiderhaft 5 task. The results from the visualized scenarios would then have to be compared to the mirror neuron activation when the subject is actually performing the task and the activation when the subject is seeing someone else perform that exact same task. If the visualized scenarios produce a sizable mirror neuron response, then it would provide some sort of evidence for the interaction between conscious mental processes and simulational mindreading. The very location of mirror neurons in the brain suggests that the processes involved in imitation are more than just specific unconscious responses to a set of specific stimuli. Mirror neurons in the macaque monkeys are located in a region that neurologists have named F5. The F5 area of the brain is homologous to the Broca’s area in humans and is located in the premotor cortex, an area of the brain responsible for “planning, selecting, and executing actions” (Iacoboni 9). The fact that F5 is located in this area explains why mirror neurons behave the way they do. Mirror neurons are responsible for the planning and execution of our own motor actions in addition to discerning the intentions of the executed actions of others. It makes sense that other neurons in the premotor cortex communicate with specific mirror neurons, instructing them when to fire and so execute an action. It is also likely that many of these instructions are accessible to our consciousness. We are able to think about the movements we are making before we make them. When we are conscious, we have jurisdiction over many of the movements that we make. This indicates that there is some involvement of the conscious brain with mirror neurons. People in states of unconsciousness (patients in a coma, for example), move with considerably less frequency and presumably have a much lower level of mirror neuron activity. This indicates that mirror neuron activity is regulated by some conscious process or is regulated by a process that requires consciousness to operate. It follows then that a significant
Weiderhaft 6 amount of our motor activity is deliberate and that mirror neurons are given signals to fire rather than simply responding unconsciously to outside stimuli. The Broca’s area is a center for language production in the brain. The placement of mirror neurons and observations of language and the gesturing involved with communication have led many neurologists to propose that mirror neurons were instrumental in the development of language in humans. Rizzolatti, one of the original Parma neuroscientists, proposes that language evolved from communicative non-verbal gestures to “the capacity to make and interpret facial gestures and, then, the capacity to emit and understand ‘verbal gestures’” (Rizzolatti 139). The evolution of a deliberate system of communication from the basic imitation of gestures indicates the inclusion of additional (possibly conscious) processes in the mechanisms of imitation and mental state attribution. The development of language had to have come from some sort of a motivation to communicate beyond the simple unconscious imitation of motor actions and facial expressions. Mirror neurons would be much less useful if we could not put the information we gather from them to good use. Without conscious awareness and the need to communicate, our knowledge about other people’s mental states would be a much less relevant tool for the evolution of the human species and the growth of society. It seems that language would not have evolved if it were not beneficial for mechanisms other than the imitation system facilitated by mirror neurons. Ultimately, we can thank mirror neurons for our capability to understand the complex behaviors, goals, and emotions that are the primary indicators of the mental states of other people. While it is the mirror neurons that allow us to have this special ability, it is the mental processes that supplement the mirroring activity that allow us to fully enjoy the simulational mindreading abilities that mirror neurons afford to us.
Weiderhaft 7 Works Cited Blakeslee, Matthew and Blakeslee, Sandra. The Body Has a Mind of its Own. New York, NY: Random House, 2008. Print Goldman, Alvin. Simulating Minds. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print Iacoboni, Marco. Mirroring People. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Print. Rizzolatti, Giacomo, et al. “Premotor Cortex and the Recognition of Motor Actions”. Cognitive Brain Research 3 (1996): 131-‐141. Web. 22 November 2009. Yue, Guang and Cole, Kelly. “Strength Increases From the Motor Program: Comparison of Training With Maximal Voluntary and Imagined Muscle Contractions.” Journal of Neurophysiology, Vol. 67, No. 5 (1992): 1114-‐1123. Web. 22 November 2009.