Mirror Neurons and Social Cognition: an expanded simulationist framework

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Michael, John
conference paper description
In this paper, I critically assess the thesis that the discovery of mirror neuron systems (MNSs) provides empirical support for the simulation theory (ST) of social cognition. This thesis can be analyzed into two claims: (i) that MNSs are involved in understanding others’ intentions or emotions; and (ii) that the way in which they do so supports a simulationist viewpoint. I will be giving qualified support to both claims. Starting with (i), I will present theoretical and empirical points in support of the view that MNSs play a substantial role and are perhaps neces¬sary although not sufficient for understanding at least some intentions or emo¬tions. Turning to (ii), I will argue that the work on MNSs best supports a fairly weak version of ST, according to which social cognition involves simulation simply because conceptual thought in gen¬eral has a simulationist component. In elucidating this idea, I appeal to Law¬rence Barsalou’s embodied theory of concepts (1999, 2005). Crucially, the term “simula¬tion” here refers not to simulations of a target agent’s experience, nor even spe¬cifically to one’s own experience in a similar counterfactual situation, but to simulations of experience in general - activating sensory, motor, proprioceptive, affective, and introspective representations that match representations one would have when perceiving, carrying out actions, experiencing emotions, etc. I then sketch an expanded simulationist framework for understanding the contribution of MNSs to social cognition. The ap¬peal to empirical work on MNSs in support of ST is therefore a two-edged sword; making this appeal persuasive requires us to modify our understanding of simulation to make it line up with the empirical work.