Small Gray Matters has an insightful post on the recent mirror neuron debate here at Scienceblogs. While I think a dose of skepticism is always helpful (especially when big mysteries like “empathy” and “theory of mind” are being tossed around), Small Gray Matters offers a persuasive defense of this circuit in the motor cortex:
Mirror neurons offer what is clearly the most plausible current model of imitative behavior, which isn’t a trivial matter, since imitation turns out to be pretty rare in the animal kingdom. For another, it wasn’t all that long ago that people were pretty skeptical about the prospect of knowledge being grounded in perceptual-motor processing. While we’re nowhere near grounding concepts like justice and mercy in monkeys’ left elbow joints, these days no one seriously doubts that at least some kinds of concepts are likely to be pretty intimately related to perceptual and motor representations. Mirror neurons provide an elegant way to study those kinds of representations.
Well said. Perhaps these cells have simply been overburdened by our expectations. It probably is asking too much of any brain region to be responsible for empathy, language, autism, theory of mind, and coordinating movement. That said, I still think mirror neurons are one of the coolest neuroscientific discoveries of the last decade. If they only explain our penchant for imitation, then Rizzolatti will still deserve a Nobel. (The name alone deserves some kind of prize.)