Dissertation, City University of New York (2010)
The discovery of so-called ‘mirror neurons’ - found to respond both to own actions and the observation of similar actions performed by others - has been enormously influential in the cognitive sciences and beyond. Given the self-other symmetry these neurons have been hypothesized as underlying a ‘mirror mechanism’ that lets us share representations and thereby ground core social cognitive functions from intention understanding to linguistic abilities and empathy. I argue that mirror neurons are important for very different reasons. Rather than a symmetric ubiquitous or context- independent mechanism, I propose that these neurons are part of broader sensorimotor circuits, which help us navigate and predict the social affordance space that we meet others in.
To develop both the critical and positive project I analyze the interpretive choices and the debate surrounding the mirror neuron research and show how the field is marred by highly questionable assumptions about respectively motor and social cognition. The discovery of mirror neurons - and the sensorimotor circuits of which these neurons are a part – actually empirically challenge many of these tacit assumptions. Findings of sensorimotor goal representations at levels of abstraction well beyond actual sensory information and kinetic movements challenge the idea of motor cognition as primarily output production. Additionally, the focus on 3rd person mindreading of hidden mental states is misguiding the field of social cognition. Much ‘mind-reading’ seems rooted in sensorimotor representations and a developmentally primary 2nd person understanding of actions and the mental lives of others, which precisely breaks the assumed dichotomy between mind and behavior.
I propose a Social Affordance model where parallel fronto-parietal sensorimotor circuits support representations not just of other people’s actions but of the overall social affordance space. It is a process that monitors concrete goals and teleological possibilities that the environment affords respectively oneself and other present agents. With this model I hypothesize that the complex spectrum of sensorimotor integrations are indeed essential not only to normal action choice calibration but also to social cognitive abilities, as the sensorimotor teleological representations let us relate to others and understand their action choices in a shared pragmatic and intentional context.