It is now generally accepted that the motor system is not purely dedicated to the control of behavior, but also has cognitive functions. Mirror neurons have provided a new perspective on how sensory information regarding others’ actions and gestures is coupled with the internal cortical motor representation of them. This coupling allows an individual to enrich his interpretation of the social world through the activation of his own motor representations. Such mechanisms have been highly preserved in evolution as they are (...) present in humans, apes and monkeys. Recent neuroanatomical data showed that there are two different connectivity patterns in mirror neuron networks in the macaque: one is concerned with sensorimotor transformation in relation to reaching and hand grasping within the traditional parietal-premotor circuits; the second one is linked to the mouth/face motor control and the new data show that it is connected with limbic structures. The mouth mirror sector seems to be wired not only for ingestive behaviors but also for orofacial communicative gestures and vocalizations. Notably, the hand and mouth mirror networks partially overlap, suggesting the importance of hand-mouth synergies not only for sensorimotor transformation, but also for communicative purposes in order to better convey and control social signals. (shrink)
In the current opinion paper, we provide a comparative perspective on specific aspects of primate empathic abilities, with particular emphasis on the mirror neuron system associated with mouth/face actions and expression. Mouth and faces can be very salient communicative classes of stimuli that allow an observer access to the emotional and physiological content of other individuals. We thus describe patterns of activations of neural populations related to observation and execution of specific mouth actions and emotional facial expressions in some species (...) of monkeys and in humans. Particular attention is given to dynamics of face-to-face interactions in the early phases of development and to the differences in the anatomy of facial muscles among different species of primates. We hypothesize that increased complexity in social environments and patterns of social development have promoted specializations of facial musculature, behavioral repertoires related to production and recognition of facial emotional expression, and their neural correlates. In several primates, mirror circuits involving parietal-frontal regions, insular regions, cingulate cortices, and amygdala seem to support automatic forms of embodied empathy, which probably contribute to facial mimicry and behavioural synchrony. In humans these circuits interact with specific prefrontal and temporo-parietal cortical regions, which facilitates higher order cognitive functions such as cognitive empathy and mental state attribution. Our analysis thus suggests that the evolution of higher forms of empathy, such as mentalizing, is also linked to the coupling between the perceptual and motor system related to face processing, which may have undergone a process of exaptation during primate phylogeny. (shrink)
Empathy is the phenomenal experience of mirroring ourselves into others. It can be explained in terms of simulations of actions, sensations, and emotions which constitute a shared manifold for intersubjectivity. Simulation, in turn, can be sustained at the subpersonal level by a series of neural mirror matching systems.
Different theories have been proposed for explaining the evolution of language. One of this maintains that gestural communication has been the precursor of human speech. Here we present a series of neurophysiological evidences that support this hypothesis. Communication by gestures, defined as the capacity to emit and recognize meaningful actions, may have originated in the monkey motor cortex from a neural system whose basic function was action understanding. This system is made by neurons of monkey’s area F5, named mirror neurons, (...) activated by both execution and observation of goal-related actions. Recently, two new categories of mirror neurons have been described. Neurons of one category respond to the sound of an action, neurons of the other category respond to the observation of mouth ingestive and communicative actions. The properties of these neurons indicate that monkey’s area F5 possesses the basic neural mechanisms for associating gestures and meaningful sounds as a pre-adaptation for the later emergence of articulated speech. The homology and the functional similarities between monkey area F5 and Broca’s area support this evolutionary scenario. (shrink)
Songbirds possess mirror neurons (MNs) activating during the perception and execution of specific features of songs. These neurons are located in high vocal center (HVC), a premotor nucleus implicated in song perception, production and learning, making worth to inquire their properties and functions in vocal recognition and imitative learning. By integrating a body of brain and behavioral data, we discuss neurophysiology, anatomical, computational properties and possible functions of songbird MNs. -/- We state that the neurophysiological properties of songbird MNs depends (...) on sensorimotor regions that are outside the auditory neural system. Interestingly, songbirds MNs can be the result of the specific type of song representation possessed by some songbird species. At the functional level, we discuss whether songbird MNs are involved in others' song recognition, by dissecting the function of recognition in various different but possible overlapping processes: action-oriented perception, discriminative-oriented perception and identification of the signaler. We conclude that songbird MNs may be involved in recognizing other singer's vocalizations, while their role in imitative learning still require to solve how auditory feedback are used to correct own vocal performance to match the tutor song. Finally, we compare songbird and human mirror responses, hypothesizing a case of convergent evolution, and proposing new experimental directions. (shrink)
Considering the properties of mirror neurons (MNs) in terms of development and phylogeny, we offer a novel, unifying, and testable account of their evolution according to the available data and try to unify apparently discordant research, including the plasticity of MNs during development, their adaptive value and their phylogenetic relationships and continuity. We hypothesize that the MN system reflects a set of interrelated traits, each with an independent natural history due to unique selective pressures, and propose that there are at (...) least three evolutionarily significant trends that gave raise to three subtypes: hand visuomotor, mouth visuomotor, and audio–vocal. Specifically, we put forward a mosaic evolution hypothesis, which posits that different types of MNs may have evolved at different rates within and among species. This evolutionary hypothesis represents an alternative to both adaptationist and associative models. Finally, the review offers a strong heuristic potential in predicting the circumstances under which specific variations and properties of MNs are expected. Such predictive value is critical to test new hypotheses about MN activity and its plastic changes, depending on the species, the neuroanatomical substrates, and the ecological niche. (shrink)
The discovery of mirror neurons caused a revolution in neuroscience and psychology. Nevertheless, because of their profound impact within life sciences, mirror neuron are still the subject of numerous debates concerning their origins and their functions. With more than 20 years of research in this area, it is timely to synthesise the expanding literature on this topic. 'New frontiers in Mirror Neurons' provides a comprehensive overview of the latest advances in mirror neurons research - accessible both to experts and to (...) non-experts. In the book, leading scholars draw on the latest research to examine methodological approaches, theoretical implications, and the latest findings on mirror neurons research. (shrink)