Gregory Hickok’s
The Myth of Mirror Neurons

Hickok quotes Iacoboni:

I respond to this before I have read further in the book. I have heard this sort of talk several places and have been very suspicious. At most, an identified neuron may be situated, via its axons and dendrites, so that some particular sort of psychological activity is associated with that neuron, as either cause or effect. In that case the neuron may be critical to the activity (or not) but the evolution of that brain activity certainly involved much more than that neuron. Identification of such a neuron hardly constitutes an explanation of the activity. At best it is a good place to start looking.

P 3: “maybe there is a mirror-like mechanism behind empathy.” A neuron is not a mechanism! Many neurons may provide a mechanism. Perhaps Hickok is not going far enough.

I thought and think that the issue is not what do the identified neurons do, but rather what constitutes a theory of how brain things work.

As Hickok describes the Parma experiments I recall the conclusion that of some particular action, like grasping, the connection between performing the act and seeing a conspecific perform the act had clear evolutionary basis; it is the basis for mimicry. This is thus a clue to evolutionary origin of language.

Apraxia is fascinating.

P 17: The connection with Broca’s area may be that motor signal generation for hand motions may have been adapted for manipulations of the vocal track.

P 22: I think I share Hickok’s scepticism here. If Gallese’s and Goldberg’s idea were right we would have evolved to all speak the same language.

P 22: Hickok explains the understanding of speech in terms of mimicking the speaker and imagining the meaning. Clearly speaking and understanding speech evolved simultaneously. I am skeptical of building one on the other.

P 27: I am skeptical with talk such as “Mirror neurons are cells that respond both when the animal performs an action and when it views the same or similar action.”. As a definition this is OK but it should be immediately followed by speculation, at least, in where that response fits in the causal chain. Lack of curiosity on this makes me think that most brain people mean something by “explanation” different that what I mean. Where are the causal chains that lead to the clinical observations, and how do they come to intersect at these neurons?

P 41 Quote

While this is indeed a glaring fact to be explained by any theory, what others have made of it is much less than a theory. It is a big obscure clue. It is not what the robot engineers had planned to do but none of the ‘theories’ suggest what to do instead.

P 42: Hickok’s anomaly 1 rules out most obvious theories, but not all. Anomaly 2 rules out theories of recognition of action. They do not rule out theories of mimicry which is the answer to the question he asks on P44: “If another mechanism exists, what selection pressure could have led to the evolution of mirror neurons?”. That answer needs explication however.

Regarding humans guageing the mood of dogs, it is relevant that dogs and humans have evolved together for a while. This does not discredit the findings however. Given that feral dogs don’t bark it might well be that dogs have learned human language to a meagre extent.

P 48: See this about smiling however.

P 52: Of course mimicry is not always appropriate. It suffices that it is sometimes appropriate. Other parts of the brain must decide when.

P 54: I am missing something. Hickok seems to be merely describing the conditioned reflex.

P 74: I have no clear idea of the Myth that Hickok is trying to dispel and I don’t know who to blame. I am extremely suspicious of any theory of a neuron that fails to fit that neuron into at least some causal chains.

P 79: I find the “motor theory of speech perception” plausible but it must be compared with a simpler theory that consonant-vowel pairs, as conventionally divided, may merely be a useful haphazard collection of distinctive sounds. The argument for the motor theory is that we assign letters to them according to the motor actions necessary to speak them. But the Japanese written kana system does not. The early Greeks who invented the first alphabet with vowels were evidently conscious of these motor precursors. They chose well; it was an intellectual accomplishment. It seems obvious in retrospect; possibly it was not.

P 82: “It was merely assumed that because listeners are also talkers, they have the specialized, inside knowledge to some recognize gestures from acoustic patterns.” Mimicking speech is hard but necessary. The theory is good even if we have not explained that harder problem.

P 86: “Babies perceive speech sounds categorically.” So maybe it is in our genes. The chinchillas are a harder problem.

P 87: The Massaro experiments are interesting. Just as the blindsight experiments suggest that visual data go to more than one place to be decoded, so too perhaps sound data go to different places depending on instructions from the experimenter.

P 89: I am still waiting for a neuron in the causal chain theory—even a discredited theory.

P 98: Double-dissociation fits my “two place” idea.

P 99: I recall in some popular magazine a short sentence with simple words. The job was to count the t’s. Most people missed one of them in the word “to” which most saw as an indivisible unit with no parts.

P 103: I wonder if the boy who could understand speech but not speak, could write.

P 104: understanding speech at the phoneme level is in our DNA. However phoneme sets vary culturally.

P 128: Hickock demolishes some claims made by the embodiests that I had not realized that they had made.

P 130: I am beginning to realize, as I read the book, that Hickok’s idea of what a theory is, is somewhat closer to mine than the ideas of the other workers in the field whose notions he critiques. I have read some of those other workers very spottily and did not get much notion of how they thought that the brain worked.

P 132: I note as I read that I am chewing a meal as I read just now. I don’t think that my reading comprehension is impaired by the fact that my motor cortex is employed driving my chewing. I did, however, notice that I stopped chewing momentarily as I spelled some word.

P 134: I completely accept Kickok’s alternate interpretation of Glenberg’s observations.

P 150: Ian’s ‘large-fiber sensory neuropathy’ arrises in part when a normal person uses remote manipulators which lack feed-back. Early ones lacked feed-back. TV sight serves the user as normal sight serves Ian. The part about falling off the chair is only Ian’s problem however.

Ian could drive a car pretty well because that does not depend on sensory feed-back beyond sight.

The only surprise I find in this section is that it actually happens to people and has a name.

I think that most robots today suffer from large-fiber sensory neuropathy and it shows.

P 155: At least Hickok describes causal chains here in describing the brain. The mirror enthusiasts don’t as far as I can tell.

P 164: Among the reasons to reach for the cup may be that you know that you will be away from opportunities to drink for a few hours. That this is an uncommon reason is beside the point. I think the behaviorists could dredge up some conditioned response story for the other reasons.

P 171: Regarding the “default network” or daydreaming, that is when I solve some math problems. I am scarcely aware that I am thinking math and out pops a realization that ..:wq such-and-such.

P 177: Here is my more detailed description of my short term memory.

P 188: I recall reading somewhere that birds in England learned that cream was available by pecking thru paper tops of glass milk bottles. It was evident that they learned it from each other. No one explained the phenomenon except as imitation.

P 210: Concerning “Autism spectrum”: Hickok quotes DSM giving three sorts of variation of the disorder. My dictionaries say that ‘spectrum’ refers to one dimensional arrangements, not many.

P 220: Hickok suggests more stimulus can explain observations as well as less. I am a bit hard of hearing and I can attest that I begin to object to sound that is too loud about as soon as others. It is not so much that stimulus is attenuated but that it is poorly processed at the periphery. This can result in high levels of signals in the brain, but signals that lack information. That can explain the frequent autistic response to personal relationships. It is just too much to handle.

P 242: I am amused at Hickok’s barn metaphor. It is an ordinary metaphor and also a reflection here of how the brain works.