img: Youngeun Choi
MIRRORCLE NEURONS

a relatively sensible-sounding meta-review of the effects of action observation on neurological rehabilitation is blown wildly out of proportion by the media. it's a mirrorcle  

original article: Ryan et al., 2021 (Archives Of Rehabilitation Research And Clinical Translation), reported in: Irish News by Fiona MacRae on 8th July 2021 image source

this story was in episode 14 #mirrorneuron #stroke #rehab #metaanalysis


the error bar says

the Irish News, along with countless other news-reposting platforms, asks us why looking at a tarantula makes our skin crawl, while looking at ice cream makes our mouths water

the answer? well, it's obvious - mirror neurons

for anyone not reading about neuroscience in the late 1990s and the noughties, these supposed miracle neurons were found in some monkey's brains nearly 30 years ago. what's special about them is that these brain cells respond both when the monkey is making a movement, such as grasping a peanut, and when the monkey looks at another monkey or human who's grasping a peanut

the scientists and the media invoke these seemingly-magical neurons to explain the therapeutic benefits of action observation therapy during neurological rehabilitation - a form of medical intervention where patients watch other people making movements so that they can improve their own movements

that's the story here - nothing to do with spiders or ice cream - the story is that a review of previous studies finds that such action observation may be a useful therapy in some neurological conditions


are mirror neurons really a miracle?

well, no. the brain as a whole IS a miracle, and ALL brain cells either respond to stimuli or are involved in movement somehow, so, by the media's loose definition of mirror neurons, the whole damn brain is one big bulging mirror neuron

these neurons are surely very interesting indeed; and so are the potentially beneficial effects of movement observation on neurological rehabilitation

but what i just don't get, thirty years on, is why scientists are still putting out press releases and giving interviews saying, or allowing journalists to say, that mirror neurons are responsible for arachnophobia and ice-cream-ophilia. it's nuts

if you want a more interesting and up-to-date take on mirror neurons this summer, then i would recommend heading over to Perspectives on Psychological Science, where Professors Celia Heyes and Caroline Catmur ask "What happened to mirror neurons?"

it's not open access, but it's brand spanking new, and these authors don't hold their punches - there's your summer holiday blockbuster, folks


conclusion

mirror neurons are real and very interesting, but they make up a very small part of the brain and are responsible for a very small and specific set of sensations and movements in monkeys and humans. please stop the hype!

rating

Irish News: fudge - scientific story distorted