If the motor system is no mirror'

In Payette (ed.), Connected Minds: Cognition and Interaction in the Social World. Cambridge Scholars Press. pp. 158--182 (2012)
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Largely aided by the neurological discovery of so-called “ mirror neurons,” the attention to motor activity during action observation has exploded over the last two decades. The idea that we internally “ mirror ” the actions of others has led to a new strand of implicit simulation theories of action understanding[1][2]. The basic idea of this sort of simulation theory is that we, via an automatic covert activation of our own action representations, can understand the action and possibly the goal and/or intentions of the observed agent. In this way motor “simulation” is seen as the basis for low-level “mind-reading”; i.e. for the ascription of goals and intentional mental states to others. The thought is that one, through mirroring simulations, can get beyond the observable behaviour to the hidden minds of others. I am questioning the idea of an exclusively “mirroring” role of the motor system in social perception, which is tacitly assumed in this sort of simulation theories. Is motor activity during action observation really primarily a simulation, a detailed “echo” of the others action? My point is not that we never simulate what we observe, but rather to question whether such processes are representative of the overall motor contribution to social cognition. More and more studies on the functional properties of mirror neurons and motor facilitation during perception points to a more complex role of the motor system in action perception. Recently, several proposals have been made attempting to reinterpret and critique the function of motor activity in social situations. I shall here briefly touch on a few of these and sketch parts of my own alternative “social affordance” hypothesis of the sensorimotor contribution to social perception. By way of these analyses I highlight how traditional discussions are marred by problematic theoretical assumptions. It seems to me that we need a thorough reinterpretation not just of mirror neurons and mirroring, but also of what we take motor and social cognition to be. In my view the details of the sensorimotor findings underline the need to move beyond the simplistic idea of the motor system as a unitary output system. In terms of social cognition I question the traditional focus on hidden mental states. I suggest that the motor contribution might have more to do with understanding the process of how others choose their actions, navigate the world and relate to others than with simulating specific actual actions or mental states. I conclude that low-level simulation theories, which see the motor role in social perception as passive “mirroring,” are faced with serious empirical challenges, and that the motor system serve a much more proactive and complex cognitive role in social perception and interaction than previously thought. But my claim is also that many empirical tensions have slipped out of focus due to entrenched theoretical assumptions. Narrow theoretical expectations have marked not only the interpretations but the research itself and I propose that we are in dire need of more studies of actual contextual and interactive social perception.
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