Friday, May 30, 2008

Talking Brains

I just found out that David Poeppel, Professor of Linguistics and Biology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Gregory Hickok, Professor of Cognitive Sciences, and Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at UC Irvine, have a blog called Talking Brains, which focuses on "News and views on the neural organization of language."

They post a lot about mirror neurons, and they are pretty sceptical about the claims that the mirror neuron system is the basic foundation of action of action understanding.
Here's a statement form on of their posts:

"So far we have not found any evidence to support the claim that the mirror neuron system is the "basis" of action understanding. In fact, all of the evidence discussed so far, refutes this claim"
Most of the posts are based on Gregory Hikock's graduate course on mirror neurons whose goal it is
"to survey what we know about MNs in the monkey and presumed correlates in humans, and to consider what kind of theoretical conclusions the data allow. We will cover a range of empirical and theoretical topics related to MNs, but all with an eye toward the implications of this work on understanding the functional anatomy of speech/language."
There's really ton of material on the site, and I can't wait to check it all out, because I share their doubt that the mirror neurons system is the whole story when it comes to action understanding and especially social cognition.


Laughing Man said...

Just a short note: You should insert a clear link to their blog.
I think no scientist believe that MNs are the "whole story". They, of course interact with various regions of the brain (e.g. Amygdala), proteins or other neuro transmitters.
There is a huge problem which I recognised reading all these neuropapers. Biologists, physiologists, neurologists and whateverists judge without consulting a linguist and say: "Oh look, the fMRI shows an exceptional active region when the participant is shown a crazy syntactic structure. We have found the area where language is processed! OMG, I'm a biologist and have found Language itself, I don't care about linguists".
As one said before: MN-theory is the left/right-brain of the 21. century.

Michael Pleyer said...

Sorry for the missing link, I've fixed the problem.
I think it is totally clear that the mirror neuron system isn't modular and encapsualted without any interaction with other parts of the brain.
The question is what mirror neurons are doing in the brain. Mirror neuron theorists claim that MNs play a major role in establishing action understanding, and that possibly the main factor in action understanding is the self-regulated simulative firing of neural groups.
Critics like Hikock argue that there is no There is no evidence whatsoever that mirror neurons in macaque support action understanding.
I think most neuroscientists are over this neo-neurophrenology and linguistic reductionism you are talking about. Neurolinguist Friedemann Pulvermüller for example, has degrees in Linguistics, Biology, and Psychology. Others, like Angelica Friederici, explicitly combine their research with Chomskyan Models of generative grammar. David Poeppel and Gregory Hikock are two toher positive examples. Peoppel and his colleagues have even written a paper on "Speech perception at the interface of neurobiology and linguistics." Many
Neuroscientists and Linguists have by now recognized that "Defining the relation between linguistics and neuroscience" (Poeppel and Embick 2005) is an important issue.
The popular press of course often distorts the results of MN and Neurolinguistic Research, and those scientists who are making sweeping generalization often get much more press coverage as the more moderate and reflective ones.