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These are fascinating and important results. But they tell us about the functions and connections of large portions of the brain, not about individual neurons. Moreover, this mirror system is quite separate from the parts of the brain that are activated in language and everyday social understanding. And this kind of large-scale brain organization, like the tuning of individual neurons, is itself likely the result of experience.
A fourth misconception perpetuated by the myth holds that a single type of cell can be responsible for a single type of experience. Could the human "mirror system" work because it's made up of lots of mirror neurons? No. Experiences and behaviors are never going to be the result of just one kind of cell, or even several kinds. More than 40 years ago, scientists used electrodes to record from individual neurons in the visual system of cats. They found a group of cells that responded distinctively to certain kinds of shapes, and they called them "edge detectors." You might think we see edges because our edge detectors fire. But decades of research have shown that the real picture is much more complicated. Something as simple as seeing an edge results from a very complex pattern of interactions among hundreds of different types of neurons. You can imagine how many types of interacting neurons it would take to drive a social behavior.
The intuition that we are deeply and specially connected to other people is certainly right. And there is absolutely no doubt that this is due to our brains, because everything about our experience is due to our brains. (It certainly isn't due to our big toes or our earlobes.) But it's little more than a lovely metaphor to say that our mirror neurons bring us together.
TODAY IN SLATE
Meet the New Bosses
How the Republicans would run the Senate.
The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers
Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.
Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.
Why all cracker names sound alike.
Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom
This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059
- Protesters Take to the Streets to Sound Alarm on Climate Change in New York, Across the World
- Knife-Carrying White House Jumper is Vet who Feared “Atmosphere Was Collapsing”
- North Korea: American Sentenced to Hard Labor Wanted to Become “Second Snowden”
- Almost One in Four Americans Support Idea of Splitting From the Union
Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?
A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.