The Mirror-Neuron System (Fragment)

Giacomo Rizzolattil and Laila Craighero. Dipartimento di Neuroscienze, Sezione di Fisiologia, via Volturno, 3, Universiti di Parma, 43100, Parma, Italy.


A category of stimuli of great importance for primates, humans in particular, is that formed by actions done by other individuals. If we want to survive, we must understand the actions of others. Furthermore, without action understanding, social organization is impossible. In the case of humans, there is another faculty that depends on the observation of others’ actions: imitation learning. Unlike most species, we are able to learn by imitation, and this faculty is at the basis of human culture. In this review we present data on a neurophysiological mechanism-the mirror-neuron mechanism-that appears to play a fundamental role in both action understanding and imitation. We describe first the functional properties of mirror neurons in monkeys. We review next the characteristics of the mirror-neuron system in humans. We stress, in particular, those properties specific to the human mirror-neuron system that might explain the human capacity to learn by imitation. We conclude by discussing the relationship between the mirror-neuron system and language.


Mirror neurons are a particular class of visuomotor neurons, originally discovered in area F5 of the monkey premotor cortex, that discharge both when the monkey does a particular action and when it observes another individual (monkey or human) doing a similar action (Di Pellegrino et al. 1992, Gallese et al. 1996, Rizzolatti et al. 1996a). A lateral view of the monkey brain showing the location of area F5 is presented in Figure 1 (see color insert). The aim of this review is to provide an updated account of the functional properties of the system formed by mirror neurons. The review is divided into four sections. In the first section we present the basic functional properties of mirror neurons in the monkey, and we discuss their functional roles in action understanding. In the second section, we present evidence that a mirror-neuron system similar to that of the monkey exists in humans. The third section shows that in humans, in addition to action understanding, the mirror-neuron system plays a fundamental role in action imitation. The last section is more speculative. We present there a theory of language evolution, and we discuss a series of data supporting the notion of a strict link between language and the mirror-neuron system (Rizzolatti & Arbib 1998).


The Mirror-Neuron System. In Monkeys

F5 Mirror Neurons: Basic Properties

There are two classes of visuomotor neurons in monkey area F5: canonical neurons, which respond to the presentation of an object, and mirror neurons, which respond when the monkey sees object-directecd action (Rizzolatti & Luppino 2001). In orderto be triggered by visual stimuli, mirror neurons require an interaction between a biological effector (hand or mouth) and an object. The sight of an object alone, of an agent mimicking an action, or of an individual making intransitive (nonobjectdirected) gestures are all ineffective. The object significance for the monkey has no obvious influence on the mirror-neuron response. Grasping a piece of food or a geometric solid produces responses of the same intensity. Mirror neurons show a large degree of generalization. Presenting widely different visual stimuli, but which all represent the same action, is equally effective. For example, the same grasping mirror neuron that responds to a human hand grasping an object responds also when the grasping hand is that of a monkey. Similarly, the response is typically not affected if the action is done near or far from the monkey, in spite of the fact that the size of the observed hand is obviously different in the two conditions. It is also of little importance for neuron activation if the observed action is eventually rewarded. The discharge is of the same intensity if the experimenter grasps the food and gives it to the recorded monkey or to another monkey introduced in the experimental room. An important functional aspect of mirror neurons is the relation between their visual and motor properties. Virtually all mirror neurons show congruence between the visual actions they respond to and the motor responses they code. According to the type of congruence they exhibit, mirror neurons have been subdivided into «strictly congruent» and «broadly congruent» neurons (Gallese et al. 1996). Mirror neurons in which the effective observed and effective executed actions correspond in terms of goal (e.g., grasping) and means for reaching the goal (e.g., precision grip) have been classed as «strictly congruent.» They represent about one third of F5 mirror neurons. Mirror neurons that, in order to be triggered, do not require the observation of exactly the same action that they code motorically have been classed as «broadly congruent.» They represent about two thirds of F5 mirror neurons.