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Mirror Neurons and Autism

Sarah Harding's picture

Our ability as humans to understand the emotions of others allows us ease of socialization and empathizing.  With a mere glance at facial emotions, we are able to determine happiness, sadness, anger, distress, etc… In typically developing children, these abilities come naturally and easily; however, autistic children lack the capability to understand the emotional states of others. It has been determined that “mirror neurons” are responsible for the facility of emotional processing.  However, recent studies have revealed that persons with autism are missing “mirror neurons” and that explains why they have such difficulty with social interactions.  If autism is due to a biological imbalance rather than to a psychological deficit, then is it possible to “cure” autism?  Can the way that autistics view the world be altered?  And is that what they want?  After all, our emotional connections with others bring the burdens of stress, heartbreak, and depression.


Traditional social cognition accepts that imitation of others is innate in humans (i) Experiments with infants have repeatedly determined that human ability to imitate facial expressions is given with birth. In one experiment, the infants ranged in age from 42 minutes to 72 hours old.  When shown various facial expressions (protruding tongue, open mouth, protruding lips, etc…), the infants attempted to move the demonstrated body part (i).  For those who may have believed that imitation behavior is learned, these newborn children disproved their theory.  These children not only recognized the behavior, but only related it back onto themselves and attempted to perform the action.  This demonstrates a deliberate understanding of self, as well as demonstrates the presence and prominence of mirror neurons in all normal-functioning humans. 


The existence of mirror neurons was discovered in experiments with monkeys in which their brains were monitored while they either performed or observed an action.  Similar experiments were then performed on humans, and their results compared.  While monkeys have mirror neurons, they are not capable of imitating an action (i). This differentiates them from typically developing humans, who appear to have no difficulty with imitations.  Action interpretations with monkeys were located in the premotor cortex, while these same actions affected a larger, more complex web of cognition in humans (ii).  In humans, there is an explicit connection between observations of actions and execution of actions.  Even intention-to-imitate triggers an intricate activation of neural regions similar to those activated during imitation (i).  So why are we so different than primates? The difference between observation and imitation must therefore involve a major shift in brain action.  It is postulated that the inferior parietal lobe is responsible for this, as well as for determining a separation between others and the self (i).


The human ability to imitate action is what separates us from less-developed species of primates, which cannot relate to others on an emotional level.  The capacity to imitate is similar in function to the capacity to have empathy for others.  From a purely biological perspective, the insula region is said to be a key player in the action to emotion development process (iii).  This transition to emotion is what allows humans to empathize with the predicaments of others.  Theodore Lipps, who introduced the idea of empathy, described how “inner imitation of the actions of others” was critical for creating empathy (iii).  It seems that because observation is less-interactive action, it should use the same parts of the brain as imitation.  However, there is a major transition that relays information from observational processing to active imitation processing. 


Autistic children are often characterized by their inability to relate to and empathize with others.  The biological explanation for this phenomenon is a lack of mirror neurons, and consequently, a lack of activity in the insula region.  Vittorio Gallese, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma in Italy believes that, “If the mirror neuron system is defective or damaged, and our ability to empathize is lost, the observe-and-guess method of theory may be the only option left”(iv). Autism, which destroys the role of mirror neurons, prevents these people from imitating the experiences of others.  In autistic children, brain functions are limited to be similar to that of the monkeys.  During experiments, it was determined that most brain activity took place in the visual cortices and the premotor regions (which was where most brain activity for the monkeys took place) (v) The most prominent discrepancy between the typically developing children and the autistic children was that autistic children showed no (or reduced) activity in the mirror region of the pars opercularis. (v)  For physicians, decreased blood flow into the pars opercularis (which is located near the temple) is often a blatant identifier of autism.  The lack of activity in the region renders these children virtually negative on the evolutionary timeline.  By limiting use of the pars opercularis, these children were forced to operate on a reduced emotional level.  The interesting part about children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) was that they are perfectly capable of seeing and processing images of emotion, however, they have no internally felt emotional significance for these images (v).  For some children in the ASD experiments, they were able to imitate the facial expressions, but were completely incapable of understanding what the expressions meant or represented (vi). It is at this point where the relation between imitation and emotion become tangible. 


Through imitation, children develop a Theory of Mind in which they begin to understand that others have minds independent from their own.  However, children with autism do not understand that others don’t always know what they know, and they have difficulty comprehending the beliefs and attitudes of others (vii).This situation makes social interactions very difficult, and most likely is untreatable via traditional psychological procedures.  However, that poses a question: could autism be corrected?  Is there a way to increase blood flow to the inferior frontal gyrus of autistic children?  If so, and assuming that autism is entirely a result of this biological phenomenon, could these children someday have the ability to imitate, relate to, and empathize with others? Perhaps we should study another monkey...

  Sources:(i) Meltzoff, Andrew. “What imitation tells us about social cognition: a rapprochement between developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience.” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol 358, No. 1431, Decoding, Imitating, and Influencing the Actions of Others: The Mechanisms of Social Interactions. (March 29, 2003), 491-500.

(ii) Neri, Peter. “Meaningful interactions can enhance visual discrimination of human agents.” Nature Neuroscience. Vol.9, No. 9. (September 2006): 1186-1192

(iii) Carr, Laurie. “Neural mechanism of empathy in humans: A relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.  Vol.100, No. 9. (Apr. 29, 2003), 5497-5502.

(iv) Than, Ker.“Scientists Say Everyone Can Read Minds.” Live Science. Health SciTech. April 27, 2005.

(v) Dapretto, Mirella. “Understanding emotions in others: mirror neuron dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disorders.” Nature Neuroscience. Volume 9. Number 1. (Jan 2006):28-30.

(vii) “Lack of ‘Mirror Neurons’ May Help Explain Autism”. Decemeber 2006



autism's picture

Biological factors definitely play a role

There is significant evidence suggesting that autism simply is not a psychological phenomenon.

Biological factors do play a significant role in the functioning of the brain in children and adults with autism.

The dramatic rise in cases during the last 10 years (now 1 in 150 children) would suggest some sort of environmental factors are triggering autism. Whether it's vaccines, toxins in the environment, pesticides, etc., there is little doubt that there is more to this than meets the eye.

In my opinion, the psychological effects of autism are a by-product of the biological factors at work. Therefore, I do believe autism is treatable. In fact, there are many documented cases of autism being reversed in children through dietary intervention and biomedical treatment.

This would clearly suggest that a biological factors play a heavy role in this disorder.

Jim Pivonka's picture

Empathy, as not exclusively human capacity

This note is only an aside to the main point of your very interesting posting about mirror neurons and autism. I think that the points you raise there are very interesting, and have significant implications for additional study and research. The suggestion that autism is in effect a form of radical empiricism in which the only effective cognitive function is observation and reason (with reason perhaps impaired by social isolation or other factors) is especially ingriguing.

If we were to ask what it is that the autistic mind wants of us, it might be to be that we be willing to share, or at least accomodate to, its way of looking at and negotiating experience of the world now and then. Would it be possible to be that empathetic? To be williing to lose, briefly, the need for emotional interaction and response, and deal with the autistic mind's focus on sensation and observation? And perhaps, through that exercise in empathy, to help the autistic to develop ways of structuring their experiences and coping with them (including other people's emotional states) cognitively?

I hope you have seen the NYTimes article [ ] "Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior" which discusses primatologist Frans de Waal's work on the roots of morality in empathic capacities in other primates.

The article states in part:

  • Dr. de Waal, who is director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, argues that all social animals have had to constrain or alter their behavior in various ways for group living to be worthwhile. These constraints, evident in monkeys and even more so in chimpanzees, are part of human inheritance, too, and in his view form the set of behaviors from which human morality has been shaped.
  • I had some comments on the article's content.

    What is the definition of "moral being" that these "philosophers" are suggesting be used? It's impossible to evaluate any argument about such things, absent clear understanding of the meaning of the terms of the argument.

    What does the writer mean by the expression "possess morality"? It should be possible to discuss the major theme of this article without introducing such and odd juxtaposition of terms.

    The writer appears, in some places, to equate "morality" with moral behavior. In others he seems to equate it with moral thought, by which I mean moral reasoning and moral imagination.

    If "morality" subsumes more than behavior, to include thought and imagination, then it may be found to involve capacities which are more fully evolved in humans than in other life. In a discussion such as this article pretends, all of these conditions and assumptions should be made explicit, through statements which are as clear and unambiguous as possible.

    In the context of the information provided in the article it seems that morality (construed as moral behavior, reasoning, and imagination) depends on the evolution of capacities for constraining or altering behavior to account for the consequences of behavior.

    o The capacity for perception of relationships of cause and effect.
    o The capacity for action on percieved causal relationships to produce desired effects.
    o The capacity for modification of the range of behaviors available to respond to causal relationships and desired effects.
    o The capacity for reasoning (non verbal and verbal) about the consequences of actions on a causal relationships.
    o The capacity for projecting the consequences of action across increasing extents of space and time. This might also be expressed as the capacity for imagining the effects of actions on more expansive understandings of self, group, environment and time.

    Behavior that we, as humans, are willing to perceive as moral would be possible after the first two capacities are available. That is, when the capacity to modify behavior in anticipation of achieving a particular effect out of a range of possible effects, then moral action is possible.

    Moral thought, in the implicit or non-verbal sense, is possible when non-verbal reasoning about the consequences of action is possible.

    Formal moral thought is possible only when supported by language and the ability to manage relationships between causes and effects using formal systems of symbols is possible.

    Moral imagination is possible only when moral thought is inclusive and generous in its consideration of the consequences of action, extending it both through time and across the range of the personal, social, and natural world.

    It would be wrong to impute an equivalence between sociality and morality, however.

    We must be on the verge of realizing that moral behavior extends beyond the social situation or group dynamics. In fact, to be moral, behavior must consider the impact through time on the entire environment in which we live, and not just on our own lives, the interests and well being of the group we are part of, or even all of humanity.

    I would even disagree with Dr. de Wall's definition of morality as presented by the article, since it seems to be entirely rooted in group social relations. I think that any consideration of the consequences of behavior on the condition of a thing external to the actor is a moral consideration, and any act based on such a consideration that involves either the deferal or denial of the actor's immediate wants is a moral act. It is not until the capacity for such consideration and for action which defers or denies immediate self interest exists, that the capacity for moral imagination and action exists.