From Imitation to Action Understanding: on the evolution of mirror neurons

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The mirror neuron system (MNS) has been described as the neural basis of action understanding, as the system responsible for the human capacity to imitate and as the crucial step in the evolutionary development that led to language. Understanding the evolutionary origins of the MNS will therefore likely provide much insight into what makes us human. The involvement of the MNS in both imitation and action understanding has been rmly established. Various authors have discussed the evolutionary origins of the MNS and claimed that its function in facilitating imitation builds upon its role in action understanding and is thus a phylogenetically later development. I argue, however, that this hypothesis lacks sufficient theoretical or empirical evidence and instead present support for the reverse: the phylogenetically primary function of the MNS is imitation and the MNS evolved in direct response to a selective pressure for imitative behavior. This hypothesis was tested using evolutionary robotics simulation techniques. e simulation was conducted with embodied and simulated-world embedded artificial agents equipped with a lifetime-adapting (i.e., Hebbian learning) neural network for which the learning parameters were subject to evolution. The agents had to perform an imitation task. Analysis of the neural controller that evolved in response to this task revealed artificial neurons showing clear mirror characteristics, suggesting that, indeed, mirror neurons evolve due to a selective pressure for imitative behavior.
Faculteit der Sociale Wetenschappen