Public Release: 

AAAS Symposium to take place on mirror neurons

Intention, Imitation and Language

American Psychoanalytic Association

Single cell recordings and brain imaging have demonstrated that the primate brain contains pre-motor neurons which fire not only when an individual makes a goal-oriented action, but also when an individual simply observes somebody else making the same action. These neurons fire even in the dark, when for example an individual hears those sounds associated with particular actions. These neural properties have been called mirror properties which are considered now to have a bearing on the development of emotions. Scientists are beginning to look at this interface particularly with respect to empathy, theory of mind and reflective function in context of character pathology.

On Saturday, February 19 from 3:45 PM to 5:15 PM as part of the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), there will be symposium held about these phenomena entitled "Mirror Neurons: Intention, Imitation and Language" . The symposium will be held in Congressional B on the Lobby Level of the Omni Shoreham Hotel, 2500 Calvert Street NW (at Connecticut Avenue) in Washington, D.C.

In this symposium, three speakers and the symposium organizer will discuss the Mirror Neuron system from several perspectives. They will discuss how mirror neurons allow humans to represent within their brains, the actions, intentions, somatosensory sensations and the emotions of others whom they observe. As a result, humans can imitate what others do, sense what others sense, and empathize with what others feel-- simply by watching them.

From Mirror Neurons to Shared Circuits: The Neural Correlates of Empathy

Christian Keysers, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the BCN Neuro-Imaging Center at the University Medical Center in Groningen, The Netherlands, will talk first about "From Mirror Neurons to Shared Circuits: The Neural Correlates of Empathy". In his presentation, Dr. Keysers will present evidence stemming from single cell recordings in monkeys and from brain imaging experiments in humans that suggest that the way in which the brain so intuitively understands other people depends on what are called 'shared circuits'. It has been observed that the premotor cortex of monkeys, normally involved in the monkey's own actions, responds when the monkey hears or sees other people perform similar actions. Dr. Keysers' work has shown that people's somatosensory cortices, normally involved in their own sense of touch, are activated when they witnessed other people being touched. He will also demonstrate that people's insulae, normally involved in their own sense of disgust, are activated when they see other people displaying disgusted facial expressions.

Understanding Others: Imitation, Language and Empathy

Marco Iacoboni, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)School of Medicine, will talk about "Understanding Others: Imitation, Language and Empathy". His presentation will include imaging data in humans that describe a neural architecture for imitation. This neural architecture has neural properties similar to mirror neurons in nonhuman primates and overlaps spatially with areas classically tied to language functions. A common computational framework, based on relatively simple motor control concepts (internal models), can account for the imitation and language properties of this neural architecture, from the perception of simple speech sounds to the understanding of gestures accompanying speech.

Intentions, Empathy, and Theory of Mind: Implications for Personality and Psychotherapy

Mark Thompson, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst at the University of California, Los Angeles(UCLA), will then talk about "Intentions, Empathy, and Theory of Mind: Implications for Personality and Psychotherapy".

Dr. Thompson will link the evidence derived from the study of mirror neurons with clinical material derived from psychoanalysis and psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapy. Specifically he will address how mirror neurons shed light on our understanding of empathy and mentalization and how certain individuals may have deficits in these areas as a result of impairments in underlying brain structures; e.g., autism, borderline and narcissistic disorders.

"Even something as neutral as 'you got a new hair cut' is processed according to the intentions and feelings that the other person has toward us," remarked Dr. Thompson. Does the person mean to be friendly and flattering, or critical and judgmental? In the clinical work done by psychoanalysts and other psychodynamic psychotherapists, the vast majority focuses on the patients difficulty in social relationships because of their impairments in the processing of this aspect of social interaction- i.e., the intentions and feelings of others. Dr. Thompson will address this issue particularly with regard to patients who have suffered early trauma or neglect, or patients who have one of a number of severe personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder.

The organizer of the symposium is psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Regina Pally, M.D. who is a member of the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) as well as Associate Clinical Professor at UCLA and faculty member of the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Institute. Dr. Pally will point out? how modern neuroscience emphasizes the interactive nature of brain function. Brains develop, mature and operate only in the context of interacting with the environment. For the human brain this means primarily the social environment of interaction with other people. Since humans are such highly social creatures, it is not surprising that neuroscientists have found a large number of circuits dedicated to these interactions, which are often referred to as the 'social brain'. Mirror neurons, are part of this social brain.

These findings are particularly relevant to the understanding of human psychological functioning, normal and pathologic. In the normal course of interaction, people, more often than not, misinterpret what others say to them. In fact most of the time, we don't even respond to the words other people say to us, but to what we assume the other personal means by those words.


Contact Information:

Regina Pally, M.D., 310-820-2700;

Christian Keysers, Ph.D., 31-50-363-8794;

Marco Iacoboni, M.D., 310-206-3992,

Mark Thompson, M.D., 310-826-2881;

Dottie Jeffries, Director of Public Affairs, APsaA, 917-445-7876;

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