Origins and function of mirror neurons 

Vittorio Gallese and Pierre Jacob: Origins and function of mirror neurons

Half-day symposium, 8 May 2014

Time: 14.00–18-00
Venue: Berlin School of Mind and Brain, Luisenstraße 56, 10117 Berlin
Room 144 (ground floor)

Please register:
Contact: Dr Anna Strasser (

Organizers: Richard Moore, Anna Strasser

Since their discovery in 1992, research on mirror neurons has promised to shed light on the neural basis of our knowledge of other minds. In this half-day workshop, the Berlin School of Mind and Brain is proud to present two talks on the nature and origins of mirror neurons. The first is by one of those who discovered them, Vittorio Gallese (Neuroscience, Parma). The second is by Pierre Jacob (Philosophy, Institut Jean Nicod).

We look forward to seeing you there.


2:00 Vittorio Gallese: The paradigmatic body. Embodied simulation, intersubjectivity and the bodily self
2:45 discussion

3:45 break

4:15 Pierre Jacob: Probing embodied simulation
5:00 discussion


Vittorio Gallese
The paradigmatic body. Embodied simulation, intersubjectivity and the bodily self
Cognitive neuroscience provides new insights on two aspects of social cognition, intersubjectivity and the human self, by emphasizing the crucial role of the body, the constitutive source of the pre-reflective consciousness of the self and of the other. The naturalization of intersubjectivity and the self implies a first attempt at deconstructing the concepts we use to refer to these aspects of human social cognition by literally investigating what they are made of at the level of description of the brain-body system. This neurocognitive approach reveals the tight relationship between a core notion of the bodily self, namely its potentiality for action, and motor simulation at the level of the cortical motor system. The brain level of description is necessary but not sufficient to study intersubjectivity and the human self, unless coupled with a full appreciation of its intertwined relationship with the body. I will introduce mirror mechanisms and embodied simulation and discuss their relevance for a new account of intersubjectivity and the human self, which privileges the body as the trascendental foundation of both.

To fully account for the specific quality of human social cognition one cannot neglect the linguistic dimension. I will briefly introduce some aspects of social cognition related to language and discuss them in terms of embodiment, emphasizing the progress and limitations of this approach. I will argue that a key aspect defining the unique specifity of human language consists in its decoupling from its usual denotative role; in so doing, human language manifests its power for abstraction. I’ll discuss these features of human language as instantiations of the Greek notion of paradeigma, originally explored by Aristotle. When a word or syntagm, like the Latin word Rosa, is decoupled from its usual denotative role, it can function as a general rule of knowledge, e.g. as a paradigm for the female nominative case of Latin nouns belonging to the first declension. The notion of paradeigma does not establish a connection between a universal principle and its contingent aspects, like in deduction, but it connects the particular with the particular, moving from the contingent particular situation to an exemplary case. I will propose that embodied simulation could instantiate such notion of paradigmatic knowledge, hence enabling its naturalization.


Pierre Jacob
Probing embodied simulation

The discovery of mirror neurons by Giacomo Rizzolatti, Vittorio Gallese and their colleagues in the early 1990’s is one of the major achievements of the cognitive neuroscientific investigation of motor cognition of the past twenty-five years. Mirror neuron activity was first discovered in the ventral premotor cortex and subsequently in the inferior parietal lobule of non-human primates, by single-cell recording. They fire both when an individual performs a goal-directed action onto some target and also when it observes another perform the same kind of transitive action. Mirror neuron activity in humans based on various experimental techniques strongly suggests that the human mirror mechanism can be elicited by a wider variety of actions than in non-human primates, including intransitive actions, not directed towards a specific physical target. Mirror neuron activity has been widely interpreted in terms of the direct-matching model of action-understanding. For the past fifteen years, Vittorio Gallese has further argued that the main function of the mirror mechanism in an observer’s brain is to mindread an agent’s intention and also that the same mechanism is at work in mindreading others’ sensations and basic emotions. According to Gallese, the mirror mechanism is best construed as a basic process of embodied simulation. I will focus on four related questions.
• There is no one-to-one mapping between an agent’s goal (or intention) and the bodily movements whereby the agent fulfills her goal (or intention). So the first question arises: does mirror neuron activity code an agent’s movements or an agent’s goal (or intention)? In accordance with the mindreading function of mirroring, Gallese takes the latter option.
• If mirroring codes an agent’s goal irrespective of the agent’s movements, then the second question arises: to what extent does the underlying process count as a suitably embodied process?
• Furthermore, Gallese has argued that embodied simulation is a process whereby individuals reuse their own mental states for the purpose of functionally attributing them to others. But mental simulation has often been construed in terms of inter-personal similarity. So the third question is: to what extent should reuse rather than similarity be taken to capture the core meaning of mental simulation?
• Finally, Gallese has argued that the output of embodied simulation is best construed as a functional, not a representational, attribution of mental states to others. So I want to press Gallese on the contrast between functional and representational attributions of mental states to others.

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