Universiteit Leiden

Do you see what you do?

Do you see what you do? Reflections by Elvis Kennedy

The distinction between action and perception is not as sharp as you might think, which does not bode well for explanatory power of mirror neurons.

So, do you see what you do? Obviously you might say, of course I can see what I do! The question remains however, does what you perceive and what you do come down to the same thing on a neural level? In other words, do perception and action employ the same neural hardware in order to perform different tasks?

Over the past decades, ever since their discovery, a lot of fuss has been made about mirror neurons. From empathy, to imitation, to autism. For a while there wasn’t a psychological phenomenon that was safe from an explanation in terms of mirror neurons. Is it really surprising though that there are cells in the brain that respond to both perceiving and performing actions? Not a lot of people would be surprised when scientists claimed that what you perceive in some way influences the actions you perform, albeit indirectly. 

After all I don’t go around running through the supermarket, flailing my arms and making grasping movements in hopes of acquiring a net of oranges.  Instead, I walk over to the fruit and vegetable aisle, extend my arm to where I see where the oranges are located and grab a net.

Given the way the brain is made up then, with its widespread two-way connections and communication between different areas, wouldn’t we expect that action can also influence what we perceive? Indeed, scientists have found evidence that what you do can influence what you see.

For example, Miall and colleagues were able to show that performing strange hand gestures helped participants better identify a strange hand gesture that fell out of place among a series of pictures of related hand movements. Participants who performed the hand gesture in question themselves were faster to identify it than participants who did not perform the gesture.

Or, Wohlschläger had participants turn a door knob from left-to-right or from right-to-left while watching a rotating object. He found that participants were biased when it came to reporting the direction of the moving object. It turned out they were more likely to report the direction they were turning the door knob in. 

These two studies are just examples where action influences what we perceive. There are many more, in case you’re interested. The effects might not always be big, but we can be sure there is an effect of action onto perception.

So, having established both an effect of perception on action and an effect of action on perception, could it be possible that they reflect a similar neural process? At the very least they have to be communicating, for there to be mutual influence.

In fact, given the organization of the brain, wouldn’t it be likely that both processes overlap, at least to some extent? Where then does that leave mirror neurons? Would it be safe to say that they don’t add anything new to the explanation of action? It sure seems like it. Given these findings there necessarily need to be mirror neurons, or whatever you call them.

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