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Brain Myths & Folk Psychology: Let’s not include any misleading myths in conflict resolution (like perhaps mirror neurons?)

From Stephanie West Allen’s blog on Neuroscience and conflict resolution .

To spread accuracy, Professor Amy Shelton at Johns Hopkins is teaching a course this semester called Brain Myths & Folk Psychology. She sent me the Brain Myths syllabus (and in her e-mail said this class is much fun to teach). After looking at the readings and lecture topics, I wish I could be one of her students. The course goal:

. . .is to explore popular notions about the brain and psychology and to discuss what science has actually revealed about them.  In the process, we will introduce you to major concepts, questions, and research techniques in cognitive and systems neuroscience.

The slides from each lecture are posted at the course site so you can see part of what has been presented.  Enjoy some myth debunking.

Today many brain myths or exaggerations are being perpetuated that relate to conflict. When you hear something about the brain that seems that it would be useful in conflict resolution, be sure to take a look at the underlying research. And even the research may not give you the whole picture. Science has much still to learn about the brain so we at BonP choose to be conservative in our analysis and recommendations. Many are moving in the opposite direction and making assertions that are not yet supported by the science.

An excellent lesson in point: mirror neurons. In "Cells That Read Minds?," Alison Gopnik discusses "the myth of mirror neurons."

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, neuroscientists found

a population of cells that fired whenever a monkey
prepared to act but also when it watched another animal act. They
called these cells "mirror neurons." It didn’t take long for scientists
and science writers to speculate that mirror neurons might serve as the
physiological basis for a wide range of social behaviors, from altruism
to art appreciation. Headlines like "Cells That Read Minds" or "How Brain’s ‘Mirrors’ Aid Our Social Understanding"
tapped into our intuitions about connectedness. Maybe this cell, with
its mellifluous name, gives us our special capacity to understand one
another—to care, to learn, and to communicate. Could mirror neurons be
responsible for human language, culture, empathy, and morality?

myth of mirror neurons may not do much harm. Perhaps it’s even good for
science that in the 21st century we turn to the brain, rather than gods
and monsters, for our mythical images. Still, science and science
writing are supposed to get us closer to the truth, while the myth of
mirror neurons may do just the opposite. Instead of teaching us about
how the mind works, it may perpetuate some broad misconceptions about
neuroscience and what the study of the brain can tell us about human

The study of the brain cannot tell us
all about human nature or even a lot about our nature. I am leery
whenever I hear someone say neuroscience has many of the answers to who
we are and why we act—and love and hate and fight and care.

Gopnik has more to say. She is quoted in "I feel your pain," an article in Salon by Gordy Slack.

U.C. Berkeley critic Gopnik, the significance of mirror neurons "is
blown way out of proportion." She says their power to explain
consciousness, language and empathy "is just a metaphor." As a
psychologist, Gopnik views behavior at a different resolution than the
neurologists do. She bristles at the idea that science can find
hard-wired explanations in the brain for complex behaviors. "You never
get single neurons calculating anything," she says. "What you’ve got
are these enormous suites and interactions and computation among many
different levels of neurons all calculating different things. And also
changing what they calculate even from moment to moment."

. . . "The idea that a kind of neuron alone could explain empathy or behavior or self-consciousness simply makes no sense.

"It’s just as likely that those neurons are mirroring because
people are imitating each other and feeling empathy, not the other way
around," says Gopnik.  . . . [S]he is impatient with "the giant
illogical leaps" that she says neurologists sometimes take in reaching
overly broad conclusions. "Scientists have always been susceptible to
the temptation of thinking that they’ve solved the secrets of the
universe," she says. "And neurologists are no different."

gives us an important reminder that the workings of the mind and the
brain are not reducible to single functions and places on the brain
map. The brain and its parts are a team and a system, best working in
collaboration with, and under the direction of, the mind. In order to
facilitate conflict resolution, we need to have the big-picture whole
and not just knowledge of individual parts.


Stephanie West Allen

Stephanie West Allen, JD, practiced law in California for several years, held offices in local bar associations, and wrote chapters for California Continuing Education of the Bar. While in CA, Stephanie completed several five-day mediation training programs with the Center for Mediation in Law, as well as a two-year intensive… MORE >

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