Mirror Neuron extravaganza! Summer festivals aren’t all mud and music

Mirror neurons 20 years on

Psychologist and all round mirror neuron expert Marco Iacoboni, this week tweeted a link to a major science event taking place as I blog, in Sicily (the event, not me sadly).

Running for a week from 31st August 2012 until 6th September, the event is called “Mirror Neurons: new frontiers 20 years after their discovery”. The meeting is a workshop directed by Giacomo Rizzolati (of mirroring monkeys fame) and Pier Francesco Ferrari, both from the University of Parma. A feature of the event is a one day symposium focussing on mirror neurons and development (relevant to AQA A Unit 3, cognition and development). The purpose of the event is a meeting of minds, to share up to date research and help to stimulate further research into the function of the mirror neuron system (MNS) since the first discoveries were made.

Why it is worth sharing this with students

Even though this event will be history before you get the chance to share it, I think there are a number of reasons to tell students that this event happened.

The event makes clear to students that Psychologists regard their work as consisting of life-long-learning and it helps to model the excitement researchers have about their work. The event also gives a glimpse into a scientific community, demonstrating that researchers work together and share ideas (this is not something that students get from A Level textbooks).

Asking students to consider why Mirror Neurons are regarded as worth gathering to discuss and therefore why this discovery is seen as pioneering (if you have chosen Cognition and Development as an A2 Topic for unit 3, AQA A) will be an obvious use of this as a resource.

Fly on the wall

I really wish I could be a fly on the wall of this event as the MNS is a compelling idea that, despite some strong opposition (e.g. Gopnik), has the potential to explain social cognition (albeit at the risk of reductionism) at a neural level.

Thanks to the comprehensive website for this event, those of us not able to attend can at least get a taste of the scope of discussion as the abstracts for each session are included online. Although the abstracts don’t give away the specific points to be made in the workshops and lectures, they do give a summary and share a wealth of research questions that will be attempted to be answered throughout the event.

Abstracts as learning resources

Much of the research in this area relies on brain scanning methods, with many of the abstracts referring to the use of fMRI. Students could consider the validity and reliability of such methods (see earlier post on the issues with this method).

Students could consider whether any of the ideas to be shared at the event support or challenge any of the previous research included in the textbooks; some of which may now be out of date even in the short time since publication.

Students could be asked to imagine that sceptics of the concept of the MNS will attend the event, such as Alison Gopnik. They could consider what kinds of questions she might raise to challenge the research ideas shared. Students could even write a piece, in the style of the abstracts available online, summarising the main points of a contribution from a critic that counters the role of the MNS and the ability of this system to explain social cognition neurally.

The website may well be updated after the event so it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on this site.

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2 comments

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