Mirror neurons. The debate continues.. but not in static textbooks.

AQA A, A2 Psychology: Cognition and Development

Mirror Neurons are hailed by some as the breakthrough in discovering what stands us apart from other animals and makes us human. They are thought to be the key to explaining our ability to empathise and as such understand the actions and mental states of others. This is not a view shared by all, however, and there continues to be much debate about the role they might play and their existence in humans at all. A Level Psychology textbooks have dated quickly in their coverage of this area of research as the importance of mirror neurons continues to be debated in the scientific community and research continues to be carried out (see earlier post on the “Mirror Neuron Extravaganza”).

To get a real sense of the arguments on each side, regarding the possible role of these neurons in social cognition, I think students are better off going beyond the textbook and reading about the arguments for and against being written by science writers and researchers now (as opposed to when the textbooks were being rushed to be published in line with the, now old and possibly on the way out, “new” specs).

Science blogs – Brain Myths

In a post on Psychology Today, Christian Jarrett (BPS Research Digest blogger) highlights some of the arguments warning against assumptions that mirror neurons are the key to understanding empathy. In a post entitled “Mirror Neurons: The most hyped concept in neuroscience” he refers to the current lack of knowledge about these neurons in humans and the issues that mean caution is needed heralding these neurons as the key to empathy, as claimed by some in this field. Most textbooks make a fleeting reference to their being critics of this concept but go into little detail of the justification for the criticism.

Writing skills: Science blogs model effective critical writing

penBlog posts such as this one by Christian Jarrett not only have the potential to help students to take a critical view of the concepts they are learning about, but also have the power to model effective critical writing styles. Science writers (well good ones) construct an argument which reflects their informed (mostly) opinion. Compelling bloggers rarely sit on the fence but manage to create a persuasive argument, or at least one that encourages comment, without the post turning into a “rant” that is overly negative. This is undeniably a useful skill for students to develop in A2 writing.

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