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<xTITLE>Brain Myths & Folk Psychology: Let's not include any misleading myths in conflict resolution (like perhaps mirror neurons?)</xTITLE>

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

by Stephanie West Allen

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

Stephanie West Allen

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?

The 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 nature.

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.

To 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."

Gropnik 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, 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 with Center co-founder Gary Friedman. She has been a mediator for over two and one-half decades.

She is the author of Triversity Fantasy — Seven Keys To Unlock Prejudice, Creating Your Own Funeral or Memorial Service: A Workbook and many articles on workplace and professional issues for such publications as Lawyer Hiring and Training Report, Colorado Nurse, The Complete Lawyer, National Law Journal, Of Counsel, Law Practice and Denver Business Journal.

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