Embodied Simulation Theory

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Embodied Simulation Theory

related brain structuresGenetics
Embodied Simulation Theoryinferior frontal gyrusDapretto etal.


  • Theory

In the Theory of Embodied Simulation, the mirror neuron system plays an integral role in our ability to understand the feelings, and intentions of others because empathy and understanding the mental states of others employ mirror neuron systems. Social and communicative deficits that people with ASD experience are a result of malfunctioning mirror neuron systems.

Studies have provided evidence that there is significantly weaker activation in the inferior frontal gyrus in children with autism as compared to typically developing children. Studies also indicate that chained motor act organization is impaired in those with autism.7

The appeal of the Embodied Simulation theory for language stems from the fact that it gives a simple explanation for how empathy and feelings could be neurally coded and understood. Additionally it is parsimonious to language evolution theory and could be tested.3

  • History

Within the last 10 years Mirror Neuron Systems (MNS) have been discovered in the brain. These neurons fire both when one performs an action and when one observes another person perform the same goal-directed action.7 These systems have quickly been implicated in many higher motor functions such as action recognition, imitation, and language processing. It has been hypothesized that since the same areas of the brain are activated as seen in fMRI studies when the subjects observes the action as when they perform the action themselves, this MNS can allow us to understand the intentions of others.1

Vittorio Gallese hypothesized that it is through these mirror neuron systems where both basic forms of social cognition like empathy, and higher forms of social cognition like attribution of mental states to others and language, are constructed. Mirror neurons have also been shown to allow monkeys to anticipate the final goal of an action. Studies such as Buxbaum et. al. 2 support the notion that the neural representations of action production and action understanding are the same.3 This "understanding" of an action afforded by the activation of the mirror neuron system is proportional to the observer's own motor experiences and automatic. Recent studies have also shown that the action and motor cortical circuits in the brain are involved in the processing of language. Some hypothesize that certain premotor structures originally meant to participate in goal-related action began to be used for language.3 This hypothesis is supported by an fMRI study by Friederici et. al. that the premotor sector of the inferior frontal gyrus is activated during the processing of language.5

Similarly in humans, it has been hypothesized that the MNS is involved in social cognition, language and imitation learning and ASD patients have shown to have deficits in imitation and forming "theory of mind". This has be proved with EEG studies. MNS also have greater impact on development of children as children learn through imitation and other peoples actions. This ability to imitate is affected with a dysfunctional MNS. In one hypothesis, children with a dysfunctional MNS correspondingly have a deficient audiovisual to motor link, which results in deficient language and communication, thus affecting the formation of Theory of Mind.6

EEG studies have shown that actions children with ASD, had MNS system activate (has greater mu suppression) when the actions were performed by them or when they observe actions performed by some one familiar to them, they did not respond well to actions performed by strangers. So its important for kids with ASD to have more interactions with family members and familiar individuals.6

Mirror Neuron System and Communication Deficits

fMRI studies show that motor areas are activated during speech perception. A study found that the effect of action observation on speech production as a function of object size was more pronounced in children than adults, which suggests that the transfer of action from an observed gesture to mouth movement may be important during the language acquisition period in children.Some suggest that a communication intervention based in music making, may be an effective therapy based since the inferior frontal gyrus is activated when people listen to musical passages that are similar to those they have previously learned to play. Listening, reading and watching musical performances that a person knows how to play engage brain regions related to the mirror neuron system. 8

Mirror Neuron System and Familiarity

One study which measured mu suppression in the sensorimotor cortex found that the mirror neuron system, tho still impaired, those with autism will respond to observed actions only when the person performing the action is personally significant. This is consistent with reports of better social and communication gains with the individual interacts with familiar individuals.8


Tests for Embodied Simulation Theory

Brain MRI T1 movie.gifNeuroimaging

Anaphase IF.gifGenetics

Animal Models

Human Mirror System

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See Citations_Embodied_Simulation_Theory

Related Pages

Human Mirror System