Mirror Neurons and the Looking Glass Self: The Neural Sciences meet Sociology

  Why do neural scientists need expensive MRI machines to “see” what classical sociologists Charles Horton Cooley and George Herbert Mead saw by simply looking into the eyes of children?  This is the subject of my recent article “Of Mirror Neurons and the Looking Glass Self” published in Perspectives on Science.

The Mirror Neuron is a hot thing today in the neural sciences.  The Mirror Neuron hypothesis postulates that a person watching another person do something, imagines that the other person is doing.  How do the neural scientists know this?  Because they can watch it on expensive MRI machines which show that blood flows to the same part of the brain in the person who acts, and the person who observes the person acting.  Pretty cool observation isn’t it?  In fact it is so cool that some people who know about such things are predicting a Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine for the scientists who first developed this line of research in the 1980s and 1990s.

I’m all for Nobel Prizes all around; but it is just too bad that they guys who first observed The Looking Glass Self, Charles Horton Cooley, and George Herbert Mead can’t share in it.  Using the same metaphor of the mirror, they described the Looking Glass Self beginning in 1902.  Cooley’s research subject was his two year old daughter who he simply watched, without a machine, sensors, or anything else.  He just watched her eyes, and saw how she evaluated the response of others, and then acted an reacted based on her interpretations of social action.  Funny thing of course is that he was able to reach very similar conclusions as the neural scientists did—they even used the same metaphor of the mirror/looking glass.

What Cooley saw in 1902 was that the two year old “perfect little actress,” mirroring the thoughts and actions she observed.  He went on to note that it was through this became a social being who developed a sense of “self” which comprehended the nature of the “I” and the “you.”  Over 100 years of social psychology has productively taken advantage of this basic observation to come up with idea popularized by Erving Goffman that “all the world’s a stage,” and that all social humans exist in a reflective world of Looking Glasses and Mirrors (Now that I think of it, isn’t this also the metaphor used by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland?).

Anyway, my critique of the Mirror Neuron hypothesis after years of rejections, harsh reviews, and the other wonders of the peer review process is now available in Perspectives on Science for those of you able to get behind the paywall. The rest of you can access a pre-publication version on my Academia.edu account here.  I of course hope that every sociologist and anthropologist will read it.  I like to believe that it is an effective challenge to the philosophical positivism that dominates the biological scientists with their reductions of society to genes, neurons, hormones, and other biological phenomenon.


Hey, I’m even hopeful that our more positivistic friends over in the biological sciences like Razib Khan will take a look, and offer further critique.

2 Responses to “Mirror Neurons and the Looking Glass Self: The Neural Sciences meet Sociology”

  1. susan says:

    “From this perspective, the neural networks inside the cranium of any single individual are also cultural artifacts left by others.”

    One of the best, most succinct, and accurate descriptions I have read!

  2. Tony says:

    Thanks. I was trying to convince my sr. seminar yesterday that they did not like “their” music as a matter of free choice–that their musical likes and dislikes area a byproduct of the broader culture. I’m not sure that I was all that successful-perhpas I will read them this line.

Leave a Reply