ACTA THERIOLOGICA SINICA ›› 2019, Vol. 39 ›› Issue (5): 556-564.DOI: 10.16829/j.slxb.150271

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Current research status on the origin of mirror neuron system in primates and its controversy

ZHAO Zhu 1,2, CHEN Wei 3, WANG Yin 4   

  1. (1 Center for the Study of Language and Cognition, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou 310028, China)
    (2 Department of Psychology, Yunnan Normal University, Kunming 650500, China )
    (3 Department of Psychology, Shaoxing University, Shaoxing 312000, China)
    (4 Department of Psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia 19122, USA)
  • Online:2019-09-30 Published:2019-11-27


赵翥1,2 陈巍3 汪寅4   

  1. (1 浙江大学语言与认知研究中心,杭州 310028)(2 云南师范大学心理学系,昆明 650500)
    (3 绍兴文理学院心理学系,绍兴 312000)(4 美国天普大学心理学系,费城 19122)
  • 通讯作者: 陈巍 E-mail:; 汪寅 E-mail:
  • 基金资助:


here are two different theoretical frameworks accounting for the origin of mirror neurons (MNs) in primates. According to the ‘genetic’ hypothesis, MNs’ matching response properties was acquired through natural selection and stored in the species’ genome. This ‘mirroring’ adaptation is evolutionarily selected to support a wide range of social functions so that individuals can use their own motor (or affect) representations to understand other’s actions (or emotions). In contrast, ‘associative’ theories argue that the mirroring mechanism comes from individual’s post-natal sensorimotor experience. Among the associative theories, associative sequence learning (ASL) hypothesis tries to elucidate the ontogeny of MNs with an extreme empiricism. By using a paradigm called S-R procedure, ASL hypothesis collected various empirical evidences and became the most influential associative theory. Although the evidence that MNs are malleable to sensorimotor experience can be well explained by ASL, it does not fully rule out the possibility that gene biases the development of MNs. In the history of evolution, it seems that MNs are most likely developed in those highly socialized animals lived in a socio-ecological niche required to communicate, cooperate and compete with inter-group members. In the early development of new-born primates, the brain responds differently to perceptual event with social significance (lipsmacking) than non-social one (tongue protrusion). Evidence suggests that these individual differences of brain responses to social action in early age can predict the later engagement of social interaction. Finally, the empirical evidence from ASL is primarily based on the stimulus-response compatibility paradigm, which is not ecological valid to test the emergence of MNs. Thus, the ontogeny of MNs is still in debate and requires further clarification.

Key words: Primate, Social cognition, Mirror neuron, Association learning, Genetic hypothesis, Ontogeny



关键词: 灵长类, 社会认知, 镜像神经元, 联想学习, 基因假说, 发生学