Autism and Mirror Neurons

Autism has been my latest lens for learning about neuroanthropology. It started with reading claims that autism is linked to mirror neuron disfunction. Mirror neurons are currently used to explain how the brain understands the intentions and emotions of others. Researchers suggest that lack of brain activity in mirroring areas of the brain found in autistic children could explain deficits in social interaction and empathy. A related article on the site links the mirror system to the study of culture: Culture Influences Brain Cells: Brain’s Mirror Neurons Swayed By Ethnicity And Culture. A study compared reactions of subjects to both American and Nicaraguan hand gestures, measuring differences in mirror neuron activity in the brain depending on who was giving the information and whether they were a member of their own ethnic group or a different group.

“We believe these are some of the first data to show neurobiological responses to culture-specific stimuli,” said Molnar-Szakacs. “Our data show that both ethnicity and culture interact to influence activity in the brain, specifically within the mirror neuron network involved in social communication and interaction… An important conclusion from these results is that culture has a measurable influence on our brain and, as a result, our behavior. ” “We are the heirs of communal but local traditions,” said Iacoboni. “Mirror neurons are the brain cells that help us in shaping our own culture. However, the neural mechanisms of mirroring that shape our assimilation of local traditions could also reveal other cultures, as long as such cross-cultural encounters are truly possible. All in all, our research suggests that with mirror neurons our brain mirrors people, not simply actions.”

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this article—it seems as if it would be a given that culture impacts behavior so am not sure if they discovered something new so much as found a more scientific way of measuring it. Could this possibly be a tool that would indicate whether someone would suffer from culture shock? And linking it back to the first article, would this imply that autistic people would have equal trouble picking up on social cues regardless of who they are with while for others it would depend on whether they share the same cultural background?

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I'm a graduate student in human-computer interaction and applied anthropology who is very interested in mental health issues, particularly the psychiatric survivor's movement and autism rights.

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