Mirroring and Mimicry

This is the seventeenth part of the ‘From Neural Is to Moral Ought’ series and follows on:

Here, I look at how mimicry and mirroring the behaviour of others can arise in the ‘hierarchy of predictors’ model of the brain, which leads to us empathizing with them.

68: Mimicry and Contagion

From Observing Others to Acting Ourselves

From previously, we have seen that:

  1. Observing others precedes the observation of self. For example, the recognition of our own hands was built upon the observation of the hands of others. Hence there is a significant association between the two. The lowest levels in the hierarchy of our brains react to the observation of our own hands and those of others in the same way.
  2. We have learnt to integrate sense (the sight of own hand) with movement (of our own hand).
  3. There is therefore an association between the sight of another’s hand and the movement of one’s own hand.
  4. It is only later that we learn to distinguish the observation of oneself from the observation of others (at a higher level of the brain hierarchy).
  5. There is therefore a ‘leak’ as it were from observing others to our own movement. This is not something that can be entirely unlearnt at lower levels and must be corrected at a higher level.

The Rubber Hand Illusion Again

So, the observation of another can cause movement because of ‘mistakes’ at the low levels.

As described previously, low levels react quicker than higher levels. So those ‘mistakes’ made by the low levels are quickly corrected by higher levels. It is better:

  • to have low levels acting fast ‘in case what I see is actually happening to me’ and for the higher levels to then veto with ‘it is not me, after all’


  • to spend ages deciding ‘what I should do’, by which time it is too late and it becomes ‘what I should have done’.

For example, in the case of the ‘rubber hand illusion’, fear is generated by low levels predicting that our hand is about to be smashed. This becomes pain when the rubber hand has been hit, arising from the belief that our hand has been hit. But higher levels quickly break the association between the rubber hand and oneself. The pain is only fleeting. (Considerable effort is needed to fool a mature brain into adopting a rubber hand as its own in the first place – for example, through the stroking of the left hand in addition to the stroking of the rubber hand on the right.)

Sensorimotor Contagion: unconscious mimicry

When low levels are screaming out for attention, sending huge error signals upwards, higher levels will respond. But in some cases, there is not enough of an upward signal to warrant higher-level attention. The higher levels are otherwise engaged and no higher level vetoing gets done. (This lack of response is reminiscent of the ‘boiling frog’ anecdote.)

Hence we get behaviour such as this:

  1. We are talking.
  2. You have your arms folded.
  3. I am not paying attention to them but I sub-consciously notice that your arms are folded.
  4. Because of the ‘leak’ from observing others to own movement, I start moving my arms and continue to do so until there is no dissonance between the sight of your arms folded and the proprioceptive sense of where my arms are.

This is then an example of (what I shall call) ‘sensorimotor contagion’ – a sub-conscious mimicry.

But it can work the other way around. It could equally be:

  1. We are talking.
  2. I have my arms folded.
  3. I am not paying attention to them but I sub-consciously notice that your arms are unfolded.
  4. Because of the ‘leak’ from observing others to own movement, I start moving my arms and continue to do so until there is no dissonance between the sight of your arms unfolded and the proprioceptive sense of where my arms are.

Regardless of who mimics who, there is a tendency towards behaving in a similar way.

Another well-known example of mimicry is ‘yawn contagion’ where one finds it difficult not to yawn if one sees someone else yawning.

69: Emotions

Moral Development

Previously, it has been explained how the ‘hierarchy of predictors’ framework learns – with short-term, higher-level knowledge eventually getting relearnt at a lower level to become:

  • embedded in longer-term memory,
  • quicker, and
  • more instinctive.

The same applies to our moral learning.

Over time, we learn to balance the wants of others against those of ourselves. Conscious deliberation gives way to an automatic intuitive response.

  • When we are young we are dependent on our immediate, caring family and are selfish.
  • Gradually, we learn that it is sometimes better to put the wants of another first in the short term in the expectation that this will pay back in the longer term. This is a one-to-one relationship.
  • Balancing the wants of ourselves with others gradually comes more naturally. We no longer have to consciously deliberate about when and how another will pay the favour back. Give-and-take becomes a (sub-conscious) habit and this means we sometimes prioritize others when there is no pre-determined payback.
  • This then leads to the establishment of a reputation within the immediate social group with which we identify as being most like ourselves. This group can be the extended family, but, because this stage is reached among adolescents, it is commonly a group of teenage friends.
  • In adulthood, our experience of ‘those like us’ expands. We act morally towards strangers in our society. Moral deeds become a currency rather than a good. A favour from A to B does not have to be repaid (traded) by B. B can act well towards others and others will act well towards A. A’s payback is indirect and unquantifiable (as is everyone else’s).

Conscious moral deliberation (the rational) becomes habituated in a lower level and, as it does so it gets extended more generally to a wider and wider group of individuals.

This account of moral development is consistent with that of Lawrence Kohlberg’s.

Hierarchical Levels

In the ‘hierarchy of predictors’ framework, we can categorize the many levels into 5 zones. From top to bottom:

  • 5: Conscious deliberation,
  • 4: Sub-conscious,
  • 3: Emotional: prioritizing actions,
  • 2: Integrating the various senses,
  • 1: Perceiving the various senses.

Note that zones 1, 2, 3 and 4 all operate unconsciously.


Emotions are lumped somewhere in the middle of this hierarchy. They should clearly be below consciousness and are above the low-level sensorimotor levels. (We typically think of this hierarchy being the cerebral cortex, but emotion is also strongly associated with sub-cortical parts of the brain such as the limbic system.) The ‘hierarchy of predictors’ framework is, well, just a framework – a simple skeleton around which to build an understanding.

Emotions motivate. They can produce strong, sophisticated motor action from integrated sense input. Strong emotions will shut off the error signals upwards, making it difficult for the rational to override the actions resulting from those emotions.

And we feel emotions – it has a subjective quality. There is ‘something it is like’ to feel just as there is ‘something it is like’ to see. Anger has a subjective experience just as seeing the colour blue does.

Emotional Contagion

Consider the simplistic progression:

  • There is an emotional association between happiness and smiling.
  • If you are happy, you may smile.
  • If I see you smiling, I may mimic you and smile too.
  • Smiling has an emotional association with happiness.
  • So I am then happy.

But more directly:

  • If I see you smiling, I understand you are happy. (This may initially have been consciously but has become habituated and automatic).
  • My understanding of happiness is associated with my memory of the emotion of happiness.

This is ‘emotional contagion’.

Both the ‘zone 4’ (subconscious memory of emotion) and the ‘zone 2’ (sensorimotor integration) together pull on the ‘zone 3’ emotions.

Connecting to Our Emotions

We have seen how zones 1 (perceiving) and 2 (sensorimotor integration) are associated:

  • Low-level sensation does not differentiate between self and others.
  • This can lead to unconscious mimicry (see above).

And we have seen how zones 5 (the conscious) and 4 (the sub-conscious) are associated:

What happens at one level also happens at a neighbouring level (but generally at a different time).

And we have now seen that zones 2 (sensorimotor integration) and 4 (the sub-conscious) are associated with zone 3 (emotions).

This covers the complete vertical integration of the zones.

Contagious Well-Being

From the ‘sensorimotor contagion’ (above) we end up with mimicry – some combination of you mimicking me and me mimicking you. Regardless, from my perspective, you become like me. This is good because people similar to me generally behave like me and I am then more confident that I can predict their behaviour. There are no surprises and this contributes towards higher personal well-being. Being around people we are familiar makes us feel good. And well-being is an emotion.

Contagion, Autism and Psychopathy

It has been found that ‘yawn contagion’ is highest in those more empathetic and lowest in cases of autism and psychopathy. This is what would be expected:

  • The autistic are less susceptible to contagion because of their difficulty in making the cognitive connection to emotion. This is from zone 3 (emotions) to zone 4 (the sub-conscious) – they are less able to understand your emotion from their observation of you.
  • The psychopathic are less susceptible to contagion because of their difficulty in making the physical connection to emotion. This is from zone 2 (sensorimotor integration) to zone 3 (emotions).

Agency and Contagion

Agency concerns the ownership of senses and action – me or others.

  • If agency takes place in zone 4 (the sub-conscious), then our emotions are triggered both by things happening to ourselves and us seeing them happen to others.
  • If agency takes place in zone 2 (sensorimotor integration), we have no emotional attachment to what happens to others.

Perhaps not surprisingly:

  • The more empathetic have less of a distinction between self and other.
  • The more psychopathic have a stronger ‘sense of self’.

This speculation is an alternative account.

70: Mirror Neurons

No account of how neuroscience affects morality would be complete without referring to ‘mirror neurons’. These have been identified by some as the source of our empathy towards others.

An Overview

A simplistic overview of mirror neurons is as follows:

  • They fire when either I do something or when I see other people do something.
  • These mirror neurons are found in the premotor cortex, the somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex, and
  • They do not fire when the object is missing (i.e. the action is only pretended) or when the object is present but without the actor, or when the actor is artificial.
  • They are concerned with the goals and intentions of actions.
  • They mirror the actions and intentions (the ‘what’ and the ‘why’) of other people onto ourselves and therefore help us understand them.
  • Hence they are the physical basis of empathy, through which we can understand other people’s intentions.

Criticism no. 1: No Neuron Type

The term ‘mirror neurons’ creates the impression that there are a particular type of neuron which has the behaviour of firing fire when either I do something or when I see other people do something, and that these neurons are different in form from other neurons. This is not true.

Instead, it is better to speak at a higher level of a ‘mirror neuron system’ as part of a larger system.

Criticism no. 2: No Localization

It should not be surprising that there are neurons that fire both when we do something and when we see other people do something. We should expect to find such neurons beyond the premotor, somatosensory and the inferior parietal cortical regions. For example, in parts of the brain concerning low-level senses, there will be neurons that fire both when I see my hand and when I see yours. Such neurons (‘ordinary’ neurons) will be distributed over a wide area of the brain, even if they are not all categorized as ‘mirror neurons’.

And where they are to be found, mirror neurons are not exclusive. Within the 3 cortical regions that are their home, they constitute only about 10% to 20% of the neurons within the 3 cortical regions previously identified (the premotor cortex, the somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex).

Criticism no. 3: No Neural Correlates

These localization of mirror neurons to those 3 regions has been found from performing functional MRI (fMRI) scans. Tasks performed by someone are correlated against oxygen levels within particular parts of their brain and this infers higher brain activity in these areas.

But these ‘neural correlates’  makes every area of the brain special. Each area is doing the task it has been correlated with.

This is antithetical to all the ideas here which are based around theorizing about how the brain is working rather than just classifying it. And the particular theory here is the ‘hierarchy of predictors’.

Saying that there is a ‘mirror neuron system’ which provides us with an ability to empathize (for example) suggests that this ‘system’ is doing something special – something different from what other circuits of the brain are doing. ‘Special’ areas have a hint of magic about them; their explanations do not explain. A theory provides an understanding of why a particular area performs the function that it is correlated with (we are rather a long way off that when it comes to the brain). Theories are more parsimonious. fMRI evidence can support or falsify a theory but it cannot replace it.

Counter-Criticism no. 1: Neural Correlates

Note however that research has shown that neural correlates can make a statement more ‘true’! Any statement that is made which is supported by a claim (just a claim) about a relationship between it and some fMRI scanning result is more like to be believed by the general populace than if no neuroscientific claim was provided.)

For example…

The areas that these mirror neurons are ‘found’ actually do relate well to what would be expected in generating motor actions from sensory input:

  • The premotor cortex possibly handles the planning of movement,
  • the somatosensory cortex handles our sense of touch around our body (it is the location of ‘Penfield’s Homunculus’), and
  • the inferior parietal cortex is the location of sensory integration.

Counter-Criticism no. 2: No Simulation

Patricia Churchland is sceptical of the claims of mirror neurons, in two ways. The first is that the

‘whole claim that empathy depends on simulation’

has not been established.

Now, simulation is another name for prediction, but one that could only be applied to high-level prediction – conscious deliberation. High-level empathy is ‘cognitive empathy’ and this is not the same as the ‘emotional empathy’ that Churchland is meaning. So in that way,

empathy does not depend on simulation

But the underlying neuroscientific framework to everything here – the ‘hierarchy of predictors’ (or the ‘predictive brain’) is that all levels of the brain are predicting, including emotional levels. In that way:

empathy must depend on prediction

Counter-Criticism no. 3: No Feeling

The second of Patricia Churchland’s criticisms mentioned here is that she scoffs at the idea that we actually feel what others feel when we see them in pain. Recounting seeing another get stung by a wasp, she did not feel any pain in herself corresponding to that that will have been felt by the other. Instead:

 ‘what I did feel was a visceral generalized sense of awfulness’.

But each and every one of us are different. Over 1% of us are Mirror-Touch Synaesthetes who do claim that they actually feel what others feel when we see them in pain. Personally, I concur with the ‘generalized sense of awfulness’ but there is also a fleeting localized feeling (yes, I will call it a feeling) in the corresponding part of me at the start, although it quickly diffuses away.  This is consistent with the ‘low-level fast’ and ‘high-level slow’ processes at work in the ‘rubber hand illusion’ described previously. We feel the pain of others more quickly than we can attribute ownership to it.

But Does it Make Any Difference?

Previously, I have argued that societies of trust can evolve just from the seed of maternal care. But the existence of empathy, arising from mimicry and mirroring, greatly accelerates that development. It motivates the vast majority of us to act in a more cooperative way.

But that doesn’t mean that our moral decisions should be driven by empathy – or any of our emotions for that matter. They might actually get in the way!  They may make us more likely to make irrational (sub-optimal) moral choices! And not all individuals have the same degree of empathy. We need to have to have a morality that works with all types – all different types. But we also need one that practically works for how we are, physically constituted.

Mirroring and mimicry does not determine morality


morality must account for our mirroring and mimicry.

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2 Responses to Mirroring and Mimicry

  1. Hariod Brawn says:

    Many thanks for your clarity and for making your work accessible; I appreciate it. May I ask, what is or was your specialism/profession?

    • headbirths says:

      Thanks. I am aiming to provide a necessarily simplistic theory which will hopefully then be clear and accessible. But there’s a danger that it comes across as too systematic and rather cold. It is a skeleton. A skeleton can be viewed as a frame underlying the meat of the body, or in a ghoulish way on its own. I am aiming at the former.

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