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Phenom Cogn Sci DOI 10.1007/s11097-012-9253-3

Mirror systems and simulation: a neo-empiricist interpretation
John Michael

# Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Abstract It is often claimed that the discovery of mirror neurons supports simulation theory (ST). There has been much controversy about this, however, as there are various competing models of the functional contribution of mirror systems, only some of which characterize mirroring as simulation in the sense required by ST. But a brief review of these models reveals that they all include simulation in some sense. In this paper, I propose that the broader conception of simulation articulated by neoempiricist theories of concepts can subsume the more specific conceptions of simulation presented by ST and by these other models, thereby offering a framework in which each of these models may play a role. According to neo-empiricism, conceptual thought in general involves simulation in the sense that it is grounded in sensory, motor, and other embodied systems (Barsalou, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22, 577–609, 1999, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London: Biological Sciences, 364, 1281–1289, 2009; Barsalou et al., Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(2), 84– 91, 2003; Prinz 2002, Mind & Language, 25(5), 612–621, 2010; Glenberg and Robertson, Journal of Memory and Language, 43, 379–401, 2000). Crucially, the term “simulation” here refers not to simulations of a target agent’s experience in the sense endorsed by simulation theory but to the activation of sensory, motor, affective, and introspective representations. This difference does not entail that neo-empiricism must be in competition with ST—indeed, I will propose that ST can be embedded as a special case within neo-empiricism. Keywords Neo-empiricism . Mirror neurons . Simulation theory . Embodied cognition . Theory of mind . Mindreading

J. Michael (*) Aarhus University, Tuborgvej 164, 2400 Copenhagen, Denmark e-mail: joal@dpu.dk

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Introduction Mirror neurons, which were originally discovered in macaque monkeys using singlecell recordings, are neurons that are active when an animal is either executing a particular action or observing another agent executing the same or a similar action. Since it is only rare that single-cell activity can be recorded in human subjects (but see Mukamel et al. 2010), mirror neuron research in humans has depended largely on techniques for measuring (fMRI, EEG, MEG) or modulating (TMS) activation in brain regions rather than in individual neurons. Thus, many researchers prefer to speak of a “mirror system” or “mirror neuron system,” of which a brain region may be considered a part if it is activated during the execution of an action as well as during the observation of the same action (Frith and Singer 2008). Going by this broader definition,1 the mirror system in humans can be localized to the ventral premotor cortex (BA44/6), inferior parietal lobule, and somatosensory areas (BA2; Buccino et al. 2001; Iacoboni et al. 2005; Rizzolatti and Craighero 2004). Mirror systems have also been found for affective states and tactile sensations (Keysers et al. 2004; Singer et al. 2004; Adolphs 2003; Bastiaansen et al. 2009). Research into mirror systems has attracted the interest of philosophers involved in the mind reading debate,2 largely because it appears to corroborate the basic picture of social cognition offered by simulation theory as an alternative to theory theory. According to theory theory, social cognition is enabled by the ascription of unobservable mental states, which are defined in terms of their nomological relations to perception, to behavior, and to other mental states (Carruthers 2009; Gopnik 1993; Baron-Cohen 1995; Leslie 2000). Simulation theory, in contrast, is based on the idea that we can understand others by “putting ourselves in their shoes,” or taking their perspective, and that the representation of nomological psychological relations is therefore superfluous. The common denominator of the various versions of simulation theory is that predicting and/or understanding others’ actions and/or emotions involves undergoing (simulating) the same procedures that we would undergo if we ourselves were deciding upon, planning, or executing an action in the same circumstances or experiencing the same emotion (Gordon 1995, 2007; Goldman 1993, 2006, 2008; Heal 1986). Hence, it has been claimed that simulation theory predicts the kind of first-/third-person overlap that mirror systems appear to constitute (Gallese and Goldman 1998). Apart from some fundamental concerns about whether mirroring really occurs at all (e.g., Dinstein et al. 2007; Hickok 2009), there has also been a great deal of controversy about whether mirror systems instantiate the kind of simulation that ST predicts. Indeed, there are several distinct models of the functional contribution of mirror systems, only some of which characterize mirroring as simulation in the sense of ST. Interestingly, however, most of these models do involve some kind of simulation. My aim here will be to show how the broader conception of simulation articulated by neo-empiricist theories of concepts can subsume the more specific
I will use the term “mirror system” rather than “mirror neuron,” except where the context demands otherwise. 2 I will use the term “mind reading” to refer to our perfectly ordinary ability to understand others as having mental states of various sorts, including emotions, sensations, beliefs, and desires, as well as the sorts of predictions and explanations of their behavior that such an understanding makes possible for us.
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conceptions of simulation presented by ST and by each of these models, and thereby integrate these various models within a single theoretical framework. According to neo-empiricism, conceptual thought in general involves simulation in the sense that it is grounded in sensory, motor, and other embodied systems (Barsalou 1999, 2009; Barsalou et al. 2003; Prinz 2002, 2010; Glenberg and Robertson 2000). The basic idea is that by perceiving and/or acting upon objects of a particular type, a neural network for representing objects of that type is formed. When one subsequently perceives objects of that type, this network becomes active, presumably because objects of that type have a set of features (lines, shapes, colors, sounds, contextual factors, etc.) roughly in common and/or afford a roughly common set of actions. This overlap in one’s responses is what enables one to categorize the object and, thus, also to draw inferences about properties the objects are likely to have on the basis of their membership in that category. Indeed, neo-empiricists maintain that imagining and/or reasoning about objects that one is not presently encountering is also subserved by the activation of such neural networks, thereby simulating the experience of perceiving or acting upon the object(s) in question. Crucially, though, what is simulated is a past or possible experience (or pattern of activation) of one’s own—not the experience of some other target agent, as envisioned by ST. The first part of this paper (see “Mirror systems: necessary but not sufficient” to “What kind of simulation do mirror systems instantiate?”) will articulate and assess the thesis that the discovery of mirror systems provides empirical support for ST. This thesis can be analyzed into two claims: (a) Mirror systems are involved in understanding others’ intentions or emotions. (b) The way in which they are involved supports ST. I will be giving qualified support to both (a) and (b). Starting (“Mirror systems: necessary but not sufficient”) with claim (a), I will present theoretical and empirical points in support of the view that mirror systems play a substantial role and are perhaps necessary, although not sufficient, for understanding at least some intentions or emotions. Although ST can easily accommodate this point, it does so by adding non-simulative elements. As I will explain further below, neo-empiricism accommodates the same point by adding further simulative elements. This difference does not constitute an advantage for neo-empiricism over ST, but it will be an important point to bear in mind in reflecting on the relationship between ST and neo-empiricism and on the consequences of applying the neo-empiricist conception of simulation to the interpretation of mirror systems. Turning to (b), I will (“What kind of simulation do mirror systems instantiate?”) review four leading models of the functional contribution of mirror systems to social cognition. Although they differ in important respects, it turns out that each of them involves a kind of simulation. The crucial point, however, is that only one of them involves the kind of simulation envisioned by simulation theory, whereas all four instantiate the kind of simulation postulated by neo-empiricism. The next step (“Neo-empiricism: the other simulationist program”) will be to characterize neo-empiricism in some detail and formulate the central predictions that it generates about the role of the motor system (and other embodied representations) in social cognition. Apart from being able to subsume and integrate all four of the models reviewed here, neo-empiricism has the additional advantage of embedding

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mirror neuron research in a broader empirical context, which enables it to draw support from a greater body of empirical research into the contribution of motor and other embodied systems in cognition in general, thus increasing its base of empirical support, its explanatory scope, and its theoretical coherency. The final section (“Neo-empiricism and social cognition: some general issues”) offers some general reflections about the relationship between ST and neo-empiricism and considers the option of embedding ST as a special case within neo-empiricism. It concludes with a brief discussion of the significance of neo-empiricism for debates about embodied social cognition.

Mirror systems: necessary but not sufficient It is often asserted that simulation theory predicts the kind of first-/third-person overlap, or matching relation, that mirror systems appear to constitute (Gallese and Goldman 1998; Goldman 2006, 2008). As noted in the “Introduction,” this assertion can be analyzed into two claims: (a) Mirror systems are involved in understanding others’ intentions or emotions. (b) The way in which they do so supports simulation theory. In this section, I will be assessing claim (a); in the next section, I will move to claim (b). There are theoretical and empirical reasons to be wary of far-reaching claims about the contribution of mirror systems to understanding intentions and emotions. Let me start with two theoretical points. First, action understanding appears to require a more abstract kind of representation than motor representation since one action can be carried out with different movements and different actions can be carried out with one and the same movement in different contexts. Proponents of robust interpretations of mirror systems have addressed this issue. In an fMRI study, Iacoboni et al. (2005) found differential activation in premotor areas in subjects observing video clips of a hand performing the same movement in different contexts. The authors infer that this differential activation reflects the integration of contextual information for action interpretation. But, as Jacob (2008) points out, the differential activation may result from the integration of contextual information occurring elsewhere in the brain without contributing to it. Secondly, understanding someone’s intention or emotion involves ascription of that intention or that emotion—simply mirroring someone does not count as understanding that a particular state refers to them rather than to oneself. It therefore seems unlikely that direct matching could be sufficient for understanding intentions or affective experiences. But it may still be necessary, i.e., in combination with other resources (e.g., contextual information, concepts) and/or processes (e.g., ascription). Given, then, that mirror system activation is not likely to be sufficient for understanding intentions and/or emotions, might it be necessary? There is some support for an affirmative answer. Some transcranial magnetic simulation (TMS) studies have found that inhibiting areas of the motor system impairs social cognitive skills. TMSinduced inhibition of Broca’s area, for example, causes subjects to have difficulties imitating observed actions, even if they do not have difficulties performing the same actions in non-imitative scenarios (Heiser et al. 2003). Applying TMS to the inferior

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frontal gyrus has also been shown to impair subjects’ ability to estimate the weight of an object lifted by a person in a video, but not their ability to estimate the weight of a bouncing ball or the duration of a video (Pobric and Hamilton 2006). In the affective domain, the evidence is even stronger. Wicker et al. (2003) found an overlap in activation between scenarios where subjects experienced foul odors and when they saw others sniffing the same foul odors. That this overlap is essential for understanding that the target person is experiencing disgust is suggested by paired deficits in experience and understanding of disgust (Adolphs 2003). Similar findings have been reported for pain and fear (Singer et al. 2004; Adolphs et al. 2005; for a review, see Bastiaansen et al. 2009). There is also evidence that mirroring others’ emotional facial expressions plays a causal role in recognition of their emotions (Oberman et al. 2007). In sum, although no final conclusions can yet be reached, there is presently good reason to believe that mirror neuron activation is necessary, although not sufficient, for understanding at least some intentions and emotions. Thus, we can provisionally endorse claim (a) about the contribution of mirror systems to social cognition. What does this mean for ST? It is important to note that none of the leading versions of ST merely asserts such a matching relation and leaves it at that. In order to account for the contribution of a simulation (or “mirroring event”) to mind reading, simulation theorists all indeed make room for concepts (although they differ about whether mental concepts are prerequisites to simulation) and also include an account of ascription, i.e., how the simulated mental processes are separated from one’s own mental processes and understood to refer to the target agent. In fact, Goldman has also argued that, apart from the issue of ascription, it is also necessary for ST to give an account of how the mental state that is the output of a simulation is identified and categorized (Goldman 2006, p. 259). This is no trivial challenge, however, since Goldman rejects the functionalist account of mental concepts endorsed by theory theory (TT), i.e., he denies that mental states are differentiated on the basis of representations of the nomological relations that theory theorists believe are used to derive predictions about behavior from constellations of mental states. The solution that Goldman has consistently advocated, albeit with very significant modifications over the years, is introspectionism (Goldman 1993, 2006). In the 1990s, he maintained that types of mental states are identified and categorized on the basis of phenomenal properties (Goldman 1993). Goldman now suggests that it is not phenomenal but neural properties that are introspected and has developed a theory of introspection as unconscious monitoring (Goldman 2006). A proper assessment of this proposal is beyond the scope of this paper,3 but it is worth noting that at least one leading version of ST is committed to an introspectionist account of how mental states are identified and categorized in order for simulations to contribute to mind reading. Thus, it is not a problem for ST that mirroring—or any other kind of simulation— is likely to be only one component among others in a larger network underlying any particular instance of mind reading. Nevertheless, there are two points to note about what simulation theorists add to the mix in addition to the simulation that is at the core of the theory. The first is that the further elements which they add are themselves non-simulative—i.e., they do not instantiate simulation in the perspective-taking sense
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But see Hill (2007).

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endorsed by ST. Secondly, at least one (highly influential) version of ST is committed to giving an account of how mental states are differentiated on the basis of internally accessible criteria. Again, these two points do not undermine ST, but they will be relevant in discussing the relation between ST and neo-empiricism further below. Having provisionally endorsed claim (a) and considered the consequences for simulation theory, let us turn to claim (b). Does the role of mirror systems in social cognition support simulation theory? I will now briefly review four models of the functional contribution of mirror systems, each of which involves simulation, but only one of which involves the kind of simulation envisioned by simulation theorists. What kind of simulation do mirror systems instantiate? Direct matching The most straightforward and also most robust way of articulating the link between mirror systems and simulation is the so-called direct matching hypothesis, according to which the standard means of understanding others’ emotions or intentions is by producing a response in the mirror system that matches the target state: …the fundamental mechanism that allows us a direct experiential grasp of the mind of others is not conceptual reasoning but direct simulation of the observed events through the mirror mechanism. (Gallese et al. 2004) Apart from the question of whether this sort of matching relation is likely to be sufficient for understanding intentions or emotions or other mental states, one must also ask whether it corresponds at all to the functional contribution that mirror systems make. Surely this is suggested by the term “mirror neuron,” but it turns out not to be entirely clear that this is the case. Consider an argument formulated by Csibra (2008). He points out that only a subset of mirror neurons is strictly congruent. Strictly congruent mirror neurons fire when observing or performing one and the same action (same type of grasp and same object). Many other mirror neurons are responsive to multiple actions. Beyond this, many mirror neurons fire when one action is executed or when a functionally related action is observed. Taken together, they constitute the class of “broadly congruent” mirror neurons. Altogether, broadly congruent mirror neurons make up something like 60% or 70% of all mirror neurons (Fogassi and Gallese 2002). The upshot of Csibra’s criticism here is that only the strictly congruent mirror neurons would successfully match an observed action with the activity patterns that are present when the same action is executed. Therefore, if mirror neurons have anything to do with understanding others’ intention, it is—at least for most mirror neurons—not by direct matching. Inverse modeling Some theorists, such as Csibra himself (Csibra 2008; Jacob 2008, 2009), conclude that mirror neurons do not play a role in identifying or ascribing intentions but perhaps in predicting the ongoing motor realization of prior intentions, which are

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ascribed by other means. Jacob (2008) writes: “the job of MN activity is to compute motor commands from a representation of the agent’s prior intention, not to represent the agent’s prior intention….” This proposal assumes that ascription occurs more or less in the way envisioned by theory theory, but in fact also contains a broadly simulationist idea, namely that the observer’s own decision-making and action-planning resources are employed when she seeks to predict the agent’s behavior. The simulation in question is not a case of perspective taking, though, but of inverse modeling in the sense common among computational theorists of action (e.g., Wolpert 1997; Wolpert et al. 2003). Inverse models take a representation of a desired state of affairs (or prior intention) as input and calculate an appropriate motor command for achieving that goal, i.e., inferring backward from a goal state to the motoric means of achieving that goal state. In contrast to the direct matching view, then, Csibra and Jacob do not grant mirror neurons any role in understanding intentions. For them, the functional role of mirror neurons is not to provide an alternative to conceptual understanding but indeed depends on prior conceptual processing and ascription of an intention via the application of mental concepts. The model appears to be supported by the observation that most mirror neurons are congruent in a broad rather than a narrow sense since it claims that mirror neurons do not match but predict and would therefore represent not an observed movement but a movement closely related to the observed movement. But it is crucially important to know just what those broadly congruent mirror neurons are doing if not mirroring in a narrow sense. That is, does their activation correspond to activation that would be present in the observer’s brain if she were carrying out an action likely to follow upon the presently observed action? This may be the case, but there are other possibilities as well—e.g., the activation during observation may correspond to the activation that would be present if the observer were carrying out a complementary response. And as it happens, there are in fact data that support this alternative possibility. Predictive coding The predictive coding model, put forth by Kilner et al. (2007), is an application of the predictive coding framework which is based on the conception of a hierarchy of reciprocally connected models. Each model generates predictions about the representations at the immediately subordinate level. These predictions are compared with the actual state of the subordinate-level model, and a prediction error is returned to the higher-level model, which is revised and then generates a new prediction. By this process, the interconnected models are continuously updated and the prediction errors minimized. Mirror systems, according to this proposal, would have the function of generating relatively low-level, i.e., kinematic models of observed behavior. Simultaneously, more abstract models would be generated at higher levels of a hierarchy. Hence, a relatively high-level model yields a prediction about an observed agent’s motor commands, while an intermediate model in turn yields a prediction about the kinematics resulting from that motor command. This prediction is compared with the representations at a lower level, at which mirror systems predict the kinematics of the observed movement. The comparison of this prediction with the actual observed movement generates a prediction error, which is used to revise our representation of the agent’s motor

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command in order to minimize the prediction error between the observed and inferred kinematics. Similarly, our representation of the agent’s goal is revised to minimize the prediction error between the predicted and inferred motor command. The crucial difference between Csibra and Jacob’s inverse modeling model and the predictive coding model is that the former is unidirectional whereas the latter is bidirectional. According to Csibra and Jacob, mirror neuron activation depends upon prior ascription of an intention and is not itself an input to mind reading. For the predictive coding model, on the other hand, mirror neuron activation is not only modulated by higher-level representations but also reciprocally modulates higher-level representations. Hence, the predictive coding model—but not Csibra and Jacob’s inverse modeling model—allows that activation in mirror systems can contribute to action interpretation. The functioning of mirror systems in this model, as in the inverse modeling model, involves simulation in the sense of using one’s own motor system to dynamically model a target agent’s future actions. But, again, this kind of simulation need not be characterized as perspective taking (and the proponents of these models do not do so). Moreover, both models integrate mirror systems with other processes (e.g., processing perceptual information, integrating contextual and background information, drawing theoretical inferences) that do not lend themselves at all to characterization in terms of simulation in the sense of perspective taking. Response modeling For example, Newman-Norlund et al. (2007) found that the “human mirror neuron system” (specifically, right inferior frontal gyrus and bilateral inferior parietal lobes) is more active when observers are simultaneously preparing a complementary action than when they are preparing an imitative action. They take this finding to suggest that the function of these neurons lies in “dynamically coupling action observation to action execution.” Note that, if this is the case, they would not be simulating the observed agent’s movement or intention in the sense of simulation theory, but would nevertheless be important for social cognition. Would they still be simulating in any interesting sense? In fact, there is a related usage of the term simulation which would apply quite well here. The idea is that mirror systems could enable the interpreter to simulate the experience of performing some other action which is related to the observed action or some other emotional state which is related to the observed emotional state, for example, an appropriate response. In this case, one would still be simulating an experience. I would suggest that this sort of simulation may still be used in understanding the other person’s intention or emotion. The motor system may initiate some complementary responses to observed behaviors on the basis of a fairly low level of information processing. This sort of response would help maintain social coordination. More frontal areas such as vmPFC and rTPJ, which constitute the mentalizing network (Castelli et al. 2002), would subsequently process not only the observed behavior but also the interaction, of which the agent’s own complementary response is a part. If the motor system is inhibited before the complementary response is performed, the activation could be regarded as a simulation of the complementary response and could nevertheless be an input to the mentalizing network. Clearly, the

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kind of simulation at issue in this sort of case is different from what simulation theorists have in mind when speaking of simulation as a means of perspective taking. But it is perfectly compatible with the neo-empiricist conception of simulation. In fact, there are other studies that fit well with this interpretation and also use simulation in this sense. For example, Iacoboni (2005) (pp. 127–128) reports a study of mothers’ responses to pictures of babies expressing emotions. Unsurprisingly, there were stronger responses in mirror neuron areas and also in emotional brain centers (insula and amygdala) when looking at pictures of their own babies as opposed to other babies. What is interesting is that there was also increased activation in the pre-supplementary motor area (pre-SMA), which is anatomically linked closely with mirror neuron areas and seems to control and modulate mirror neuron activation. The pre-SMA is an “important region for complex motor planning and motor sequencing—that is, for putting together a series of concatenated actions” (Iacoboni 2005, p. 128)—i.e., for actions more complex than the mere facial expressions they are observing and mirroring. Iacoboni’s gloss is that the mothers’ mirror systems are (motorically and emotionally) mirroring and that this mirroring activity additionally “triggers a whole cascade of other automatic simulative brain responses,” which may in turn increase mirror system activation further (Iacoboni 2005, p. 129). Note that Iacoboni uses the term “simulative” for this response selection process in a broader sense that is compatible with neo-empiricism, but not with simulation theory, i.e., it is not the other person’s perspective that is being modeled but one’s own possible response. Comparing the models It is important to point out that none of the models discussed so far intrinsically excludes the possibility that they all might be correct, i.e., that neural circuits with mirroring properties might instantiate direct matching, inverse modeling, and response selection. Indeed, the observation that some mirror neurons exhibit strict congruence while others exhibit broad congruence suggests that they may not all serve the same function. A natural interpretation is that strictly congruent mirror neurons instantiate either direct matching or predictive coding, whereas broadly congruent mirror neurons instantiate inverse modeling or response modeling. Moreover, many of the studies discussed so far lend themselves to a pluralist interpretation. Recalling the results of Newman-Norlund et al. (2007) mentioned above, one might argue that they in fact support the view that mirror systems have multiple functions. After all, performing a complementary action could involve direct matching, inverse modeling, and/or predictive coding, plus the additional task of responding in a complementary fashion, so it is no wonder that there is more activation in the complementary action scenario than in the scenario where there is only imitation, which involves minimal additional burdens beyond mirroring. The results, properly considered, suggest that mirror systems have a response-selective function in addition to direct matching, predictive coding, and/or inverse modeling. Given the possibility that mirror systems might instantiate various types of model, an interpretation that subsumes multiple models would be in a strong position in that it would be able to claim support from all the data drawn upon in favor of any one of the models. In the next section, I will be arguing that neo-empiricist theories of

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concepts offer the possibility of developing just such a “supermodel.” Neoempiricism articulates a broad conception of simulation that can subsume the more specific conceptions of simulation presented by ST and by each of these models, thereby offering a framework in which each of these models may play a role.

Neo-empiricism: the other simulationist program Neo-empiricism I would like to begin with a brief sketch of neo-empiricist theories of concepts. The basic idea is that conceptual thought, rather than taking place in an amodal symbolic code (i.e., a “language of thought”), involves the same modality-specific neural activity as perception. Let me explain how this is supposed to work with a simple example borrowed from Barsalou (1999). When one sees a car, neural feature detectors are active in the visual system. Conjunctive neurons in a nearby area conjoin the active features and store them in memory. This is referred to as the “capture procedure.” These sets of conjunctive neurons also account for the transmodal nature of concepts, namely by integrating the feature detection activity that occurs during visual perception of the car with feature detection activity that is active in other modality-specific systems, such as the auditory system. With the help of selective attention, the capture procedure can be restricted to components of scenes (e.g., a car on the street) rather than entire scenes (e.g., a street). Thus, when focusing attention on the car, specific (modal and conjunctive) neurons become active through the capture procedure. Memory integration causes this pattern of neural activation to be integrated with similar previous patterns. As a result of such cumulative integration, a network for representing cars is formed. When, in the future, a subsequent car is perceived, or when one reasons about cars, this network becomes active, presumably because cars have a set of features (lines, shapes, colors, sounds, contextual factors, etc.) roughly in common, and the perception of these features causes the activation of common neurons, thereby simulating the sensory perception of the car. Since simulations, on a neo-empiricist view, instantiate concepts, their role is to enable the performance of conceptual tasks, such as drawing inferences. If one then perceives, for example, the sound of the car, a simulator will be activated that also includes visual representations associated with cars. These visual representations encode additional information concerning the car, such as the property of having four wheels, and thus enable one to infer that the object producing the sound in question will have four wheels. Crucially, this notion of simulation differs from that of simulation theory insofar as it does not apply uniquely to taking the perspective of (0simulating) a different person. Rather, it is a feature of conceptual thought in general. As Barsalou puts it, “simulation constitutes a central form of computation throughout diverse forms of cognition, where simulation is the reenactment of perceptual, motor and introspective states acquired during experience with the world, body and mind” (Barsalou 2009). Barsalou indeed calls the networks that coordinate the reactivation of multimodal representations “simulators.” It is worth noting that Prinz (2002, 2010), who endorses a similar theory, also uses the term “simulation” in this sense.

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It is worth emphasizing that simulators instantiate a plurality of representations in a dynamic fashion, i.e., in temporally extended sequences. That is, simulators include not only perceptual representations but also motor representations, as well as affective states and what Barsalou (1999) calls “introspection,” which he employs in a neutral sense to refer to various kinds of self-directed (conscious or unconscious) cognitive processes, such as monitoring one’s own affective states and action plans and making metacognitive judgments. The plurality and dynamic nature of the representations integrated in simulators is central to neo-empiricist accounts of complex and abstract concepts, which do not easily lend themselves to reduction to an exclusively sensorimotor basis. A relatively complex concept, such as “anger,” for example, may involve several components, such as arousal and neural activation typically present when one is in an angry state, perceptual representations of angry behavior, and perhaps also typical cognitive operations underlying judgments typically associated with “anger” (e.g., the judgment that a given action has caused harm or was unfair, the inference that revenge or punishment is appropriate, etc.). Thus, the component of a concept that could plausibly be instantiated by a mirror system (i.e., an affective mirror system), namely the arousal and/or neural activation associated with anger, is only one part of a broader network. Or, to take an example of a concept that could be instantiated in part in the motor system, consider the concept of “drink.” This is a relatively abstract concept, insofar as there are many things one could drink, receptacles one could drink from, motor programs that could be engaged, etc. A simulator for this concept could plausibly include visual representations of typical fluids and receptacles, as well as representations of people drinking. It could also include a haptic representation of fluid in one’s mouth, an interoceptive representation of thirst, and various motor programs for gasping a receptacle, for swallowing, etc. Moreover, these representations could be integrated in a fashion that includes information about their typical sequences (e.g., a representation of thirst, various visual and motor programs, then the extinguishing of the thirst). Although none of these components would alone be sufficient to constitute the concept of drinking, such a constellation of various kinds of representation linked up by Hebbian learning may be. In short, neo-empiricism predicts that one would find the kind of activation of embodied systems that mirror systems appear to constitute, and it also predicts that the contribution of these embodied systems would be contingent upon their integration with broader networks. A neo-empiricist supermodel? The plurality of the representations integrated in neo-empiricist accounts of concepts provides a sound basis for developing the sort of “supermodel” of mirror systems alluded to above (“Comparing the models”). If so, it would be in a strong position in that it would be able to claim support from all the data drawn upon in favor of any one of the models. Moreover, it could contribute additional theoretical coherency by showing how the more specific models relate to each other. Thus, a neo-empiricist supermodel could specify simulators in such a way that they include neural circuits instantiating different sub-models. For example, it is plausible to suppose that a simulator instantiating a particular action concept would include links to various

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motor areas instantiating various sub-models and would activate these links in a manner sensitive to the task at hand. For example, the task of imitating an observed action would likely engage visual areas as well as motor areas instantiating a direct matching model. Detached interpretation of the same action, on the other hand, may engage the same visual areas, but motor areas instantiating inverse modeling or predictive coding rather than direct matching. Fluid coordination of complementary behavior in a joint action, in contrast, may be more likely to engage response selection circuits. Although there may be a limit to how well embodied theories can account for complex and abstract concepts—such as concepts of some complex intentions and other mental states—the sort of combination of diverse representations that neoempiricism proposes may work for some of the mental concepts that are important for social cognition. Moreover, by making room for so-called conjunctive neurons to coordinate modal representations (as discussed above in “Direct matching”), neoempiricist approaches already embed modal representations in a hierarchical organization that includes representations of varying degrees of abstraction. It remains an open question how mental concepts should be mapped onto such a hierarchy—the main thrust of a neo-empiricist approach to social cognition is to predict that modal representations play a significant role in the dynamic simulations that underlie mental concepts, not to deny that hierarchically superior neural circuits also play important coordinating roles. Rather than merely noting that mirror systems cannot be sufficient for constituting mental concepts, it is likely to be more fruitful to regard the relationship between mirror systems and mental concepts as akin to the relationship between embodied representations and abstract concepts. Work on abstract concepts within the neoempiricist framework demonstrates the benefits of thinking about the constraints upon abstract concepts imposed by the need to ground them within sensory, motor, and other embodied systems. Mental concepts must, for example, be encoded in such a way that they can be used to identify instances of their referents in real-life situations, draw inferences about behavior that are context-sensitive, and guide one’s one behavior in a way that is sensitive to one’s own mental states. In short, although it is an open question just how well one can account for mental concepts with motor, sensory, and other embodied representations, it seems highly likely that such embodied representations at least partially constitute mental concepts, and mirror systems are likely to be part of the story. Further evidence for the broader, neo-empiricist conception of simulation A further virtue of the neo-empiricist framework is that it can appeal to a broad base of psychological and neuroscientific evidence in support of its claim that cognition in general involves simulation in the sense of activating embodied systems. Behavioral studies have, for example, revealed that modality switching and perceptual similarity slow verification of features as typical—e.g., people are faster at verifying “loud” for “blender” after “rustling” for “leaves” than after “tart” for “cranberries” (Pecher et al. 2003) and faster at verifying “mane” for “pony” after verifying “mane” for “horse” than after verifying “mane” for “lion” (Pecher et al. 2003). Similar studies have targeted the causal contribution of the motor system in conceptual processing—e.g.,

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people are quicker to verify that “Open the drawer” is a sensible sentence when their response involves a pulling motion as opposed to a pushing motion (Glenberg and Kaschak 2003). In another study, conducted by Vermeulen et al. (2008), participants held either pictures or sounds in working memory while confirming the typicality of features (e.g., Is a lemon yellow? Is a blender loud?). They found that visual working memory load increased reaction times on visual features, but not auditory features, and that auditory load increased reaction times on auditory features, but not visual features. Such load effects should not be expected on an amodal account of concepts, but are exactly what neo-empiricism predicts. Looking at the evidence from neuroscience, one study (Chao et al. 1999) has found an overlap in the activation in perceptual areas when reading the names of familiar categories and when seeing pictures of objects from those categories. Another study (Simmons et al. 2003) has shown that the pattern of sensory activation during a linguistic task is correlated with the perceptible features of the objects named in the linguistic task, e.g., questions about blenders cause activation in auditory areas. TMS studies also provide evidence that the motor system contributes causally to conceptual processing. For example, using TMS to facilitate the activation of a part of motor cortex that is active during leg motions specifically facilitates comprehension of sentences describing actions involving legs, whereas stimulating motor areas that are active during arm motions specifically facilitates comprehension of sentences describing actions involving arms (Pulvermüller and Hauk 2005). Given all this evidence that embodied representations contribute to various conceptual tasks, the most sensible interpretation appears to be that simulation in the broader, neo-empiricist sense is a prevalent feature of cognition and that mirror systems are an instance of this. In contrast, the simulation theorist’s strategy of isolating mirror systems and pointing to them as evidence of a specific kind of simulation appears arbitrary. This does not imply, however, that neo-empiricism and ST need to be in competition with each other. In the next section, I will address this issue directly, taking a closer look at the relationship between these two simulationist programs and considering the option of embedding ST as a special case within neo-empiricism. I will also tie together some loose ends and offer some reflections about the significance of neo-empiricism for debates about embodied social cognition.

Neo-empiricism and social cognition: some general issues Simulation or simulation? Although neo-empiricism does not entail simulation theorists’ claim that social cognition is unique in that it involves simulation of the other person’s perspective, it does not by any means rule out the possibility that simulation in the sense of ST is a special case of simulation in the broader, neo-empiricist sense. This may even be an attractive option for simulation theorists. Goldman and Shanton (2010), for example, have explicitly considered the relationship between ST and Barsalou’s broader simulationist program. They suggest that embedding ST within a neo-empiricist account like Barsalou’s may strengthen ST. According to them, if simulation is in

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fact a central feature of cognition in general, as neo-empiricism claims, it is all the more likely to be a central feature of social cognition as well. They stop short of endorsing neo-empiricism, though, noting that ST need not commit to what is, after all, a more far-reaching theoretical program. It seems clear, however, that one could just as easily turn this point around. Insofar as ST postulates a more specific kind of simulation, namely perspective taking, it could be viewed as the more ambitious program. At least with respect to mirror systems, it seems that any evidence for ST would also count as evidence for neo-empiricism because perspective-taking simulation instantiated by mirroring would be evidence for neoempiricism since it would corroborate the claim that the reactivation of embodied (motor) representations is a prevalent feature of cognition. The reverse is not true— neo-empiricism, but not ST, could gain support from evidence of simulation in the sense implied by the response modeling conception or by other models that do not involve perspective taking but do involve the reactivation of motor representations. There are three important qualifications to be made here. First, although evidence that mirror systems instantiate ST supports not only ST but also neo-empiricism, it may support ST more specifically. And, as ST, as it were, goes further out on a limb to venture a more specific hypothesis, it should also be seen to gain even more credibility from evidence substantiating that hypothesis. Secondly, recall that both ST and neo-empiricism predict that the contribution of mirror systems would be contingent upon their integration with other systems. As I noted above (“Mirror systems: necessary but not sufficient” and “Neo-empiricism”), the difference lies in what elements they add to the mix. Specifically, simulation theorists add various components to account for the ascription of mental states that are not themselves simulative. Additionally, insofar as Goldman wants to avoid the TT view that mental states are differentiated according to the nomological relations they enter into, his version of ST is also committed to an introspectionist account of how mental states are identified and categorized. Neo-empiricism also predicts that other embodied (perceptual, affective, proprioceptive, etc.) representations are activated beyond the motor system, but it characterizes this further activation as more simulation, i.e., its broader conception of simulation is applicable to the additional elements that it adds to the mix as well. Thus, although the activation of motor representations in off-line social cognition is predicted by both ST and neo-empiricism, they make different predictions about the broader networks that these motor representations are integrated into. It is in principle possible to find evidence for components underlying ascription or introspective categorization that involve amodally formatted representations. Such evidence, if found, could support ST, but not neo-empiricism. The third qualification (and this is a generalization of the second point) is that, although a case of perspective-taking simulation instantiated by mirroring would also be evidence for neo-empiricism, this is not true of evidence for simulations in general. Thus, evidence for high-level simulation that does not involve the motor system may support ST, but not neo-empiricism, if it could also be established that the representations instantiating the simulation were not embodied representations as required by neo-empiricism but were, for example, in an amodal format. There is one other important point to raise about the relationship between these two simulationist programs. For ST, simulation is understood as an alternative to the

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Mirror systems and simulation: a neo-empiricist interpretation

representation of nomological relations among mental states (and to behavior and perception), which—according to TT—underlie conceptual abilities such as categorization and inference. Simulations in the neo-empiricist sense, however, are not considered as alternatives to but as components of conceptual processing. Thus, neoempiricism avoids the problem of having to explain how we identify and categorize simulated mental states in order to ascribe them to others because the simulation of a particular mental state is already the application of the concept of that mental state. For conceptual thought, according to neo-empiricism, involves the activation of a plurality of embodied representations, some of which would likely be in the motor system (e.g., mirror systems) and some of which would likely lie in other embodied systems. Thus, neo-empiricist simulations can involve, for example, the activation of sensory representations from prior experiences as a second-person interactant or a third-person observer in social cognition. A consequence of this is that simulation in the neo-empiricist sense can instantiate TT as well as ST, and thus provides an intriguing option for those interested in developing either a hybrid of TT and ST or in moving beyond the TT/ST dichotomy and reflecting on how the processes emphasized by advocates from both camps may complement each other. Neo-empiricism and embodied social cognition Applying neo-empiricism to social cognition also makes it possible to build bridges between embodied approaches to social cognition, on the one hand, and more traditionally cognitivist approaches, on the other. Proponents of embodied approaches often claim that embodied and interactive processes render conceptual processes or mind reading superfluous (e.g., Gallagher and Zahavi 2008; Gallagher 2001, 2007, 2008; Hobson 2002; Reddy 2008; Hutto 2004; De Jaegher 2009; De Jaegher and Di Paolo 2007; Fuchs and De Jaegher 2009; De Jaegher et al. 2010). Although neoempiricism obviously concurs in ascribing a central role to embodied interaction in (social) cognition, it differs from these approaches in that it does not conceptualize embodiment as an alternative to conceptual processes or to mind reading and does not argue that embodied processes replace mind reading or conceptual processes. Rather, it espouses the more moderate view that some conceptual processes may be (at least partially) constituted by embodied processes. One reason why this sort of moderate view should be considered appealing is that it invites attempts to show how the embodied processes engaged in interactions make the tasks of understanding others and interacting with them different than they would be if we really were just disembodied cognizers. For example, it is likely that individual social cognitive processes have been shaped by the need to monitor, coordinate, and modulate embodied processes engaged in interactions. Thus, rather than conceiving of embodiment as a replacement for the individual cognitive processes envisioned by traditional approaches to social cognition, it could be possible to improve those approaches by integrating embodied processes into their models. To see how neo-empiricism can contribute to this effort, consider the suggestion made in the discussion of response modeling above (“Inverse modeling”). It was proposed there that the embodied responses to others’ actions or emotions that one initiates on the basis of quick, automatic, and unconscious low-level processes could be monitored by and thus provide information to higher-level information processing.

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If so, then a natural hypothesis for neo-empiricists to advance would be that dynamic simulations (online or off-line) underlying judgments about others’ intentions or emotions may recruit not only perceptual areas that would be active if one were observing another person but also motor or affective areas that would be active if one were responding to others. This is just one example intended to demonstrate how traditional approaches to social cognition might benefit by integrating embodied processes into their models and how neo-empiricism can assist in this effort.

Conclusion Since neo-empiricism is a theory about the format in which concepts are represented, it is not in direct competition with other leading theories of concepts (e.g., theory theory, prototype theory, exemplar theory). Similarly, when applied to social cognition and thus to mental concepts, it is not in direct competition with other leading theories in the mind reading debate. Simulators in the neo-empiricist sense could, for example, instantiate knowledge of nomological psychological laws as postulated by theory theory, or simulations in the more specific sense of simulation theory, or some other psychological process(es) underlying social cognition. My aim here has not been to argue that neo-empiricism is correct and simulation theory (or theory theory) false. Rather, I have tried to show that neo-empiricism is well placed to integrate various models of the functioning of mirror systems by subsuming the distinct senses of simulation that they employ under a broader conception of simulation. Apart from this, neo-empiricism has the additional virtue that it embeds mirror neuron research in a broader empirical context, which enables it to draw support from a greater body of empirical research into the contribution of motor and other embodied systems in cognition in general, thus increasing its base of empirical support, its explanatory scope, and its theoretical coherency. Moreover, since neo-empiricism claims that simulation can instantiate conceptual thought rather than providing an alternative to it, it offers an intriguing option for those interested in developing either a hybrid of TT and ST or in moving beyond the TT/ST dichotomy. Finally, I have argued that a neo-empiricist approach to the role of embodiment in social cognition presents a viable, moderate alternative to more radical approaches that conceptualize embodiment as a replacement for individual social cognitive processes.

Acknowledgments Many thanks to two anonymous reviewers, both of whose suggestions helped a great deal in improving this paper.

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