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Mirroring versus simulation: on the representational function of simulation


Mirror neurons and systems are often appealed to as mechanisms enabling mindreading, i.e., understanding other people’s mental states. Such neural mirroring processes are often treated as instances of mental simulation rather than folk psychological theorizing. I will call into question this assumed connection between mirroring and simulation, arguing that mirroring does not necessarily constitute mental simulation as specified by the simulation theory of mindreading. I begin by more precisely characterizing “mirroring” (Sect. 2) and “simulation” (Sect. 3). Mirroring results in a neural process in an observer that resembles a neural process of the same type in the observed agent. Although simulation is often characterized in terms of resemblance (Goldman, Simulating minds: The philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of mindreading, 2006), I argue that simulation requires more than mere interpersonal mental resemblance: A simulation must have the purpose or function of resembling its target (Sect. 3.1). Given that mirroring processes are generated automatically, I focus on what is required for a simulation to possess the function of resembling its target. In Sect. 3.2 I argue that this resemblance function, at least in the case of simulation-based mindreading, requires that a simulation serve as a representation or stand-in of what it resembles. With this revised account of simulation in hand, in Sect. 4 I show that the mirroring processes do not necessarily possess the representational function required of simulation. To do so I describe an account of goal attribution involving a motor mirroring process that should not be characterized as interpersonal mental simulation. I end in Sect. 5 by defending the conceptual distinction between mirroring and simulation, and discussing the implications of this argument for the kind of neuroscientific evidence required by simulation theory.

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Correspondence to Mitchell Herschbach.

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Herschbach, M. Mirroring versus simulation: on the representational function of simulation. Synthese 189, 483–513 (2012).

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  • Mirror neurons
  • Mirror systems
  • Mirroring
  • Mindreading
  • Simulation theory
  • Cognitive function
  • Neural reuse
  • Representation
  • Resemblance
  • Functional analysis