Does the Mirror Neuron System and Its Impairment Explain Human Imitation and Autism?

  • Victoria SouthgateEmail author
  • György Gergely
  • Gergely Csibra
Part of the Contemporary Neuroscience book series (CNEURO)


The proposal that the understanding and imitation of observed actions are made possible through the ‘mirror neuron system’ (Rizzolatti, G., Fogassi, L., & Gallese, V., 2001, Neurophysiological mechanisms underlying the understanding of action. Nature Review Neuroscience, 2, 661–670) has led to much speculation that a dysfunctional mirror system may be at the root of the social deficits characteristic of autism (e.g. Ramachandran, V. S., & Oberman, L. M., 2006, Broken mirrors: A theory of autism. Scientific American, November 2006). This chapter will critically examine the hypothesis that those with ASD may be in possession of a ‘broken’ mirror neuron system. We propose that the deficits seen in imitation in individuals with ASD reflect not a dysfunctional MNS, but a lack of sensitivity to those cues that would help them identify what to imitate. In doing this, we will also argue that imitation in typically developing children cannot be explained by appealing to a direct-matching mechanism, and that the process by which young children imitate involves a far more complex yet effortless analysis of the communication of those who they learn from.


Imitation Emulation Mirror neuron system Autism 



We thank Coralie Chevallier, Uta Frith, Teodora Gliga, Tobias Grossmann, Eva Loth, Olivier Morin, Atsushi Senju, Dan Sperber and John S. Watson for their valuable comments on this paper. This work was supported by the UK Medical Research Council (Programme Grant #G9715587) and a Nest-Path Cooperative Research Grant (EDICI) from the European Commission.


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Copyright information

© Humana Press, a part of Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Victoria Southgate
    • 1
    Email author
  • György Gergely
  • Gergely Csibra
  1. 1.Birkbeck College, University of LondonUK

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