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Mirror neurons may be a genetic adaptation for social interaction. Alternatively, the associative hypothesis proposes that the development of mirror neurons is driven by sensorimotor learning, and that, given suitable experience, mirror neurons will respond to any stimulus. This hypothesis was tested using fMRI adaptation to index populations of cells with mirror properties. After sensorimotor training, where geometric shapes were paired with hand actions, BOLD response was measured while human participants experienced runs of events in which shape observation alternated with action execution or observation. Adaptation from shapes to action execution, and critically, observation, occurred in ventral premotor cortex (PMv) and inferior parietal lobule (IPL). Adaptation from shapes to execution indicates that neuronal populations responding to the shapes had motor properties, while adaptation to observation demonstrates that these populations had mirror properties. These results indicate that sensorimotor training induced populations of cells with mirror properties in PMv and IPL to respond to the observation of arbitrary shapes. They suggest that the mirror system has not been shaped by evolution to respond in a mirror fashion to biological actions; instead, its development is mediated by stimulus-general processes of learning within a system adapted for visuomotor control.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS One

Publication Date





Adult, Female, Hand, Humans, Learning, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Male, Mirror Neurons, Motor Cortex, Parietal Lobe, Psychomotor Performance, Young Adult