Adam Smith and Mirror Neurons Paper Published

Lynne Kiesling

I mentioned a while ago my working paper on the neuroscience research on mirror neurons and its relevance for Adam Smith’s theory of sympathy developed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). After revision and some extremely helpful referee guidance, the paper has been published in The Review of Austrian Economics:

Mirror neuron research and Adam Smith’s concept of sympathy: Three points of correspondence

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith asserts that humans have an innate interest in the fortunes of other people and desire for sympathy with others. In Smith’s theory, sympathy is an imperfectly reflected combination of emotion and judgment when one observes someone (the agent) in a particular situation, and imagines being that person in that situation. That imagination produces a degree of interconnectedness among individuals. Recent neuroscience research on mirror neurons provides evidence consistent with Smith’s assertion, suggesting that humans have an innate capability to understand the mental states of others at a neural level. A mirror neuron fires both when an agent acts and when an agent observes that action being performed by another; the name derives from the “mirroring” of the action in the brain of the observer. This neural network and the capabilities arising from it have three points of correspondence with important aspects of the Smithian sympathetic process: an agent’s situation as a stimulus or connection between two similar but separate agents, an external perspective on the actions of others, and an innate imaginative capacity that enables an observer to imagine herself as the agent, in the agent’s situation. Both this sympathetic process and the mirror neuron system predispose individuals toward coordination of the expression of their emotions and of their actions. In Smith’s model this decentralized coordination leads to the emergence of social order, bolstered and reinforced by the emergence and evolution of informal and formal institutions grounded in the sympathetic process. Social order grounded in this sympathetic process relies on a sense of interconnectedness and on shared meanings of actions, and the mirror neuron system predisposes humans toward such interconnection.

If you are not a subscriber and would like to read the paper, the manuscript version is available on my SSRN page.

One thought on “Adam Smith and Mirror Neurons Paper Published

  1. Haidt, in his new book The Righteous Mind, discusses mirror neurons in his chapter on group bonding. Interestingly, (and this is in my own words and not necessarily his exact examples) when an agent affiliates with a third party the empathy effect is stronger and when the agent does not affiliate the effect if weaker. (So seeing the other as a member of the same political party, or same religion, or born on the same day, etc., can enhance empathy; seeing the other as the member of a distinct and somewhat opposed group can diminish or extinguish empathy.) In the same chapter he discusses oxytocin, which developed a reputation as the “cuddle hormone” from its association with mother-infant bonding and male-female relations and apparent generalized pro-trustworthiness effects, but further research shows that while it promoted pro-social action within groups it actually also promotes anti-social attitudes toward outgroup members.

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