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J Am Psychoanal Assoc. 2009 Jun;57(3):525-50. doi: 10.1177/0003065109336443.

Leaping from brain to mind: a critique of mirror neuron explanations of countertransference.

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The College of New Jersey, USA.


In the current vigorous debate over the value of neuroscience to psychoanalysis, the epistemological status of the links between the data of brain research and the constructs of interest to psychoanalysts has rarely been examined. An inspection of recent discussions of mirror neuron research, particularly regarding countertransference, reveals gaps between psychoanalytic processes and the available brain activation data, and allows the evaluation of evidence for three implicit assumptions frequently made to bridge these gaps: (1) there is a straightforward correspondence between observed brain activity and mental activity; (2) similarity of localized brain activity across individuals signifies a shared interpersonal experience; (3) an automatic brain mechanism enables direct interpersonal sharing of experiences in the absence of inference and language. Examination of mirror neuron research findings reveals that these assumptions are either untested or questionable. Moreover, within neuroscience there are competing interpretations of mirror neuron findings, with diverse implications for psychoanalysis. The present state of mirror neuron research may offer us new hypotheses or metaphors, but does not provide empirical validation of the proposed models. More generally, as we attempt to learn from research findings generated outside psychoanalysis, we must strive to think scientifically, by minding the difference between data and interpretation.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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