The grammar of intention

For my biology class I needed to choose an article from a specific date range from the Public Library online Science (PLoS). Just by way of explaining why I am talking about an article from 2005. I could see if there’s been more recent inquiries along this line, but this is the one I just wrote a summary of so I’ll be talking about it. So the article is “Grasping the Intentions of Others Using One’s Own Mirror Neuron System” by Iacaboni et al.

This article came up in a search for articles on autism, even though autism is only referred to briefly in the abstract. But if you know people with autism, the whole article is very interesting as it ties together the autism triad of language disorder, social dysfunction, and motor atypicality. (The language disorder connection is not as obvious, hence the title of this blog, but does come up in the references.)

Mirror neurons are neurons in the brain that respond the same whether the subject is making an action or observing another making the same action. What this experiment looked into is whether mirror neurons are mirroring the just the action or the reason for the action (the intention). The took a couple dozen people and scanned their brains by MRI while showing them pictures of a tea cup being lifted either by the handle with two fingers or gripping the cup with the entire hand. These actions were imposed over a blank background, an orderly pre tea setting, and a disorderly after tea setting. The brain scans showed activity greater than the sum of action and context, possibly coding of intention.

What would be interesting about this coding of intention is if the intention of picking up a cup to drink were a relationship between the action of lifting the cup and the action of drinking (if I understood the discussion correctly). Rather than the brain being a like dictionary with the label of actions in one place and their meanings in another, intention was a chain of “logical association” between the actions. So the social dysfunction of autism could be the same variation (if you don’t like the word failure) in reading people as in speaking words.

Of course I remember how exciting Theta grid theory first sounded when I took Morphology and the Lexicon, the idea that the meaning of words was their relationships with each other. Thought there always comes a point where this theory breaks down. Of course, that’s with the limitation that a word is symbolic, while anything encoded in the mirror neuron system has an actual correlate to reality.

My experience with Aspergers/HFA is that the connections are there, but they don’t follow the regular rules. The ASD child seems clueless about some situations but is inflexible about others. Think of echolalia applied to actions and intentions.

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