How the Brain Got Language: The Mirror System Hypothesis





    This book explains how the human brain evolved so that, unlike any other species, humans can learn and use language. The Mirror System Hypothesis goes beyond the mirror system to assess the forms of imitation used by monkeys, chimps, and humans, claiming that only the form available to humans, so called “complex imitation,” is powerful enough to support the breakthrough to language. It provides a path from the openness of manual gesture we share with nonhuman primates through the complex imitation of manual skills, pantomime, protosign (communication based on conventionalized manual gestures), and protospeech. The theory explains why humans are as capable of learning sign languages as learning to speak. The book shows how cultural evolution took over from biological evolution for the transition from protolanguage to fully fledged languages. It shows how the brain mechanisms which made the original emergence of languages possible perhaps 100,000 years ago are still operative: in the way children acquire language, in the way in which new sign languages have emerged in recent decades, and in the historical processes of language change on a time scale from decades to centuries. The book is highly accessible, with initial chapters providing the necessary background on schema theory, the modeling of animal behavior, linguistics (suggesting that construction grammar may provide a more suitable framework than innate Universal Grammar for studying the evolution, historical change, and acquisition of language), the communication systems of nonhuman primates, the brains of macaque monkeys and humans, plus a detailed introduction to mirror neurons in the macaque brain and mirror systems in the human brain.

    “If you believe, as still many do, that human language is derived from animal calls, read this splendid book. You will understand why this theory is untenable and will also enjoy the fascinating story of how gestures became speech.”


    Giacomo Rizzolatti,

    Department of Neuroscience,

    University of Parma


    “In this book, Michael Arbib offers a timely and carefully constructed thesis that links mirror neurons — activated in primate brains both when grasping an object and when perceiving this action by others — through manual-gestural communication and social interaction, to the evolution of a ‘language-ready brain’.”


    Wendy Sandler,

    Director, Sign Language Research Lab,

    University of Haifa