Benjamin D. Powell

Benjamin D. Powell makes an argument in his paper “Exploring Mirror Neurons: Rethinking Performance and Communicative Processes” that will make every self-avowed video game dork ecstatic. The concept that by observing an action repeatedly our mirror neurons learn to perform the action will appeal to thousands or even millions who spend their days in front of a television or video screen rather than out experiencing life.

Powell adds the caveat that without practicing the action, the body will not be able to perform it with the skill of a trained athlete, but argues that the presence of mirror neurons explains why he was not more injured when hit by a car. The paper claims that the presence of mirror neurons may indicate that more study is needed regarding how our bodies develop skills and what effect activities like playing video games have on our neurological development. At worst, Powell’s theory is an interesting pipe dream. At best, it is hope for the people who spend too much time playing “World of Warcraft”.

Unfortunately, the reality is it seems to be something of a pipe dream. It is much more likely that he simply got lucky when the car hit him and instinctively tucked and rolled. And, the car, which he described as barreling toward him, probably was not moving with the speed he believed it to be.  Writing for the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Kathleen Wilkes seems to echo parts of Powell’s basic thesis. (Wilkes 111). She argues that the possibility exists that people are capable of learning simply through observation, but there is no hard science to defend either her statement or Powell’s.

The reality is that this is some odd combination of philosophy and science, with people speculating on something that science has yet to be able to measure or prove. In the end, while the philosophy of a mind-body link so deep that the mind can control the body’s actions after merely observing an action seems plausible there is no science to back it up. Powell’s evidence is merely a corollary, coincidental and not direct proof of a tie.

To actually prove Powell’s theory would be difficult and complicated. One would have to prove that there was simply no other way, short of mirror neurons that the test subject could have learned to complete a specific action. And, the researcher would have to be able to determine how much of the action and the response to it is based on intellectual knowledge versus muscle knowledge.

In short, the researcher would have to prove that simply watching someone swing a bat repeatedly would equate to the ability to do it and that the ability is more than the intellectual knowledge of where to place one’s hands on the bat. He would have to prove that Powell’s escape from injury was more related to his ability to tuck and roll than his knowledge that tuck and roll was the right way to minimize the force of impact of an oncoming car.

Ultimately, Powell’s problem becomes in determining what actions are effective because of the mental processes telling us how to do them and which ones are effective because of the muscle knowledge of when to flex or release. Even making the differentiation there could take years.


Powell, Benjamin D. “Exploring Mirror Neurons: Rethinking Performance and Communicative Processes.”

Wilkes, Kathleen V. “Brain States”  The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 31, No.2. June, 1980. pp. 111-129.


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