CV & Biography
All Souls College
Mirror Neurons











Are mirror neurons over-hyped?
(audio file)


Interview with Claudia Hammond, the presenter of 'All in the Mind' on BBC Radio 4. Broadcast on 16 December, 2014. The segment on mirror neurons starts at 13.12 minutes.

Heyes, C. M. (2013) A new approach to mirror neurons: developmental history, system-level theory and intervention experiments. Cortex, 49, 2946-2948.

Heyes, C. M. (2010)  Mesmerising mirror neurons. NeuroImage, 51, 789-791.


he cultural evolution of mind reading
(audio file of interview)

Abstract: It is not just a manner of speaking: “Mind reading,” or working out what others are thinking and feeling, is markedly similar to print reading. Both of these distinctly human skills recover meaning from signs, depend on dedicated cortical areas, are subject to genetically heritable disorders, show cultural variation around a universal core, and regulate how people behave. But when it comes to development, the evidence is conflicting. Some studies show that, like learning to read print, learning to read minds is a long, hard process that depends on tuition. Others indicate that even very young, nonliterate infants are already capable of mind reading. Here, we propose a resolution to this conflict. We suggest that infants are equipped with neurocognitive mechanisms that yield accurate expectations about behaviour (“automatic” or “implicit” mind reading), whereas “explicit” mind reading, like literacy, is a culturally inherited skill; it is passed from one generation to the next by verbal instruction. 

Heyes, C. M. & Frith, C. (2014) The cultural evolution of mind reading. Science, 344, 1243091. DOI: 10.1126/science.1243091.


On the origins of mindreading
(video file of talk for a specialist audience)

Abstract: Many philosophers and psychologists believe that the capacity to ‘read minds’ or ‘mentalise’ depends on dedicated cognitive processes—processes that operate in a different way from those involved in other tasks—and that, in the course of human evolution, natural selection has produced a highly specific, genetically inherited predisposition to develop these dedicated mindreading processes.  This has been described as the nativist or modular view of mindreading and contrasted with more developmental or constructivist accounts, which emphasise the importance of the individual’s experience, and especially their social experience, in the development of mindreading.  Nativist views tend to be representationalist and built on laboratory-based experimental methods, whereas constructive views tend to resist representationalism and to draw on more naturalistic empirical methods.  My recent work has crossed these traditions by assuming that mindreading is representational; proposing that these representations are products of cultural evolution; and challenging what are normally regarded as the more rigorous empirical methods on their own ground.   This lecture will compare mindreading with print (or script) reading, a capacity that emerged too recently in human history to be dependent on genetically evolved cognitive processes.  This comparison helps to clear the ground for close examination of recent experiments that have fortified nativist views by seeming to show that nonhuman primates, infants, and adults are capable of automatic or implicit mindreading.  It also introduces the ‘softer’ but compelling evidence that the development of mindreading is crucially dependent on linguistic communication between adults and children.

Keynote lecture, European Society for Philosophy and Psychology, organised by Daniel Cohnitz, Ian Phillips, Hannes Rakoczy & Gillian Ramchand, University of Tartu, 14-17 July 2015. Details of the meeting and podcasts of all invited talks at http://espp2015.ut.ee/?page_id=9


The cultural evolution of mind reading

video file of talk for a general audience)

How do we know what's in other people's minds?  How is this 'mindreading ability' influenced by our cultural and evolutionary backgrounds?  When do we develop this skill?

Keynote lecture, Royal Holloway, University of London. 27th January 2015


Simple minds: a qualified defence of associative learning
(audio file) (pdf)

Abstract: Using cooperation in chimpanzees as a case study, this article argues that research on animal minds needs to steer a course between ‘association-blindness’ – the failure to consider associative learning as a candidate explanation for complex behaviour – and ‘simple-mindedness’ – the assumption that associative explanations trump more cognitive hypotheses.  Association-blindness is challenged by the evidence that associative learning occurs in a wide range of taxa and functional contexts, and is a major force guiding the development of complex human behaviour.  Furthermore, contrary to a common view, association-blindness is not entailed by the rejection of behaviourism.  Simple-mindedness is founded on Morgan’s canon, a methodological principle recommending ‘lower’ over ‘higher’ explanations for animal behaviour.  Studies in the history and philosophy of science show that Morgan failed to offer an adequate justification for his canon, and subsequent attempts to justify the canon using evolutionary arguments and appeals to simplicity have not been successful.  The weaknesses of association-blindness and simple-mindedness imply that there are no short-cuts to finding out about animal minds.  To decide between associative and more cognitive explanations for animal behaviour, we have to spell them out in sufficient detail to allow differential predictions, and to test these predictions through observation and experiment. 

Royal Society Discussion Meeting, ‘Animal Minds: From Computation to Evolution’, organised by Nicola Clayton, Uri Grodzinsky and Alex Thornton, London, 16-17 January 2012.  Details of the meeting and audio podcasts of all talks at http://royalsociety.org/events/2012/animal-minds-computation/


Cultural inheritance of cultural learning
audio file) (video file) (pdf)

Abstract: Cumulative cultural evolution is what ‘makes us odd’; our capacity to learn facts and techniques from others, and to refine them over generations, plays a major role in making human minds and lives radically different from those of other animals.  In this article I discuss cognitive processes that are known collectively as ‘cultural learning’ because they enable cumulative cultural evolution.  These cognitive processes include reading, social learning, imitation, teaching, social motivation, and theory of mind.  Taking the first of these three types of cultural learning as examples, I ask whether and to what extent these cognitive processes have been adapted genetically or culturally to enable cumulative cultural evolution.  I find that recent empirical work in comparative psychology, developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience provides surprisingly little evidence of genetic adaptation, and ample evidence of cultural adaptation.  This raises the possibility that it is not only ‘grist’ but also ‘mills’ that are culturally inherited; through social interaction in the course of development, we not only acquire facts about the world and how to deal with it (grist), we also build the cognitive processes that make ‘fact inheritance’ possible (mills). 


Workshop on ‘New Thinking: The Evolution of Human Cognition’, funded by All Souls College, the British Academy, Guarantors of Brain and Magdalen College, University of Oxford, June 2011.  For details of the meeting and audio/video podcasts of all talks click here.


What’s ‘social’ about social learning? (audio file) (pdf)

Abstract: Research on social learning in animals has revealed a rich variety of cases where animals - from caddis fly larvae to chimpanzees – acquire biologically important information by observing the actions of others.  A great deal is known about the adaptive functions of social learning, but very little about the cognitive mechanisms that make it possible.  Even in the case of imitation, a type of social learning studied in both comparative psychology and cognitive science, there has been minimal contact between the two disciplines.  Social learning has been isolated from cognitive science by two longstanding assumptions: that it depends on a set of special-purpose modules – cognitive adaptations for social living; and that these learning mechanisms are largely distinct from the processes mediating human social cognition.  Recent research challenges these assumptions by showing that social learning co-varies with asocial learning; occurs in solitary animals; and exhibits the same features in diverse species, including humans.   Drawing on this evidence, I argue that social and asocial learning depend on the same basic learning mechanisms; these are adapted for the detection of predictive relationships in all natural domains; and they are associative mechanisms – processes that encode information for long-term storage by forging excitatory and inhibitory links between event representations.  Thus, human and nonhuman social learning are continuous, and social learning is adaptively specialised – it becomes distinctively ‘social’ – only when input mechanisms (perceptual, attentional and motivational processes) are phylogenetically or ontogenetically tuned to other agents.

Royal Society Satellite Meeting, ‘Social Learning in Human and Nonhuman Animals: Theoretical and Empirical Dissections’, organised by Andrew Whiten, Kavli Royal Society International Centre, Buckinghamshire, 1-2 July 2010. Details of the meeting and audio podcasts of all talks at http://royalsociety.org/events/2010/social-learning/