Mirror neuron, mirror neuron in the brain, who's the cleverest of them all? From the Attraction of Psychology to the Discovery of the Social

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It is a rather safe statement to claim that the social dimensions of the scientific process are accepted in a fair share of studies in the philosophy of science. Examples such as multiple discoveries - a phenomenon that requires the social for a full understanding - or the collaborative efforts in terms of research groups and institutions (such as this research community itself) that are not reducible to a summation of individuals' contributions, are generally shared among practitioners in the field. It is a somewhat safe statement to claim that the social dimensions are now seen as an essential element in the understanding of what human cognition is and how it functions. True, one cannot claim that it is a majority view, far from it, but social cognition and social epistemology are definitely here to stay. It would be a rather unsafe statement to claim that the social is fully accepted in the philosophy of mathematics. The mainstream philosophy of mathematics, as it happens, still tries to be independent of the individual itself as it aims for a description of the eternal, mathematical truths out there somewhere. Trying to get the individual into the picture, let alone the social, is a real challenge, although many attempts have been made and the present-day studies in mathematical practice (rather than foundational studies of mathematical theories) seem to have become "attractive" (in both the psychological and mathematical sense). Finally, we are not quite sure what kind of statement it is to claim that the social dimensions in theories of mathematics education are becoming more prominent. In our contribution we will focus, after a brief presentation of the above claims, on this particular domain to understand the successes and failures of the development of theories of mathematics education that focus on the social.
Since 1976, with the establishment of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education (PME), psychology became (one of) the most important perspectives from which mathematics education was interpreted, analyzed and investigated. The main goal of the PME was (and is) to further a deeper and more correct understanding of the psychological aspects of teaching and learning mathematics and the implications thereof. Typical for this kind of approach were the many attempts to reduce social and institutional questions to the level of the individual. However, since the last decade we can observe new trends and tools within the research of the PME culture. In the middle of the eighties, it was Alan Bishop who emphasized the impact of contextual, socio-cultural influences. This was the starting point to put more emphasis on the natural conditions of the learner - instead of the purely cognitive aspects as determined in laboratory contexts. From this moment onwards, the social aspects came into the picture and resulted into socio-cultural research trends within the PME environment. However these new trends are definitely not accepted by all and it is an intriguing question which we hope to answer in our contribution, why this resistance is as strong as it is. Is it the mathematics itself or the educational theories themselves or do they happen to support one another?
This also explains the title of our contribution: by individualizing and thereby socially isolating the human being, the social aspects became mysterious and in a deep need for explanation. The "discovery" of mirror neurons in the human brain - though not exclusively -seems to have comforted many biologists, evolutionary and "ordinary" psychologists that the social too can be found, literally, inside the individual. In a most clever way, the social has been introduced but almost immediately reduced (in this case to the neurological level) to the individual. Whereas actually mirror neurons need another individual's neurons so is it not more likely that we evolved mirror neurons because we are social beings rather than the other way round? If it happens to be the other way round, the question "Who's the cleverest of them all?" ceases to be interesting as an answer requires the ranking of individuals. "What makes all of them clever?" seems a more appropriate topic to address.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEducational research. The attraction of psychology
EditorsP. Smeyers, M. Depaepe
Place of PublicationDordrecht
PublisherSpringer Netherlands
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)978-94-007-5038-8
ISBN (Print)978-94-007-5037-1
Publication statusPublished - 2012

Publication series

NameEducational Research

Bibliographical note

P. Smeyers & M. Depaepe


  • education
  • Philosophy of Mathematics
  • Philosophy of education


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