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Daily Connect: Empathy Neurons and The Empathic Civilization?
Submitted by Lani on Tue, 2/22/2011, 9:15am
One of IDP's community members is working on some pretty interesting stuff on empathy and neurology and I was lucky enough to have Patrick Groneman turn me onto her site. I'll be mining this site for many future posts, but this week I was pretty floored that there is actual empirical data supporting not just the idea that poorer people are more generous and charitable than richer folk, but that - and here's the kicker - when asked to imagine themselves from a different social economic class, richer individuals actually scored the same as poorer individuals on scales of empathy and generosity when PRETENDING they were class peers. Um. What!?!!!?
One clue to this observed behavior is the existence of mirror neurons. Apparently, we are all wired with mirror neutrons - motor neutrons that fire, not only when we engage in a physical action, but when we simply OBSERVE another person make a similar action. "...when neurologists were studying the relationship between motor neurons and the physical action of grasping, they found that there was a set of motor neurons that were fired not only when the subject grasped something but also when the subject watched someone else grasp something." Again, um, what?!?!!
Well, actually, I shouldn't have been surprised by this, as one of my favorite videos making the rounds from the past year is an illustrated version of Jeremy Rifkin's brilliant short lecture distilling the ideas of his book The Empathic Civilization. In it he links empathic responses to these mirror neurons: "But all humans are soft-wired with mirror neurons so that, if I'm observing you, your anger, your frustration your sense of rejection, your joy, whatever it is, and I can feel what you're doing the same neurons will light up in me as if I'm having that experience myself." Although Rifkin's linking of these empathy networks to a entire social impulse toward sociability and attachment rather than aggression and violence might be overly ambitious given the fledgling data, the idea that empathy is a physical camaraderie of experience is wondrous indeed. In Vittorio Gallese's words: "When I see the facial expression of someone else, and this perception leads me to experience that expression as a particular affective state, I do not accomplish this type of understanding through an argument by analogy. The other’s emotion is constituted, experienced and therefore directly understood by means of an embodied simulation producing a shared body state. It is the activation of a neural mechanism shared by the observer and the observed to enable direct experiential understanding." Your pain = my pain. Not just words. Indeed.
Happy Tuesday loves.
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