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Daily Connect: Empathy Neurons and The Empathic Civilization?

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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The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

My I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.

My I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

Let's Find 1 Million People Who Want to Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion

Also, we invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

Super Sophism

Professionally I am in this field that deals with evolutionary psychology, emotions, thoughts and the like. Unequivocally Rifkin's book is a thinly veiled compilation of manipulations, distortions and utter perversions of true facts. Indeed he mentions a few (just a few) studies and observations, and then rather audaciously strings them together in the way of his choosing, rather than in a way that is consistent with honesty and truth. His "cute-sy" child illustrations gives the "effect" that you're sitting in a classroom listening to a smart and well-intentioned first grade teacher who would only tell you the truth. And like all fiction, it has a happy ending - we'll all get along in the end and be happy and empathic. However his assertions are pure sophism. One example: "...narcissism, aggression... as secondary drives." Excuse me, but that is utterly false. Those are not drives. Second example - more egregious - the evidence about mirror neurons applies mostly to the copying of behaviors: "monkey see, monkey do." There is currently NO definitive evidence that this is the mechanism by which we can "feel" each other. And even if it were, feeling what someone else feels (what Rifkin calls empathy) tells you nothing about what a person does with that perception. Psychopaths are excellent at perceiving what other people feel, but you wouldn't call them "empathic" by a long shot.

Don't let the cute graphics or the presentation fool you. He chose a few correct facts and then made interpretations and connections that are false and misleading. His assertions are a perversion of the very facts he invokes. I am not very familiar with this blog, but I will use its motto to express a point: "Change your mind to change the world." Changing our minds is good in order to gain greater clarity and keep our minds aligned with our hearts. Empathy is about the heart and has nothing to do with neurons. Rifkin's book merely clutters the mind and takes us away from the heart. This comes from a "man of neuroscience" who has learned enough to know where the seat of empathy and compassion resides.


...I agree with your criticism of Rifkin. I did, afterall, say he was overly ambitious in his demotion of agression as a secondary drive (not my exact words, but certainly my intention). Thank you for reminding us of this. Additionally, there is nothing in the post about actual copying of behaviors from my end at least. The idea that there is a physical symmetry in what is actually going on in people's bodies, though, when merely witnessing others' actions is absolutely fact. I certainly was more interested in highlighting that then in supporting an argument that all interests will align harmoniously in the future. Since you work in this field, what is a good book you would recommend on empathy? Thanks, L

Re: Overall

...And when I wrote the comment, I did so only after viewing the video - not the blog posting, so there was nothing in my comment that was directed at you or anyone on the blog. There is so much information out there that even for those of us who work in or around the field, it is difficult to sort through it all. And with the exploding amount of content, there has been a plummeting of standards. Many people first choose how they want their narrative to end and then selectively pick and choose facts that conveniently and favorably support their narrative. Please know that I am not personally or professionally offended by his book for my sake. It rather infuriates me that others who simply do not have the fund of knowledge are being presented with polemic disguised as truth or scholarship.

I am not familiar with any good book on empathy. I do not think such a book exists and I'll explain why. As I alluded to in my previous comment, we must clearly define what we mean. Do we mean the perception of a state in another person (or even animal for that matter)? Or more specifically, do we mean that we are ACCURATELY perceiving someone else's state? Do we mean "identifying" with that perception? Different people use the word in different ways and this obviously creates confusion when one wants to contemplate it.

In the end I agree with you. Although I wouldn't use the word symmetry, we clearly have resonance with things outside ourselves be they other people or animals or objects or even energy. The diversity of things with which we can resonate thus complicates the contemplation of empathy because if this resonance is universal and not limited to person-to-person contact, then studying it in the context of a "human being" is misleading. Think about this for a minute. Let's assume that it's correct that this is not a phenomenon about person-to-person interaction, but rather a phenomenon that exists between each being and everything else in the universe. We now have numerous theories and ideas that base themselves on the premise (I believe a false one) that this resonance is just between human beings: parent and child, friend and friend, spouse and spouse, etc. These theories then proceed on this basis to define normal versus abnormal, be it behavior or neural circuitry or neurochemistry et. al. But if the resonance is not limited to amongst humans, then the theories and their ramifications are false.

Now let's go one step further. We "perceive" the resonance as occurring directly between ourselves and another. But that may not be what is happening. Rather each individual (person or animal - whatever) may merely be tuned into a particular frequency or energy. We then encounter another person or animal that is tuned into that same frequency at the same time. Thus the two of us are resonating around the same frequency. Since we do not have a name or label or thought associated with the frequency itself, we "think" or "feel" that what we are perceiving IS that other being - another person for example. Then we feel "connected" to that other person when really we are simply two beings "vibrating" if you will on that same frequency at the same time.

The "problem" is that you can't study or observe what you don't have a word or thought for. You can observe the net result (i.e., one person says he/she can "feel" what the other person feels, or two people say they feel "connected") but that is only the end result that you can see or think or describe. But if the mechanism that led to that result is not observable or measurable or thinkable with our "minds," we don't like that. So we'd rather stick with only that which our "eyes" can see and then construct some narrative around that - precisely what Rifkin did. The honest thing - even from a scientific perspective - would be to acknowledge the possibility that we are just observing the effect or result and that we cannot make assertions then about the underlying mechanism. A simple example would be a lightbulb. You can see the filament and create an elaborate theory about how light is generated. But behind that light is energy - in the form of electricity. You can't see that electricity - just the light.

From the little I've seen of your blog, you get it. You understand that there is something "unseen" and that the light is just the visible portion of it. You apparently are trying to get others to ponder what is driving the light or what is driving empathy or love. My only point in my previous comment was that Rifkin only sees the filament in the lightbulb. Unlike you, he is not enlightened. That is no crime. But he doesn't even try - his heart is indolent resulting in a mind that produces clutter. And THAT is not good for the heart!


really interesting. i've been having intense discussions with my 2 teenage boys bout this for the last two years. (they threaten to leave home if i mention "vibrations" ever again.) I know it sounds far out, but i swear there's something to this. I think "leadership" works by way of resonance. People literally resonate with their leaders, whether they like to or not. That means bosses, parents, teachers, politicians, heroes, gurus, etc. We resonate in ways that our conscious minds can't begin to comprehend.
And i think it is connected to how we learn as well. I know from 20 years as a teacher something really strange happens in the classroom. Children (especially younger children, who are so open) will resonate with a teacher's mood or mindstate almost instantaneously. Calm teacher internally, calm class. Teacher doing all the right things, but harboring some internal chaos or distress = chaos in the students.

It can happen on incomprehensibly larger levels: revolutions spread: witness Tunisia, Egypt, etc. I swear the sight of Obama in the white house renewed faith in democracy and populism across the globe. People around the world were feeling cynical about democracy as they watched our democrat/republican dynasties of power churn out versions of the same old same old each election cycle (this is what friends from other countries tell me)... Obama's election sparked a resonating wildfire of belief that people can actually affect change, regardless of what we here in America think of his policies. People overseas are freaking out about Obama, especially in "emerging" or "third world" nations. His election resonates and inspires.

Also something weird like this happens on a molecular level. When my kids were 1 and 3 they I almost lost them to whooping cough. There was nothing the traditional medical establishment could do. In desperation, and with great anxiety I finally acquiesced to a friend's recommendation to try homeopathy. I thought it sounded like nonsense - and dangerous. But it worked. Within 24 hours the kids were... totally cured of horrific symptoms that had kept them in the doc's office day in and out for months. Wildly curious, i looked into how on earth this works... the best answer anyone could give was: resonance. ???

On an atomic level. "Strong" elements will imprint on "receptive" elements, causing the receptive elements to "resonate" with the strong ones, affecting profound changes. it is almost as if they teach them a song, as weird as that sounds.
i remained interested but skeptical until my mother (physicist turned musician) showed me news of a recent physics experiment about resonance. One molecule of a blue substance (cerulean?) changed an entire body of water blue when shaken together in a certain way. The blue molecule had "taught" its resonant pattern to the liquid around it, despite the fact that it was much too dilute to do any such thing. The scientists claimed resonance as the reason.

We are all connected, from the smallest subatomic level on up to our social networks and the web of everything living and non-living on this planet (and beyond). We'll never understand with our minds quite how profoundly this is true. i'm glad to hear someone use the terms resonance and vibrations. i do think that is how empathy works, tho. but it's not automatic. sometimes we refuse to resonate with the "other." Humans are clannish. They resonate with those they "feel" are "their kind." opening to a larger sense of connection takes work. hence practices like buddhism.

Annother good book: "THE COMPASSIONATE INSTINCT, The Science of Human Goodness"

it's a collection of writings by many scientists, psychologists, etc, including Daniel Goleman, Paul Eckman (interviewing the Dalai Lama), Desmond Tutu.

ack - sorry this is so long... i love this topic.


This research is amazing, and the animation connected with Jeremy Rifkin's lecture is just as amazing.   Thank you for posting this -- it is a reminder for me that my culture often DOES want me to be neurotic, and that it DOES take a lot of work to maneuver around that.

reflections in meditation

Lani This is great!  Images of Avalokiteshvara's many arms of compassion come to mind; the act of beholding reflections of reflections in Indra's Net, hearing the sounds of the world. And the difference between "looking / seeing"  "hearing / listening"and what that means to "witness" in the Buddhist sense, being present with the whole body. And the manifestation of Sangha -the encouragement meditating with others is palpable...Thanks for posting


The potential implications of these findings are incredible to consider.

Thanks for this.

Super Interesting Stuff

Looking forward to all these fields interacting more and more.

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