“Empathic” Neurons


I haven’t blogged in awhile, actually it’s been 6 months, half a year! I see the bad and good in this. Bad, because there’s a lack of regular meaningful thinking or, optimistically, lack in finding coherency in disjointed meaningful thinking. It could be seen as good because I’ve been reading, watching many things and all this time has given me the opportunity to delve further into what I’ve been reading and watching. I’m starting to see everything as a whole and it’s providing clarity.
Recently I watched two fascinating talks. One was a presentation by Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran, a presentation about “The neurons that shaped civilization”. This presentation triggered another talk that I watched a few days ago by Jeremy Rifkin on "The empathic civilization”. Both talks are not directly related but surprisingly in essence, similar. They both describe a research study conducted in Parma Italy by Rizzolatti and colleagues which lead to the discovery of “mirror neurons”. I found Rifkin’s description of mirror neurons intriguing, and I felt optimistic from hearing about this. I’ve always been at qualms with the notion of whether humans possess good innate biological traits? Are we genetically good (in a moral sense) organisms? I think I share the same philosophy as what Rifkins mentions “Enlightment philosophers” ideologies of humans, which is we are materialistic, self interested, utilitarian and pleasure seekers by nature. I’ve come to this conclusion from Darwinism, evolution, Selfish genes, genetics, neuroscience and pure observation of human behaviour. However, this talk challenged this ideology which is what made it so intriguing.

Rifkin’s talks about in the early 90s in Parma, Italy, scientists were using MRI brain scanning machines on a monkey trying to open a nut. They wanted to observe what neurons light up when the monkey opened the nut. Just by serendipity, a human by accident, enters the laboratory and sees the nut and opens it. The monkey observed the human doing this, they found that the same neurons light up for both human and monkey despite that the monkey was purely observing and not physically experiencing the act of opening a nut. From this Rizzolatti discovered “mirror neurons”. They found all humans, primates are soft wired with these mirror neurons. For example if an individual was experiencing anger, frustration, joy ...etc.... and if another individual was observing these emotions, the same neurons would light up, as if they were experiencing these same emotions. We are all soft-wired to experience another’s plight, as if we are experiencing it ourselves. This suggests we are actually soft-wired not for aggression, violence, self-interest and utilitarianism but we are soft-wired for sociability, attachment, affection and companionship. So our first drive is to actually “belong”. This drive to belong triggers empathic behaviour.

Rifkin’s explains the evolution of empathy:
  • Around the age of 2 a child begins to recognise themselves in the mirror.
  • Empathy starts to mature once a child can identify themselves, they start to observe others and feel that others share the same feeling. This increases the feeling of “selfhood”.
  • Around the age of 8 years of age a child learns about birth and death. They learn where they came from, that they only have one life. That life is fragile, vulnerable and that one day they are going to die. The child learns that every moment is precious; they have their own unique history. This allows the child to experience another’s plight in the same way, that the other person, other creature has one and only life.
Empathy is grounded in the acknowledgment of death and the celebration of life.
  • In the past, for Forager hunter societies, communication extended only to local tribe and shouting distance. Everyone on the next mountain was alien to each other and so empathy only extended to blood ties.
  • Then there was the great Hydraulic Agricultural civilisations, script allowed us to extend the central nervous system to annihilate time and space and to bring more people together. The differentiation of scales and increasing self-hood lead to the theological consciousness. Consequently, instead of associating with one’s blood ties we began association with religious ties.
  • During the 19th century Industrial Revolution, we extend markets now to larger areas and create the idea of the Nation State, allowing us to extend our families based on loyalties based on complex energy communication revolutions that annihilate time and space.
Rifkin’s raises a pivotal question, “Why stop here?” Why would empathy stop at the Nation State identity.

“We have the technology to extend the central nervous system to think viscerally as a family, not just intellectually. Is it possible that the new technology is allowing us to connect our empathy to the human race writ large in a single biosphere?”

“Is it possible we can extend our empathy to the entire human race as an extended family and to our fellow creatures as part of our evolutionary family and to our biosphere common community?”

I’m starting to think perhaps we are homo-empathicus by nature and it has been repressed allowing for secondary drives such as narcissism, materialism, violence and aggression to override.

I had an inkling awhile back that this maybe is correct (blog entry “Sharing is caring??” May 2nd 2010).
“Caring, sharing = acceptance = species compatibility = species survival. But then I dispute that perhaps the need for the survival as a whole species and not just survival of the vessel (i.e. the individual itself) can be altruistic.”
“...perhaps some species wants and desires could be mutually, intrinsically communicated, hence a mutual need of harmonious symbiosis which could be seen as altruistic.”

I think this empathic nature is the key to human evolution. It is “the invisible hand, it’s what allows us to stretch our sensibility with another so we can cohere in larger social units.” It is what will save our species and our planet. We need to rethink human nature and bring out our empathic sociability. Current ideas of human nature have brought about assumptions in which institutions have been created and based upon. These institutions include our educational institutions, business institutions, business practices, governing institutions. I do agree with Rifkin’s, we need to also rethink the institutions of society and start to prepare the groundwork for an empathic civilisation. To empathise is to civilise, and to evolve.

Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran presentation “The neurons that shaped civilization” also describes the discovery of mirror neurons from the research conducted in Parma Italy. Ramachandran talks about ordinary motor neurons which fire when a person does a specific action and that these motor command neurons have been known for some time. However, there are a subset of neurons which fire when looking at somebody else performing an action. It is as though these neurons are adopting this person’s (i.e. person performing the action) point of view, as if it’s performing a virtual reality simulation of the other person’s actions.

These mirror neurons are significant because they involve imitation, emulation. They allow us to mimic complex act, allowing one’s brain to adopt another’s point of view. Go back to 75,000 to 100,000 years and look at human evolution and the rapid skills unique to human beings emerging such as tool use, the creation of fire, language, theory of mind etc...etc... The emergence of a sophisticated neuron system allowed humans to imitate and emulate action and so a sudden accidental discovery of a new skill e.g. the use of fire; instead of the skill dying it was emulated, replicated and it was spread. It is possible that these mirror neurons have perhaps been the cause of these rapid skills, as a result lead to the acceleration of human evolution.

Ramachandran gives an interesting example, “If you remove the arm, you simply anesthetise my arm, so you put an injection into my arm, anesthetise the brachial plexus so the arm is numb and there is no sensations coming in. If I now watch you being touched, I literally feel it in my hand, in other words you have dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. So I called them Gandhi neurons or empathy neurons. And this is not some abstract metaphorical sense, all that is separating you from him, from the other person is your skin. Remove the skin, you experience that person’s touch in your mind. You’ve dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. And this is of course the basis of much of Eastern philosophy, that is there is no real independent self, aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world, inspecting other people. You are in fact connected not just via Facebook and the internet, you are quite literally connected by your neurons. There is no real distinctiveness of your consciousness from somebody else’s consciousness.” There are many that share this theory and have mentioned it in a past blog “Sharing is Caring??”;

“...an interview with John Hagelin, PhD Professor of Physics, Director of Institute of Science Technology at Maharishi University of Management. Hagelin mentions that we are fundamentally “waves of vibrations of this underlying unified super string field.” There are many people that share similar theories; there was a quote by Bill Hicks that “we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively.”

Ben Stewart describes the earth as a “single living conscious organism” in the movie “Kymatica” (which I highly recommend, there are some things that I'm sceptical about however, it's worth watching because it gets you thinking). I think this description best illustrates this notion however, I wouldn’t limit it to just the earth. I have come to the conclusion that we have to stop seeing everything in classes, categories, distinctions, gender, nationalities, religions, blood ties, creatures, and start seeing everything as a whole organism coexisting in one consciousness. To bring about empathic sociability and come about in seeing one consciousness is the key to harmonious existence.

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