Ethics – Empathy – Biology

Friday, February 5th, 2010 at 8:00 am.
by pre.


We’ve mentioned many times before that the human race is a highly social species, living in familial groups and further, even in groups of families. Whole communities of people manage to live together in relative harmony. This group living gives many advantages over a solitary animal. We can spot danger for each other, feed each other when we are hungry. Each individual in the group gains more in support from that group than it costs them to help support the others.

Living in groups like this requires a certain level of cooperation, and cooperation requires an understanding of each other’s needs. It requires that parents can tell when their children need feeding, that individuals can tell when others are in distress. That the people on a hunt can work together, be in the hunting mood at the same time. Individuals which are able to develop this understanding and work well within a group are more likely to survive and prosper within that group than those who don’t. Thus, human beings (and probably many other social animals) have evolved empathy.

Perhaps the simplest way to for evolution to enable us to understand the state of mind of another, is for it to make us feel it. To put your own brain into as similar a configuration as possible to the one being experienced in another. Can there be a better way of understanding how somebody feels than by feeling what they feel?

This, then, is “empathy.” The power to observe another and to know how they are feeling, what they are thinking. More than this, to actually share their emotion, their state of mind, their thoughts.

There is no magic

Clearly this doesn’t work like it works on Star Trek for the Empaths. They have spooky psychic rays permeating space, carrying the thoughts and moods of the thinker away. Science has yet to discover any such rays, whereas it has discovered many more mundane ways that brains can use to increase empathy.

Neurological Basis

Much scientific work has been done to understand the methods which the brain uses to implement empathy. People have been experimented upon while in CAT and PET scanners and the like. Emotions provoked in them, making them scared or angry or bored. Also pictures of others experiencing those emotions can be projected in front of their eyes.

Scientists have found that similar areas of the brain ‘light up’ (that is, require more oxygen since they are working harder) when experiencing an emotion or when observing another person experience it. That is, that seeing someone feel sad produces similar patterns of activity to actually feeling sad yourself. Likewise, looking at happy people involves much of the same neural networks as feeling happy.

Mirror Neurons

Not just general areas of the brain work this way. Individual neurons have been tracked which fire when someone performs an actions, or when they see others do so.

Mirror neurons” have been discovered even in non-primate species. These brain cells were first discovered accidentally by Italian scientists investigating the way a primate’s brain controls it’s limbs. With a monkey’s brain open and minute electrodes in hand, they painstakingly sought out neurons which fired when a monkey moved it’s arm in a given way. Seeking the neurons which controlled that movement.

Success! They found neurons that fired only when a monkey moved it’s arm in a particular way. This would have been quite a scientific result in it’s time even if things had stopped there. A chance accident in the lab occured. An experimenter performed that same arm action in front of the monkey while it was still wired up. The neuron fired.

Whenever the money saw another monkey (or researcher) perform that action, the thing same happened. The neuron which which fired when the monkey’s own arm was moving, fired when it saw anyone else do the same. This neuron, and others that act like it, are called mirror neurons. They connect the actions of another with those same actions of your own.

Social Signalling

We’ve already talked about social signalling, the kinds of actions, expressions and words which we use to communicate our thoughts and emotional states. It’s now clear that seeing, hearing, smelling these signals works subconsciously and directly to ‘synch’ our states of mind. To literally bring your mind state close to that of the people you interact with. To make us all feel each other’s joy and pain.

Next week we’ll discuss how this builds our ethical and moral systems, and what use this is to you as an individual and to the greater society of which you are a part.