Ethics – Empathy – Biology

by pre., Friday, February 5th, 2010.


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.

Ethics – Empathy – Why Is It Useful?

by pre., Friday, February 12th, 2010.

Last week we looked at the biological implementation of empathy — the way you can feel another’s feelings — and looked at some of the evolutionary reasons for such a mental power to exist, why it might evolve.

However, just because something is useful to genetic evolution does not mean it’s useful to you, personally. Contraception is a horrible idea to genetic evolution, but a great idea for humans who want more control over their reproduction. Suffering pain being such utter torture for the psyche is good for your genes, but not good for your mental state.

You are not a slave to your gene’s evolutionary interests.

Feeling another person’s happiness and joy is all very well, but the people around you aren’t always happy and joyful. Is it really an advantage to be forced to share another’s misery? If you’re editing your brain, reprogramming your mind, you can presumably learn to turn your empathy off. Learn to avoid sharing your friend/associate/stranger/mark/victim’s misery where it is profitable to do so.

Does empathy always help you, personally.

Being able to turn your empathy off, to observe pain without feeling it, even being able to inflict it without personal emotional damage, would appear at first sight to be an advantage. It doesn’t mean you have to inflict pain. It doesn’t mean you have to ignore it when others do. It just opens up your options, right? Would it not be better to be able to calculate another’s emotional state without having to experience their misery, their loneliness and sorrow? To dispassionately observe a slaughter?


Last lap around the spiral we talked about karma and described how evolution had given us the power to actually feel in synch with one another because those particular circumstances create the motivational pay off for people to be good to each other in a way which benefits each of the people in a society by benefiting the whole of society. Each person it in gets a better base from which to live.

This, then, is the primary benefit of feeling an emotional resonance, an empathy with others. It will motivate you, it will guide your will, it will encourage to you to see others as an end in themselves. It’ll stop being being a psychopath!

Personal Gain

The genes which deliver your empathic skills evolved because they were helpful to your ancestors. Not so much because they were useful to the community in which your ancestors existed, but because they were genuinely, selfishly, mathematically, more able to reproduce than the alleles which they were competing against.

It’s actually, genuinely, objectively, better to feel the emotions of those you interact with. The gains from living in a group of individuals that agree this ethical code far exceed the loss of giving your contribution to that group.

While you’re still human you not will be using dispassionate considered mathematics to judge the right cause of action on any given occasion. You’ll be flying by the seats of your pants. You’ll be making judgements on the fly, within hundredths of a second. If you could turn off your emotional response, your empathy for your fellow man, you’ll risk making decisions without your ethics turned on. Your behaviour will be determined by these split second decisions, and so if you want to behave ethically, you need to always feel the empathy which you actually use to make these decisions.

Those emotions will guide your actions and your desires.

We won’t be trying to explore ways to overcome your empathy in order to treat people more brutally or dispassionately. Quite the reverse. We intent to help you learn to do it better and more of the time.

Next week we’ll look at ways of practising and so improving your empathic powers, then at the end of the month will introduce our final guided dream, in which you will do just that and grow your ability to empathise while you dream.

Ethics – Empathy – Mechanisms

by pre., Friday, February 19th, 2010.

We have seen that your ability to empathize, to feel what others are feeling automatically, instinctively, just from the look on their face, the words they utter, the tone in their voice, the simple knowledge of their plight, or any combination of these, has evolved because it’s actually genuinely helpful. To you. Not because it’s helpful to the person you’re empathizing with, not because it’s helpful to society as a whole, not because of some cosmic force of love in the universe. Because it’s actually, positively, at least for a person living in human society, a benefit to you. Personally.

It helps you to vicariously understand the world in which you live, helps you to win friends, helps you to build connections with others, helps you to gather around you all the things which you need to be successful in life.

How does it work?

Not like on Star Trek. There are no empathic rays shining out from a person’s aura. There’s no such thing as an Empathon particle. It’s not magic. It just works through the normal every-day physical processes that govern your perceptions, and your mind.

You literally use your brain in the same way that they’re using theirs. You mentally put yourself in their position.

We talk a lot about the differences between us, because they are what makes each of us unique, but the number of things we have in common vastly outnumber the differences. You have much less in common with a rock, or a star, or a snake, or a banana than you do with even the most different human being on the planet. The number of things you are utterly different to in the universe is almost infinitely more than the 7 billion or so people who are, by comparison, just exactly the same. Our brains all work, essentially, the same way. Our faces are wired to our emotional systems in the same way. Our limbs and our voice control all work the same way. We all have similar emotional responses to similar things and those emotional responses effect the way we move, think, speak, the look in our eyes, in more or less the same way.

This is what makes empathy possible.


Just as your brain doesn’t tell you how frightened you are by inching up a dial on a Head Up Display over your vision, or by a flashing red light indicating “Angry” up over your blind-spot, so it is with the empathic response you have to others.

There is no blinking warning reading “This person is angry!” or “Ahha! He’s getting turned on”. You only become aware of this empathic response by the way it makes you feel. If someone you are talking to is angry, you’ll know this mostly because that will make you angry. If they are sad, it will make you sad.

This is the key to taking the most advantage from the empathic super-power that humans are blessed with: The understanding that the emotions you feel are not all your own. Learning to lower your walls to let yourself feel the way others are feeling, and also to teach yourself to separate them out, to tease out the thread of the way they are feeling from the way you are feeling.

In this way, you can become more aware, more conscious of the difference, be better able to properly attribute your emotional responses. Better able to lead people towards the emotional space they want to be in.


Understanding of the pathways which the information wave spreads from one person to another will help you do this.

Imagine yourself in conversation with another person. Something you’ve said, or something they’ve said, or something happening around you, affects them in some way. This is happening all the time, but noticing the most obvious occasions and paying attention to them will help you to learn how to do it more effectively all the time, constantly, even during the more subtle moments.

This event is processed by their brain. Unless it’s a very unusual event, this won’t be deliberately, it won’t be consciously, the person you are talking with will not even be aware it’s happening. Yet their brain will be set ticking.

After a few milliseconds of processing, their brain will have changed the underlying understated way that they feel. The indescribable multi-dimensional emotional state which all of us have will have altered.

This, in turn, changes the way their muscle control neurons respond, all over the body. It minutely stretches or flexes muscles in the face, the eyes especially. It changes the tightness of their vocal chords, affecting the pitch of their voice. It alters the diameter of their pupils. Makes tiny changes to their posture, to the way their hairs stand up from their body.

You do not notice these things consciously. You will likely never notice these things consciously, and doing so would be such a burden on your consciousness that it’d just be distracting. But they do not remain unnoticed by your subconscious.

Your mind, meanwhile, deep under the surface of your attention, responds to these signals. The mirror neurons deep in it’s structure fire as though these subtle and consciously invisible actions were performed by you yourself.

This, in turn, makes similar tiny inaudible changes to the way your own emotional state feels. Remember, at least part of your brain is reacting in the same way that their brain is reacting. It’s experiencing those same slight shifts in posture, in tone, in timbre, in understanding itself.

Those shifts, those changes, are now in both of your brains. And the more you converse, the more they actually affect your body, they will filter back again to the person who first performed them.

Your mind has filters, it’s mirror neurons aren’t as strong as the actual movement neurons. You can turn those filters down. You can allow yourself to feel your conversational partner’s emotions more, or less. Learning to turn those filters down will help you to empathize better. To feel more strongly connected.

Your mind also has discrimination. If you learn to concentrate on the source of your emotional reactions, you can learn to better discriminate their cause.

How can you improve it?

Next week we’ll present a guided meditation, a guided lucid dream, in which you’ll spend ten minutes dreaming to improve your empathic skills, and set up the right suggestions and associations which will ensure you also improve them while awake.

Ethics – Empathy – The Meditation

by pre., Friday, February 26th, 2010.

This month we present our final guided lucid dream, this time designed to help you dream your way to increased empathy.

We’ve seen how empathy is a skill which evolved though the fact that it offers a personal advantage, to you as an individual, and roughly how these processes work. We intend, then, to introduce a method which attempts to have you focus on that skill, to practice it in your sleep, to fill you with suggestions that you are indeed improving, and so to increase your empathic skills while it’s important, in the real waking world.

As usual this guided lucid dream is intended as an alarm clock, to be started at low volume 10 minutes before you have to get out of bed. It should ideally penetrate your dreams, suggest a new pattern, help you to improve your Empathy as you sleep.

The dream will have you conjure up a conversation, to dream that you are talking to somebody and then encourage you to put yourself in their place. In the dream world it should be literally possible to swap bodies with the person you’re talking to. To use the cues from their body and face and language to imagine yourself in their position. You’ll spend the dream doing this.

You’ll be encouraged to feel your filters lowering, to allow their own emotional state to encroach upon your own, to feel the way they are feeling. To pay attention to your emotional state, to feel it.

In the second third of the dream you will continue to do this, but also learn to discriminate better which of the emotions are your own, and which are the empathic feeling from the person you are talking with. You’ll be encouraged to take note of which is which, to better understand the source of your feelings.

The final third of the ten minute dream will have you try to better influence the person you’re talking to, to have them empathise with you more fully. To exaggerate and encourage the signals in your own body language, facial expressions and speech so as to encourage the infectious spreading of your own emotion into others.

This week marks the last of our guided lucid dreams, the third lap around the spiral. Next week we’ll begin a summing up of this third lap, investigating sleep and dreams and surveying your progress this lap. In April we’ll then begin the final lap, attempting to integrate all the skills we have learned into one transcendent whole.

Guided Meditation File 25 – Ethics – Empathy
Backing Music “Open Space” By Tim Blume
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