Human nature is riddled with self-seeking behaviors. Yet, clearly we have the capacity to think beyond ourselves. The discovery of a circuit of brain cells called mirror neurons has fueled new understanding about man’s genetic potential for experiencing and communicating empathy and tolerance. Scientists’ ability to map the pathways of these “empathy cells” has enormous social possibilities. Mirror neurons make it feasible for us to reflect on the behavior and intentions of others. They serve as conciliatory signals that may ease differences and bypass hostility. We have known for some time that group collaboration and empathy may increase successful adaptation. The clarification of the biological basis of empathy could have profound implications for human development and survival. The discovery of a biological basis for human empathy and affiliation could change our strategies for mastery of thoughtful self-regulation and tolerance for people in a conflicted world.
Mirror neuron systems are related to movement. These systems enable us to simulate the actions of others mentally, particularly those actions related to reward and avoidance. As animals evolved from fish to amphibians and then to mammals, new structures of complex thinking and assessment gradually became connected parts of ancient brain systems. Early brain functions were primitive-reactivity systems of emotion (fear, anger, pleasure), feeding, and mating. The new centers of cognition made it possible for the human brain to bypass earlier stop-go reactions and to develop more adaptive decision driven capabilities. Complex communication and collaboration became attainable. The early brain reactivity systems acted as default systems that were sculpted and moderated by human judgment and interaction with the environment. As more complex thinking centers of the brain evolved and connected, intricate social collaboration became possible. Affiliation, team effort, and even altruism were helpful in survival.
Mirror neurons sit at a place of sensory integration, a crossroad of brain centers of vision, hearing, touch, emotion and cognition. They are abundant in the regions that are related to abilities for action and movement. Through imaging brain activity can be tracked in someone who is observing the behavior of another person. In some instances we “feel” the experience of another by a direct mapping of our observations onto what is called a presensory motor area of our own brain. This mental mimicry facilitates the ability to internally sense the behavior, emotional state, and to some extent the internal experience of those whom we are observing. It turns out that empathy and mimicry are related. While mimicry in our society is sometimes disparaged, scientific evidence tells us that it is an important part of learning. By paying attention to the behaviors of adults, children can avoid the endless trial and error method of learning things already acquired by their culture. The old adage that children are more likely to do what we do than what we tell them to do rings true.
Some of the brain’s language area is also part of the mirror neuron system. Researchers believe that language began as facial and hand gestures. Mirror neurons allow the brain to send the communication in several different ways. For instance, hundreds of muscles in our faces, including our eyes, and body gestures, are used to signal anger, fear, happiness, love, etc. to others. Have you ever noticed that the whites of the eyes help us to track the intentions of others? Evolutionary biologists have observed that this distinction of eye color, the white of the eyeball and its darker center, is not characteristic of lower mammals. It evolved along with other collaborative brain structures. We can more easily track the eyes of one another when there is this white outer rim. Eye movement often reveals an individual’s behavioral intention. Mirror neurons ensured that the meaning of a communication signal is the same for the sender as for the receiver.
If one’s mirror neurons are garbled or underdeveloped, the pathway to social relatedness is certain to suffer. A mirror neuron dysregulation is now thought to be a significant component of the difficulty that autistic children have in developing and maintaining relationships. Approximately one third of autistic children have had early childhood temporal lobe seizures, which scientists believe may scramble connections between the visual and motor centers and the primary emotional systems. Often autistic children are disengaged and detached from others. They tend to over react frequently and perseverate on trivial occurrences in their environment. Their ability to form relationships and interact effectively with others is, therefore, compromised. Psychopathic personalities have a noticeable deficit of empathy also. They are characterized by aggressive outbursts, poor ethical/moral boundaries, impulsivity and the tendency to use and misuse others. Scans of psychopathic brains reveal intense activity in their arousal systems and an under reactivity in their complex thinking centers.
Recent genetic research shows that a series of gene abnormalities underlie addiction and emotional dysregulation that characteristically disrupt human relationships. In one important finding many people with addiction and hyper-reactive emotional systems seem to have a mutation of the brain’s primary inhibitory genetic system that results in cells firing without restraint. Remember that a stop –go system needs the stop factor as much as the go factor. This genetic deficit of inhibitory cell firing may result in tendencies for impulsive and self-seeking behaviors and thinking. If ones own feelings and thoughts trump all else, one may hardly be able to muster the restraint and nurture the thoughts that are a part of keenly observing and empathizing with another person. In particular alcohol almost immediately clouds the thinking center and releases emotional reactivity. Moreover, egocentricity reins with repetitive alcohol or drug abuse. Genes are shaped by the environmental experience and the environmental experience is shaped by the genes. One could have these gene abnormalities but live in a social context that is decidedly guided and thoughtfully emotionally subdued so that impulsivity and addiction may be curtailed.
We have known for some time that social context impacts neurobiology. For instance we are aware now that the leaders of a group of mammals tend to have higher serotonin levels than subordinates. Behavioral neuroscientists tell us that as individual power increases, a person or animal, will tend to focus on potential rewards. In the powerful, the behavioral approach system seems to be fired up and inhibition shuts down. Powerful people and animals may take more risks, but they can become oblivious to others around them. It is not difficult to see that helping leaders to be more consciously aware of the potential liabilities of risky self-centered orientation may help them to more carefully blaze pathways for ethically responsible followers.
Issues of human relatedness are of world significance in this expanding global community today more than ever before. Information about different people, nations and cultures is presently more available than in the history of human existence. Our ability to empathize with one another is a keystone to a viable and civilized world community. As nations interact increasingly and the world population explodes, it becomes critically important to foster emotional modulation, tempered thinking and altruistic collaboration. Our human ability to thoughtfully subdue early archetypal emotional reaction may be our only hope for implementing empathic interpersonal and international relationships.
Many people lack access to multifaceted education that can expand thinking, awareness and tolerance of differences. Fanaticism, emotionally driven thinking, can commandeer clear cognition and revert humankind back to an endogenous, aggressive existence. Knowledge of our genetic and neurological underpinnings for empathy could result in empowering self-awareness and improved capacity for emotional modulation. For instance, if leaders know that humans have a biological capacity for empathy, we may deliberately practice and attempt to skillfully develop that ability. Is it possible to stretch moral imagination to see a point of reference between those and ourselves we deem to be very different from us? Could we use this empathy/collaboration system to offer a more evolved and peaceful way of communication? Our world may depend on the conscious and deliberate development of our genetic abilities to ally ourselves in sympathetic fraternity.
- Dr. Linda Klaitz, Medical Psychologist