Through the Looking Glass: Mirror Neurons and Moral Nonsense
Scanning the past week's news, one gets the distinct impression there has been an unusually high number of 'man's inhumanity to man' stories. Darfur, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel. Kidnapped children, boys arrested for planning an attack on their school, and a murdered family in a Dallas suburb.
A familiar question tugs at the edges of consciousness when we begin to feel the human experience is laden with these kinds of stories. Does the fact that there is so much cruelty to report speak to the lack of morality in human nature, or conversely to the presence of a moral conscience of some sort? This intriguing question was addressed by James Q. Wilson in his 1993 book, The Moral Sense, but it deserves revisiting in the light of more current understanding.
When considering why 'bloodletting and savagery are news,' Wilson proposes, 'There are two answers. The first is that they are unusual. If daily life were simply a war of all against all, what would be newsworthy would be the occasional outbreak of compassion and decency, self - restraint and fair dealing.'
The second answer is not far off the first: Wilson says misery is news because it is shocking to us. 'We recoil in horror at pictures of starving children, death camp victims, and greedy looters.' Wilson believes there is a 'moral sense' in us that makes us able to empathize with one another.
His book presents some very convincing arguments and is not devoid of science, but his problem, he admitted, was in finding hard scientific evidence to prove the existence of this 'sense.'
Only three years after Wilson's book was published, three Italian neuroscientists (Vittorio Gallese, Giacomo Rizzolatti, and Leonardo Fogassi) accidentally discovered something that could prove to be the scientific credence Wilson was looking for. During a study of monkey neurons and how they discharge while performing goal - related hand actions like picking up peanuts, the scientists found that the neurons also charged when the monkey observed one of the scientists performing the same action.
After further studies, the scientists concluded that 'to perceive an action is equivalent to internally simulating it. This enables the observer to use her/his own resources to experientially penetrate the world of the other by means of a direct, automatic, and unconscious process of simulation.'
They called the responsible neurons 'mirror neurons,' and extended their studies to explore the same phenomenon related to emotions. What the researchers described as the 'activation of a neural mechanism shared by the observer and the observed to enable direct experiential understanding' is what the rest of us call 'empathy.'
Other cognitive scientists have carried these studies even further and found that the mechanisms related to mirror neurons seem to be defective in autism - thus explaining the social impairments of people with that pathology.
Does this mean that mirror neurons and the resulting capability for empathy are, in some small part, the underpinning of our 'moral sense'? Even if this is so - there must be more to learn. As human beings, our abilities to apply empathy go far beyond that of a monkey. While monkeys seem able to anticipate or empathize with 'motor' activities that they themselves have experienced, human beings are capable in varying degrees of empathizing with others who experience things they themselves have not.
I say 'in varying degrees' because there are obviously those amongst us whose abilities to empathize are impaired, even if not to the same degree as autistics. And this brings us back to the week's news.
If man's inhumanity to man is a reflection of his mirror neurons and a somehow impaired ability to empathize, there may still be hope for change. Neuroscientists now know that the brain is capable of developing new neurons at any age - a process known as 'neurogenesis.' But the brain's plasticity is notable even in the absence of neurogenesis. Jeffrey Schwartz of UCLA, for example, has had considerable success in treating OCD patients by establishing new patterns of behaviour to replace old ones, thereby creating new connections between existing neurons.
Does this mean 'old dogs' can be taught 'new tricks'? Could new patterns of moral behaviour encourage the development of new neurons, even of new 'mirror' neurons? Can we build on our basic 'moral sense,' become more 'empathic,' thereby reducing instances of man's inhumanity to man? If so, maybe it's time to think about which new behaviours might best replace the old. If not - we should simply resign ourselves to the status quo and ignore whatever feelings of disgust may be awakened by the inevitable headlines on CNN.
About the author:
Gina Stepp, is a freelance writer with a strong interest in education and the science that underpins family and relationship studies. She has a BA in Theology from the University of Southern California and her experience in academic ghost - writing and research led her to the creation of the Lady DaVinci's Salon.
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