Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Hard-Wired for Empathy

The dominant notion of modern economics, and hence of life itself, is that humans are basically selfish beings, interested only in advancing their own welfare. Even if altruism were to be granted, so this theory goes, it can be reduced to the same selfish dynamic: we help others only if we expect something in return, or to prop up our egos by telling ourselves how generous we are. The metaphor which sums up this attitude is the "Selfish Gene," first proposed by Richard Dawkins. To wit, we are run by our genes, and genes are designed only to reproduce more of themselves than other, competing genes. Advancing ourselves economically, usually at the expense of other competitors, is critical to this genetic race.

What follows from this is the alleged primacy of certain attitudes that benefit us in this race. Most prominent is the ability/need to ignore the welfare or feelings of others who may be affected by our striving for self-advancement. Be it businessmen who run companies or politicians who run governments, the direct effects which include killing or maiming or poisoning large numbers of people as well as the environment itself, all can comfort themselves by knowing that this is as it should be, must be. Everyone is required to look out for number one. To feel for those who may be hurt by one’s drive for dominance is to cripple one’s ability to thrive or even survive.
Since at least the Reagan era, and going back to the social Darwinists, all of this has become so self-evident as to need no proof or argument. It’s just the way it is. Just the way we are. Economics proves that we are economic beings.

Recently, however, studies by animal biologists and the results of brain imaging have begun to demonstrate that this view is partial at best, and, more likely, fundamentally wrong. Scientists are discovering that empathy for others, far from being an aberration, or the product of cultural/religious training, is built in not only to all humans, but probably all primates as well. We are empathetic and thereby altruistic not because we’ve internalized religiously-inculcated fears about everlasting punishment for the selfish, but rather because primates, and possibly many other animals, are hard-wired to have concern for the other. As Daniel Goleman puts it in his recent book, Social Intelligence (Bantam:2006), Our brain has been preset for kindness. Most of us will go to the aid of a screaming child without thinking. Our reactions happen instantly and without premeditation. As Goleman puts it, "That this flow from empathy to action occurs with such rapid automaticity hints at circuitry dedicated to this very sequence." (p. 60)

Franz deWaal is an animal biologist who has written about this propensity for empathy that we share with primates (Frans deWaal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton U Press: 2006) He argues specifically against what has been the dominant view among philosophers—to wit, that there exists between humans and all other animals a break or gap, a gap which is signaled most decisively by the fact that we humans exhibit morality, whereas animals don’t. The point has been made by philosophers and by virtually all religions: humans are special, we are the special creatures of God, and as such, fundamentally different and separate from all other life. DeWaal, contrarily, argues that morality is a trait that has evolved, and like all other evolved traits, it has its origins in other (what we call "lower") forms of life. In this case, morality is an outgrowth of empathy, and empathy has now been observed widely among primates like chimpanzees. DeWaal cites some remarkable studies and observations to prove his point.
For example:

"Wechkin et. al (1964)...found that rhesus monkeys refuse to pull a chain that delivers food to themselves if doing so shocks a companion. One monkey stopped pulling for five days, and another one for twelve days after witnessing shock delivery to a companion. These monkeys were literally starving themselves to avoid inflicting pain upon another." (deWaal, p. 29.)

To be sure, as deWaal points out, the inhibition about hurting another monkey was greater among individuals who were familiar with each other. But the inhibition pertained even among unfamiliar individuals. Anyone who has read the famous Milgram experiments done at Yale in 1960-62 (students as "teachers" instructed to shock "learners" were quite willing to do so if they were authorized to shock their peers as part of a "learning experiment". See http://www.new-life.net/milgram.htm), has to wonder if rhesus monkeys are not, in fact, more moral than humans.

DeWaal cites another observation that makes his point even more strongly. A female bonobo (a primate related to chimpanzees) was observed at an English zoo empathizing not with her own kind, but with a bird.

"One day, Kuni captured a starling. Out of fear that she might molest the stunned bird, which appeared undamaged, the keeper urged the ape to let it go...Kuni picked up the starling with one hand and climbed to the highest point of the highest tree where she wrapped her legs around the trunk so that she had both hands free to hold the bird. She then carefully unfolded its wings and spread them wide open, one wing in each hand, before throwing the bird as hard as she could towards the barrier of the enclosure. Unfortunately, it fell short and landed onto the bank of the moat where Kuni guarded it for a long time against a curious juvenile." (deWaal, p. 30)

DeWaal comments that what Kuni did was not only to empathize with another species, but conformed remarkably to what economist Adam Smith called "changing places with the sufferer." This is empathy, pure and simple. And in this case, it moves immediately to action—the attempt to help the bird fly, and then to guard it against harm.
DeWaal then cites one of Jane Goodall’s observations to the same effect:

"In some zoos, chimpanzees are kept on man-made islands surrounded by water-filled moats...Chimpanzees cannot swim and, unless they are rescued, will drown if they fall into deep water. Despite this, individuals have sometimes made heroic efforts to save companions from drowning--and were sometimes successful. One adult male lost his life as he tried to rescue a small infant whose incompetent mother had allowed it to fall into the water." (deWaal, p. 33)

DeWaal then goes on to cite a theory to account for this empathic behavior:

"...the core of the empathic capacity is a relatively simple mechanism that provides an observer (the "subject") with access to the emotional state of another (the "object") through the subject’s own neural and bodily representations." (deWaal, p. 37)

That is to say, when one animal sees another in distress, the neural and bodily representations of the first are automatically activated to match those of the second, i.e. the one in distress. The motor and autonomic systems (changes in heart rate, skin conductance, facial expression, body posture) of the two animals come into sync. As deWaal puts it:

"This activation allows the subject to get "under the skin" of the object, sharing its feelings and needs, which embodiment in turn fosters sympathy, compassion, and helping." (deWaal, p. 37)

Sympathy, compassion, and helping: are not these the essence of what we consider human, what we consider morality? This is precisely the case that deWaal makes. There exists in primates a simple "Perception-Action Mechanism which results in immediate, often unconscious state matching between individuals." According to deWaal, all higher levels of empathy (understanding the reasons for the other’s emotions; adopting the other’s perspective) build on this "hardwired basis."

It is precisely this "hardwired basis" for empathy that has been increasingly observed and isolated in the primate brain. Here we return to Goleman’s summary of recent research. In a chapter called "Neural Wi-Fi," Goleman relates the story of how brain researchers discovered, quite by accident, the phenomenon known as "mirror neurons." Neuroscientists were "mapping sensorimotor areas of monkeys’ brains by using electrodes so laser-thin they could be implanted in single brain cells, and seeing which cell lit up during a specific movement." This was remarkable enough. But, as Goleman tells it, the surprise came

"when a research assistant came back from a break eating an ice-cream cone. The scientists were astonished to see a sensorimotor cell activate as one monkey watched the assistant lift the cone to his lips. They were dumbfounded to find that a distinct set of neurons seemed to activate when the monkey merely observed another monkey--or one of the experimenters--making a given movement." (Goleman, p. 41)

These same "mirror neurons" were subsequently found in the human brain. In a 1999 study by W.D. Hutchinson and his colleagues, an electrode monitoring "a single neuron in an awake person" was observed to fire not just when "the person anticipated pain—a pinprick—but also when merely seeing someone else receive a pinprick." Goleman calls this a neural snapshot of primal empathy in action. And indeed it is. Because what these experiments are demonstrating is that human brains are hardwired to feel empathy for others even before our celebrated cerebral cortex—our thinking brain—is able to decide it would be a "moral" thing to do. As Giacomo Rizzolati, the Italian neuroscientist who discovered mirror neurons has recently put it: these systems "allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation; by feeling, not by thinking." (Giacomo Rizzolatti, in Sandra Blakeslee, "Cells that Read Minds," NY Times, 1/10/06; cited in Goleman, p. 43)

This attunement of humans, brain to brain, constitutes a literally mind-bending confirmation of the human (and primate) propensity to empathize, to resonate with the emotional or physical condition of an other. Much of the primal activity seems to take place in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with emotions and feelings like anger and fear. If a research subject is shown a photograph of a human face expressing fear, the amygdala instantly reacts to mimic the same fear. Goleman refers to this (especially in its usual face-to-face occurrence) as "contagion" between brains:

"Moments of contagion represent a remarkable neural event: the formation between two brains of a functional link, a feedback loop that crosses the skin-and-skull barrier between bodies." (Goleman, p. 39)

This can also be described as resonance, the "sympathetic vibration" of two brains matching each other "outside our awareness." The fact that it requires no attention or intention is a testament to the sheer speed of this brain matching:

"…the amygdala spots signs of fear in someone’s face with remarkable speed, picking it up in a glimpse as quick as 33 milliseconds, and in some people even in a mere 17 milliseconds (less than 2/100ths of a second.) This quick read attests to the hyperspeed of the low road, so fast that the conscious mind remains oblivious to that perception..."(Goleman, p. 40).

Thus the examples cited at the outset: when we see someone in distress, the hardwired parts of our brain resonate to match that distress, and we are moved to empathy, compassion, and helpful action. As Goleman concludes, though the Media constantly bombard us with examples of selfishness, indifference to suffering, and cruelty, the actual ratio of benevolence to meanness on any given day is overwhelmingly positive.

The impact of these studies seems to me profound. It is not "natural," as we are constantly told, to be selfish, rapacious humans necessarily indifferent to the suffering caused by our drive to "have it all now." Even rhesus monkeys will refuse to accept rewards if it means causing pain to another monkey. Nor is it natural or even tolerable to the average human being to don a military outfit and execute orders to kill, maim, torture or vaporize other human beings. Doing so requires the cerebral cortex to override, blunt, and even disable the natural human tendency to empathize with another’s pain. It requires some leader or group of leaders to assure his soldiers that the other is evil, and therefore undeserving of our empathy or consideration.

From a more positive angle, brain studies cited by the Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard in his book Happiness (Little Brown: 2003), indicate that, in fact, empathy, compassion, and altruism are the source of brain activity of a type that Ricard associates with "happiness." He cites Richard Davidson’s report that,

"During meditation on compassion, most experienced meditators showed a dramatic increase in the high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves, "of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature." (Ricard, p. 191)

These gamma waves are focused in a part of the brain called the left middle frontal gyrus. Here is what Ricard, himself a former cell biologist, writes about this activity:

"Davidson’s research had already shown that this part of the brain is a focal point of positive emotions and that fluctuations in its balance are generally modest. But the data drawn from the experiments with meditators were striking. As they began meditating on compassion, an extraordinary increase of left prefrontal activity was registered. Compassion, the very act of feeling concern for other people’s well-being, appears to be one of the positive emotions, like joy and enthusiasm." (Ricard, p. 194)

What Ricard adds to the above discussion of empathy, then, is that not only are humans hardwired for empathy, but that empathy and compassion for others—which lead directly to helping others, or altruism—form the true basis for human happiness. Happiness to Ricard does not mean pleasure, usually for ourselves. For though we can gain some short-term pleasure at the expense of others, we cannot gain lasting happiness thereby. Real happiness, according to Ricard’s study of it, is literally equivalent to altruism. Which is to say, by acting on our brain’s hardwired structure to exhibit concern for the wellbeing of others, we remain true to our real, our evolved human nature. As Ricard summarizes it:

"Living in harmony with that nature sustains the joy of life, while rejecting it leads to chronic dissatisfaction." (Ricard, p. 204)

Lawrence DiStasi

(NB: my interest in empathy was sparked by Gary Olson’s splendid article, "Hard-Wired for Moral Politics: Neuroscience and Empathy," Znet, May 20, 2007. I recommend it highly for a more wide-ranging discussion of the issues sketched here. See it at www.znet.org.)

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