Mar 1, 2010

Our brains were built for feeling each other's pain?

In another of my long running musings on empathy and many posts about re-enactments, I want to quote an article, by this title (but without the question mark) by Richard Restek in Huffpo that argues:

"... When we watch another person move, our observations of their movement activates in our own brain the same areas that are involved when we make that movement. This innate tendency for imitation was first observed in macaque monkeys where "mirror neurons" in the monkey's prefrontal cortex respond both when the monkey grasps a peanut and when it watches another monkey grasp it. Mirror neurons are also active in our brains.

If you observe my hand reaching for a cup of tea the motor cortex in your brain will become slightly active in the same areas you would use if you reached for the cup of tea yourself. Further, if you observe my lips as I savor the tea, the area of your brain corresponding to lip movements will fire as well. Of course that doesn't mean you can taste my tea but it does mean that I am directly affecting your brain as you watch me drinking it. And the process is reciprocal. If you pour yourself a cup of tea, a similar pattern occurs in my brain. In both situations the artificial distinction between you and me breaks down; we form a unit influencing each other's actions: I alter your brain as a result of your observations of me, and vice versa.

A similar process takes place in regard to emotions. We relate to other people's emotions by unconsciously simulating in our own brain the same activity that takes place when we experience those same emotions.

Edgar Allan Poe described this empathic process long before neuroscience established it. In "The Purloined Letter" Poe writes of a method for intuiting the thoughts of another:

I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.

Unfortunately the brain's empathic powers aren't evenly distributed. While some of us are highly empathic and experience empathy for everyone we encounter, others restrict their empathy to the people they can identify with. They have little empathy towards the stranger or the foreigner, the practitioners of other faiths, the holders of different political persuasions or sexual orientations. Fortunately such empathic limitations can be overcome by the steady application of ones own effort."

... ok, but I come back to what my friend Patricia, a torture survivor, says. You can't feel what it is like to be tortured, and I wouldn't want you to. Likewise, I can't quite feel in my body what it's like to have someone try to kill me, because thankfully I've never been through anything like that. That doesn't mean I haven't been scared for my friend Martha who went through that last week. Not scared as her, but scared with her. And in the struggle for justice with her. Many thanks to all of you who made calls and wrote letters for her protection. I'm happy to report that it led to a high level meeting at the US embassy. Please keep holding her in the light, as she continues to be in danger.

And, to come back to the title, could we focus on how our brains were built for feeling joy together, rather than pain together? Could that also move us to build a more wonderful world?

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