Mirror Neurons and Empathy

Posted: May 24, 2011 in Consciousness, Culture, Education, Narrative, Philosophy, Science, Technophilia

On the recommendation of The Compulsive Explainer, I’ve begun reading The Master and his Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. I’m borrowing the idea of book blogging from Alan Jacobs at Text Patterns, though I’ll instead be discussing items of personal interest drawn from the book, not embarking on literary criticism.

The book is divided into two parts: (1) discussion of the left/right hemispheres of the brain and their characters and (2) how the world we’ve made is essentially an artifact of brain/mind structures. Even in the introduction, it’s clear that McGilchrist is far more comfortable discussing the brain/mind than the whole of human endeavor, encompassing history, philosophy, politics, etc. That’s understandable, no doubt, but he ventures into other fields with the recognition that if his thesis is to attract more than academic interest, he must ground it eventually in the world we experience.

The book is a difficult read and I’m only about 70 pp. into it so far. There have already been 300 endnotes, most of them citations of medical and psychiatric studies having to do with brain lateralization. So I’m reading a lot about which side of the brain is responsible for what, a lot of which is unsurprising and superfluous, but once in a while a tidbit comes up that is interesting. For example, like many animals, our visual field is lopsided, with the right brain/left eye working on wholes and the left brain/right eye working on parts/details. Like many details of lateralization, this struck me initially as a big “who cares?” observation, but it’s the germ of McGilchrist’s thesis, so its importance will become clear in time, I suspect. Another tidbit is that faces are also asymmetrical with respect to how we express and perceive emotion. The left side of the face (and right brain) has greater responsibility, which interestingly enough accounts for why across the globe there is a strong tendency to cradle infants with their heads on the parent’s left elbow, giving a favorable view of the left side of the parental face.

Most interesting thus far, though, was a brief discussion of mirror neurons (Brit.: neurones). I’ve known for a long time that the brain is a massive learning machine and that its chief means is imitation (along with repetition). What I only now learned is that we (along with other primates and birds) have mirror neurons that fire not just when we act but also when we observe action in others. This fact has been known for only 20 years or so, but its significance to empathy, learning, and normal cognitive function is pretty high. One of the related effects, for example, is entrainment with another’s emotions and behaviors by virtue of our natural imitation, especially rhythmic synchronization with others.

Like all types of brain function and lateralization, a lot is learned through examination of those with deficits in one region of the brain or another, often lumped together under the unspecific diagnostic term brain lesion. So those with brain damage from a variety of causes often exhibit in varying degrees some fairly exotic inabilities, such as prosopagnosia, where the ability to process complex 3D facial configurations leaves the sufferer unable to distinguish between faces. Sufferers sometimes describe others as blank dinner plates with eyes. The inability of certain hemispheric mirror neurons to activate in response to emotional cues is also believed to correlate with autism and Asperger’s syndrome.

Along similar lines, McGilchrist describes a simple test to determine whether children have achieved a developmental skill loosely called theory of mind, or the ability to ascribe, attribute, or project mental states onto others as distinct from one’s own. This is more readily recognizable to me as a facet of the subject/object distinction, which in my view is the foundation of Western-style consciousness since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. One of several variations of test for theory of mind is to provide a scenario to children where two dolls, Sally and Anne, are playing with a marble. They put it away in a box and leave the room. While Sally is away, Anne returns, plays with the marble again, but puts it away in a different box. The question then is “where will Sally look for the marble when she returns to play?” Until theory of mind is developed, the child cannot project onto Sally a mental state so replies with the literal knowledge of where the marble is rather than with the theoretical knowledge of where Sally would believe the marble to be.

Here is where I go beyond reporting and offer some thoughts. McGilchrist doesn’t directly connect (as yet) the various descriptions of cognitive processes including emotion, empathy, intention, imitation, and theory of mind. He does observe, however, that mirror neurons are activated when we observe a human hand manipulating an object but not when a mechanical hand does the same. So when we watch movies and feel the same emotions as actors onscreen, the experience may be vicarious, but the entrainment is in a sense no less real than actual life as our brains are firing as though we are experiencing it first hand, not just sitting in the dark munching popcorn. But when we see screen action in animation, whether movies or video games, our response is more detached. That may account for why the surprising level of violence in, for example, Tom and Jerry or Halo, doesn’t register on us the same as more literal depictions. But of course, we’re all being retrained to regard the fictionalized, ritualized, and stylized depictions of violence in, for example, superhero films with equal parts visceral excitement and equanimity. Recent collateral effects include, in my view, the fascination with drone porn (var.: predator porn) and the ubiquitously reported decrease in empathy among today’s so-called Generation Me.

It would be reckless of me to conclude too much, but it’s not difficult to observe that we’re passing from an empathic social orientation with its complex, in-person nodes (such as the live classroom) to a narcissistic one mediated by increased reliance on and interface with screens (such as distance learning or self-directed computer learning modules). We’re slowly becoming the same machine-like presences we so admire and fetishize.

  1. halsmith says:

    Today I read tMahE, beginning on page 143, Husserl and the Idea of Intersubjectivity — on the importance of empathy. On page 145 he points out that this process is circular (or spiral-like).

    • Brutus says:

      You’re ahead of me in the book, but based on what I’ve already read and reported on above, the circularity of empathy is understandable, and its loss all the more grave.

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