Posts Tagged ‘imagining’

The Science Behind Empathy and Morality

December 8, 2018

This is the eighth post in the series “Linguistics and Cognitive Science in the Pursuit of Civil Discourse. Our mirror neuron systems operate in our brains and gives us the capacity to connect with others, to know and even feel what they feel, and to connect with the natural world. It provides the basis of our capacity for empathy.

Certain emotions correlate with certain actions in our own bodies—in facial muscles, in posture, and so forth. When we feel happy our facial muscles are prompted to produce a smile, as opposed to a frown or a baring of the teeth. We also know that the physical cues that broadcast emotion in others will usually trigger in an observer the same brain response that would accompany those physical cues of the same emotion in ourselves. This is why we can usually tell if someone else is happy or sad, or angry or bored—and why a smile is often unconsciously greeted with a smile or a yawn with a yawn.

There is also a brain overlap between imagining and doing. Many of the same neural regions are activated when we form mental images as when we actually see. The same holds true for whether we imagine moving or are actually moving. So we have the capacity to empathize not only with someone present, but also with someone we can imagine, remember, read about, dream about, and so on. Neuroscientists have also found that, when someone is in love and they see their loved one in pain, the pain center in their own brain is activated. So emotional pain is real.

There are some neural complications that affect how we ultimately respond to what we see, hear, and imagine. The regions of the prefrontal cortex are particularly active during the exercise of judgment. These regions contain neurons that are active when we are performing some particular action and less active when we see someone else performing the same action. It is conjectured that this give us the capacity to modulate our empathy—to lessen it or turn it off in certain cases. So the mirror neuron system connects us emotionally to others, but can in certain cases also distance us emotionally for others.

Lakoff writes, “The prefrontal cortex is active in another neural system, too—one that I’ll call the well-being/ill-being system. This is the system that releases certain hormones in your brain when you have experiences that make you feel good, and releases others when experiences make you feel bad. In essence, this system regulates where you have a sense of well-being or ill-being at any given time on the basis of your imagination of what will or won’t bring you well-being.”

Lakoff continues, “The well-being system and the empathy system can interact in different ways. Some people feel satisfaction both when they are personally satisfied and when those they empathize with feel a sense of well-being. Other people do not have the two systems connected in that way. (1) They may have the well-being system overriding the empathy system—with their interests overriding the cares and interests of others. Or (2) they can have a complex interaction in which they maintain their own well-being and balance it with contributing to the well-being of others. Or (3) they may be self-sacrificing, always placing the well-being of others ahead of their own well being. Or (4) they may be part of an in-group, and may place their well-being and that of in-group members first, without empathizing at all with out-group members. This can vary depending on what counts as a given person’s in-group. Since morality is about well-being, your own and that of others, these four alternatives define different moral attitudes.”