Posts Tagged ‘mirroring’

Sharing

January 31, 2020

This post is based on the War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki. Empathy can be broken down into three components: sharing, thinking about, and caring about. Sharing involves sharing experiences, emotional feelings, and personal distress. Zaki elaborates using this anecdote. He asks us to imagine we’re a senior in college, walking with a close friend to his apartment. On our way in he checks his mailbox, then freezes. He says, “Holy shit. This is it.” You know what he means. You’ve seen him work relentlessly for three years in hope of getting into medical school, and into one program in particular. He’s talked with you maybe thirty times since applying, alternately anxious, helpful, or both. You rush upstairs, and he opens the envelope. His face contorts, and you lean forward, for a moment not knowing whether he’s ecstatic or upset. It becomes apparent that he is not crying happy tears.

Zaki continues, “As your friend collapses into a heap, you might frown, slum, and even tear up yourself. Your mood will probably plummet. This is what empathy researchers call experience sharing: vicariously taking on the emotions we observe in others. Experience sharing is widespread—people “catch” one another’s facial expressions, bodily stress, and moods, both negative and positive. Our brains respond to each other’s experiences and thoughts as if we were experiencing those states ourselves.

Experience sharing is the closest we come to dissolving the boundary between self and other. It is empathy’s leading edge. It is evolutionary ancient, occurring in monkeys, mice, and even geese. It comes online early in life: Infants mimic each other’s cries and take on their mothers’ distress. And it occurs at lightning speed. Seeing your friend grimace, you might mimic his face in a fraction of a second.”

Experience sharing provided the foundation of empathy science. Before the word “empathy” existed philosophers such as Adam Smith described “sympathy,” or “fellow feeling” in ways that tightly match experience sharing. For instance Smith writes that “by changing places in fancy with the sufferer…we come to either conceive or to be affected by what he feels.” Zaki summarizes, “From ‘emotion contagion’ in psychology to mirroring in neuroscience, experience sharing has long been the most famous piece of empathy.”

A Single Shifting Mega-Organism

November 19, 2015

A single shifting mega-organism is how Dr. Eagleman describes our species in “The Brain.”  He does this because we are a social species, and an enormous amount of brain circuitry has to do with other brains.  Consequently  we have a new field of research, social neuroscience.  I would add that our shifting mega-organism includes not only the living, but also the dead.  Through the artifacts of technology, we can can learn from those who have passed away.  Information resident in technology and in our fellow human beings comes under the general rubric of transactive memory.

Throughout our lives, our brain circuitry decodes the emotions of others based on extremely subtle facial cues.  Research has shown that people viewing a photo of a smile or a frown, produced short periods of electrical activity  that indicated that their own facial muscles were moving, effectively mirroring the smile or frown that they were viewing.

There is a pain matrix in the brain where pain is processed.  The precipitating event activates different areas of the brain operating in concert to produce the feeling of pain.  When you watch someone in pain, the parts of your pain involved in the emotional experience of pain are also activated.  This provides the basis for empathy.  You literally feel the other person’s pain.  We are able to step out of our shoes and into the shoes of another, neurally speaking.  Empathy is an important skill.  Having a better grasp of what someone is feeling gives a better prediction about what they’ll do next.  This is true of social pain as well as physical pain.  Social pain activates the same brain regions as physical paint.

If empathy worked all the time, then we would be a much more functional species.  Unfortunately  this single shifting mega-organism  exhibits warfare between and sometimes among different parts.  Outgroups are identified for violence even when those outgroups are defenseless and pose no threat.  This violence has occurred throughout recorded history and likely before history was recorded.  Starting in 1915 more than a million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Turks (accurately portrayed in the movie “The Cut”).  The Japanese invaded China and killed hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians in 1937.  Then there was the infamous German killing of many millions of Jews in the holocaust during World War 2.  In 1994 the Hutus in Rwanda killed 800,000 Tutsis, many with machetes.  Between 1992 and 1995 during the Yugoslavian War over 100,000 Muslims were slaughtered in violent acts known as “ethnic cleansing.”  In Srebrenica over the course of ten days, 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were shot and killed after the United Nations commanders expelled them from the compound in which they had sought safety.  Women were raped, men were executed, and even children were killed.  Today we regularly see atrocities committed by ISIS.

Itzhak Fried, a neurosurgeon, has called these atrocities examples of Syndrome E (E for Evil).  Syndrome E is characterized by a diminished emotional reactivity, which allows repetitive acts of violence.  It includes hyperarousal, which is a feeling of elation in doing these acts.  There is group contagion.  Everyone is doing it, and it catches and spreads.   Compartmentalization exists in which one can care about his own family yet perform violence on someone else’s family.   This suggests that this is not a brain-wide change, but instead involves areas involved in emotion and empathy.  So a perpetrators choices are run by the parts of the brain that underlie logic, memory, and reasoning, but not the networks that involve emotional consideration of what it is like to be someone else.  According to Fried, this equates to moral disengagement.  People are no longer using the emotional systems that under normal circumstances steer their social decision making.

So, now we have a name and an explanation.  What is needed is a means of prevention or a cure!

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.