Mike Bailey

Wired to Care - Will Neuroscience Prove Jesus Right?

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Humans, like the apes we evolved from, are social creatures. Cooperation has given survival advantages to our species. One interesting aspect of our wiring is empathy. It’s been argued that this involves mirror neurons, which fire both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Whatever the cause, we feel other peoples feelings and therefore share in the benefits when we make someone feel better. Conversely, causing someone distress should give us unpleasant feelings. This seems like a simple yet effective system for social regulation that doesn’t require modern (human) innovations like verbal language, law or religion.

So how can people still be cruel to other people if they’re going to feel their emotions? Did we evolve a way to selectively shutdown this mechanism? If your tribe was under attack, surely it would be advantageous if your warriors could suppress empathic responses just long enough to beat your enemies to a pulp. You would want them to be re-enabled once the threat has gone though!

I think we have built in empathy circuit breakers that get activated when we see people we dislike. There may be other ways to suppress empathy such as “just following orders” but it’s the identification of people as bad or an enemy that has me curious. Is this a major contributor to cruelty and callousness from otherwise kind individuals? Do we become ‘selectively psychopathic’ by shutting down an important part our ‘humanity’?

Some advice I always had trouble comprehending was “love your enemies”. It may turn out to be another way of saying, “don’t disable your empathic mechanisms”. While this may not be helpful advice for a soldier on a battlefield, it’s probably good advice for us in our schools, workplaces and social gatherings.

I suspect a way to achieve this is not view anyone you deal with as ‘bad guys’ which reminds me of another quote attributed to Jesus, “Do not judge others”.

There seems to be a fair bit of research going into modulation of empathic responses. I suspect there’s a significant difference between the response of males and females to seeing a person being punished for wrongdoing.  In the TV show The Shield, it’s made very clear to you who the bad guy is in each episode and he usually gets a pounding by the end of it. My dad used to enjoy shows like The Professionals when I was a kid but my mum found the violence distressing. I wonder whether males, being the ones who probably had to defend the camp, developed the ability to ‘reverse the polarity’ on their empathic circuits and actually gain pleasure from seeing ‘bad guys’ suffer?

Perhaps avoiding the human tendency to judge others unfavourably can help us avoid triggering a survival mechanism which doesn’t have a place in modern society and in doing so, allow us to act better toward one another.

Jesus must have given this a lot of thought.