Empathy & Neuropolitics



          Mirror neurons, the brain cells believed to be the basis for empathy, have recently been identified in the human brain.  And yet we’re left to explain the disjuncture between this deep-seated, pre-reflective, moral intuition and the paucity of actual empathic behavior, especially in certain cultures.  I suggest that answers may be found in the bidirectional connection between culture and brain development.


          The political theorist William Connolly has defined neuropolitics as “. . . the politics through which cultural life mixes into the composition of the body/brain process.  And vice versa.”  In this context, I hypothesize that the neo-liberal ideology justifying free market capitalism is one of the most potent empathy “bracketing off” elements of that culture and hybrid cultural/neurobiological imprinting can override the neurobiological traits that should bring people together.  The dominant culture’s social engineering undermines and attenuates both the acceptance and institutionalization of empathy on a grand scale, while channeling its expression toward system maintenance behaviors.


          There are outstanding exceptions, but too many cultural psychologists and other subspecialists have followed too many anthropologists in failing to unpack the meaning of culture itself.  Following Gramsci, I argue that power and class realities have not received sufficient attention in explaining what I’ve described as a societal-wide cultural deficit disorder.  This pathological condition has structural roots in the socio-economic system which influence the brain’s mirror neuron network.  Cross-cultural studies offer a promising avenue for aiding our understanding of this process.




          “Mirror neurons,” the brain cells many neuroscientists believe are the basis for empathy, were discovered in macaque monkeys in 1996 (Gallese, 1996; Iacoboni, 2008, 2009; Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia, 2008).  Located in area F5 of the premotor cortex, these neurons fired not only when the monkey performed an action but also when it was watching the same action.  The monkey’s neurons were “mirroring” the activity she was observing.


          Later, the existence of mirror neurons in the human brain was strongly inferred by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) but proof remained elusive.  Now, for the first time, we have direct recorded evidence for their presence.  Roy Mukamel and colleagues (Mukamel et al., 2010) recorded their data from the medial frontal and temporal cortices in 21 patients (with their consent) awaiting surgery for intractable epileptic seizures at UCLA’s Medical Center.  The researchers “piggybacked” onto intracranial depth electrodes implanted into the patient’s brains as part of a search for a potential surgical treatment.  The research team recorded activity in 1,177 neurons in the 21 patients and concluded that “these findings suggest the existence of multiple systems in the brain endowed with neural mirroring mechanisms for flexible integration and differentiation of the perceptual and motor aspects of actions performed by self and others.”


          The mirror neurons in the same affective brain circuits are automatically mobilized upon feeling one’s own pain and the pain of others and this neural circuitry is the basis of empathic behavior in which actions in response to the distress of others is virtually instantaneous.  Valayanur Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) observes that “We used to say, metaphorically, that ‘I can feel another’s pain,’ but now we know that my mirror neurons can literally feel your pain” (Slack, 2007).  Ramachandran, who terms them “empathy neurons” or “Dalai Lama neurons,” writes that “In essence the neuron is part of a network that allows you to see the world from the other person’s point of view, hence the name ‘mirror neuron’” (Ramachandran, 2006).  Where comparable experience is lacking, “cognitive empathy” allows one to “actively project oneself into the shoes of another person” by trying to imagine the other person’s situation (Preston, 2002; Preston et al., 2007; Singer & Lamm, 2009).  This “ability to perceive, appreciate, and respond to the affective states of another” emerges as early as two years of age as the child becomes aware of another’s emotional experience (Decety and Michalska, 2009; Decety, 2008; Decety et. al., 2008; Tomasello, 2009)).


          The roots of prosocial behavior, including moral sentiments like empathy, precede the evolution of culture and serve a critical evolutionary function.  Mirroring was selected by evolution because of its adaptive advantage in making some intersubjectivity possible, the effortless and automatic access to other minds.


          We now have a wealth of evidence suggesting that empathy, the foundation for morality, was not handed down from on high via social codes from religious authorities and philosophers but constructed from the “bottom-up” (Green in Vedantum, 2007; de Waal, 2008, 2009; Tomasello, 2009; Tangney, et al., 2007; and Iacoboni, 2009).  And if morality is based in biology, in the raw material for the evolution of its expression, the case can be made for a fortuitous marriage of hard science and secular morality.  I should quickly acknowledge that mirror neuron research is not without its skeptics (Dinstein et al., 2008; Lippard, 2009; Virona, 2009, and Hickok, 2009) and the technical details supporting my assertions largely lie outside this paper.  But progress is proceeding at an exponential pace, new discoveries are persuasive, and our understanding of empathy has increased dramatically in barely a decade (Gallese, Eagle and Migone, 2007; Gallese, 2008; Iacoboni, 2008, 2009; Decety and Lamm, 2009).  What follows is some theoretical speculation that places empathy within the entwined context of neural activity, culture and political economy.


Your Brain on Culture


          I’ve been pondering the nature of empathy for over two decades, initially as a pedagogical challenge and later, given advances in neuroscience as a broader field of inquiry (Olson, 1987, 2008).  And for me, one of the most vexing questions that remains to be explained, and the burden of this paper is to ask why, if “. . . we are not alone, but are biologically wired and evolutionarily designed to be deeply interconnected with one another” (Iacoboni, 2008, p. 266), so little progress has been made in extending this empathic orientation toward distant lives, to those outside certain in-group moral circles?  Given a world rife with overt and structural violence, one is forced to explain why our deep-seated moral intuition doesn’t produce a more ameliorating effect, a more peaceful world?


          Echoing Dominguez (2006), I’m proposing that reality is a social construction and therefore “We should find that the brain would have some sort of bias acquired through exposure to culture.”  Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni (2007, 2008, 2009), arguably the world’s preeminent authority on mirror neurons, suggests this disjuncture can be explained in part by massive belief systems, including political and religious ones.  I hypothesize below that the neo-liberal ideology justifying global free market capitalism is one of the most powerful of these empathy-shaping belief systems, especially as manifested in cultures like the United States.  Over time, the culture filters and influences how empathy evolves and is expressed (de Waal, 2007, p. 50).  These belief systems can override the automatic, neurobiological traits that should bring people together, leaving selective moral amnesia in their wake.


          Some twenty-five years ago, Lewontin, Rose and Kamin (1984) foregrounded a bi-directional link between culture and biology when they wrote, “humanity cannot be cut adrift from its own biology, but neither is it enchained by it.”  Prophetically, they foretold that “our task . . . is to point the way toward an integrated understanding of the relationship between the biological and the social” (cited by Wexler, 2006, p. 13; Tooby and Cosmides, 1992).  It follows that our approach must eschew privileging either brain or culture.  In the first instance, Slaby (2010) warns of the dangers inherent in neuronal reductionism, a sort of “brainhood ideology” (Vidal, 2009) that essentializes the cerebral subject, while an exclusive focus on the social steers us into the cul-de-sac of hyper-cultural reductionism.  Cromby (2007) wisely points toward “hybridity,” an appreciation of the intertwining of “mind-body-world” which mandates an interdisciplinary inquiry.


          Pioneers in the new fields of neuroanthropology (Downey and Lende, 2009; Dominguez et al., 2009) and cultural neuroscience (Chiao, 2009; Chiao et al., 2009; Han & Northoff, 2008) demonstrate in their recent work how a careful and critical synthesis of findings and approaches can further our understanding of this complex subject.


          Bearing this in mind, it’s no longer debatable that culture has a measurable influence on the brain.  Work by Chiao and colleagues (2008) at Northwestern University and in Japan points toward specific cultural priming (beliefs, values and practices) that modulates neural activity within the anterior rostral portion of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and posterior cingulated cortex (PCC).  Initial findings, including some on empathy, are intriguing and at the apex of neuroscience research.  Recent studies using fMRI and magneto-ecephalography (MEG) have established that cultural constructs shape the microstructure of the brain and this culturing of the neural signature begins in early childhood and continues into adolescence and early adulthood (Choudhury, 2009; Choudhury and Kirmayer, 2009; Turner and Whitehead, 2008).


          This is complemented by a recent review of culture-in-the-brain studies (Dominguez et al., 2009) from the aforementioned fledgling discipline of neuroanthropology which substantiates that cultural experience influences virtually all critical brain areas; shapes and determines neural patterns; affects brain structure; and modulates cognitive function.  At least until early adulthood (Wexler, 2006) our brains are shaping themselves in response to significant and repetitive sensory stimulation from the surrounding environment.  Thereafter the brain and mind seek to create congruence between external realities and these newly existing internal structures and there is more resistance to change.  I’m mindful not to caricature Hebb’s rule (1949) that “The neurons that fire together wire together” but his prescient emphasis on the roles of repetition and synoptic plasticity draw our attention to the critical role of culture’s neurobiological imprinting.


The Cultural Regulation of Emotion


          We can now begin to consider the mechanisms at the structural level of deep enculturation or societal engagement that mediate changes in our plastic brain.  Transcultural neuro-imaging offers a promising avenue for aiding our understanding of how specific cultural spaces are navigated (Malafouris, 2010) and cultural neuroscience reveals substantial variation across cultures in terms of how individuals perceive social situations, understand themselves (as selves) and others.  The differences attributable to cultural mediation are significant (Chiao, et al., 2010; 2009; Chiao, et al., 2008), Choudhury and Kirmayer, 2009; Molnar-Szakacs, et al., 2007a, 2007b and Lieberman, 2007).  For example, imaging studies (Hedden, et al., 2008; Han and Northoff, 2008) show that East Asian and Westerners engage in different visual processing activities and their cultural experience “sculps the perceptual brain.”  It isn’t that people from different cultures perceive the world differently, “. . . but they think differently about what they see” (Gabrielli, 2008).  These differences also include variations in terms of encouraging and sanctioning emotion—expressive behavior on the one hand and suppressing and otherwise inhibiting that response on the other.  Studies (Gazzaniga, 2005) suggest that when a person is unwilling to act on a moral belief, the emotional part of her or his brain has not been activated.  As Butler (2007) and colleagues note, these habitual practices reflect dominant cultural values.


          This is particularly germane for this discussion because human beings live in specific cultural environments, settings neither of their own choosing nor, in C. Geertz’s words,  “independent of time, place, and circumstances.”  The fact that empathy is a universal hard-wired response “in no way negates the cultural constitution of emotion” (Mesquita & Leu, 2007).  Put another way, the encultured brain moderates an individual’s regulation of emotion, including the very knowledge structures that are drawn upon in automatically reacting to various emotion-evoking situations (Kitayama et al., 2004; Mauss et al., 2008; Sherman et al., 2009).  A recent collection of articles on emotion regulation adopts this definition:


The process by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience them and express these emotions (Gross, 1998, p. 275).


The editors are quick to acknowledge that emotion regulation is a bio-cultural process.  How emotions are expressed depends on socio-cultural context, on the requirements and demands within a specific environment.  Further, they argue that emotions are “already regulated prior to their actual elicitation . . .” under conditions of “automatic emotion regulation” (p. 4).


          Hochschild’s (1979, 1983, 2003a, 2003b) path-breaking social theory of emotion asks us to consider the estrangement, specifically the emotional costs to the self, inherent in the management of emotions like empathy.  For example, one cultural response under free-market capitalism’s ideology is to privatize “our idea of care” (2003b, p. 216).  Elites shape the cultural image of care/empathy toward minimizing the emotional needs of others and this closely corresponds to the idea of American rugged individualism.  Emotions are “impaired when the private management of feeling is socially engineered and transformed into emotional labor for a wage (2003, p. x).  Of course, as Hochschild adds, even then “It takes a vigorous emotional effort to repress the wish to care. . . .” (2003b, p. 221).


          The dominant culture’s social engineering allows for and even encourages individual expressions of empathy, including volunteerism.  And it’s precisely because one-on-one volunteerism—whether in shelters, soup kitchens or women’s centers—only treats the symptoms and not the sources, that it’s a culturally sanctioned and channeled form of highly personal empathic behavior.  Charity would be another example.  This bracketing off is entirely in keeping with the dominant ideology, poses no threats, and functions to attenuate the acceptance and institutionalization of social empathy on a grand scale.


          To reiterate, ample evidence from numerous studies (Henrich and Henrich, 2007, pp. 27-31) demonstrates that cultural learning via imitation from modeled behavior is the most powerful means through which both children and adults learn to practice altruistic behavior.  But this vital cultural transmission is generally limited to modeling individual acts of generosity.


Gramsci’s Politics and the Encultured Brain


          Prefiguring the argument to follow, Poder (2008) perhaps comes as close as anyone in highlighting the role of political power in the dynamics of emotional expression and regulation.  His specific focus is more limited and explores anger over reorganization within a corporate culture, but in drawing upon Campbell’s earlier work (1997) Poder states what should be obvious but is too often ignored:  “Individuals are not sovereign beings determining their own feelings and how they can express themselves” (p. 295).  A great deal depends on others’ interpretation—invalidation or positive recognition—of one’s emotional expression.  Poder reminds us that these “feeling rules” are being shaped by ideology and class.


          Here I’m comfortable introducing what political theorist William Connolly (2002) describes as “. . . politics through which cultural life mixes into the composition of body/brain process.  And vice versa.”  (To my knowledge Connolly was the first political scientist to employ the term neuropolitics although he doesn’t explore the mirror neuron/empathy link in his erudite inquiry.)  Choudhury and Kirmayer (2009, pp. 264-5) astutely and refreshingly extend this notion by placing culture in the context of globalization.  They propose a promising research agenda with implications extending far beyond their immediate concerns with psychopathology and strengthening scientific approaches to psychiatry:  “How do culturally mediated developmental experiences influence subsequent emotion regulation and expression?”  This in turn begs two additional and closely related questions, ones that neuroscience and its proliferating spawn of neuro-subfields have failed to explore, namely:  “How did the cultural information get into the brain in the first place? (Losin et al., 2009, p. 175), and what are the implications for our understanding of empathy?”  An impressive body of evidence now supports the proposition that the human mirror system is at the epicenter of this cultural learning and there is every reason to assume that robust, cross-cultural (well-funded) studies collecting neuro-imaging data will enhance an empirically informed theory about its operation.


          By my reading, too many cultural psychologists have followed too many neuro-anthropologists (and vice versa) in failing to unpack the meaning of culture itself.  To the extent that conventional anthropology has explained culture as consisting primarily of a self-sustaining, neutral transmission of beliefs, values, mores and laws passed down through generations, it fails to illuminate the conscious and active invention of culture by institutions serving particular interests.  Here the work of Antonio Gramsci, an early twentieth-century Italian Marxist, is the essential primer and his classic analysis of cultural hegemony can be enormously helpful in moving the investigation forward.  Kate Crehan (2002), an anthropologist herself, takes pains to clarify that for Gramsci culture includes, but is not limited to, how class realities are experienced by members of a specific community, and how members of that cultural milieu come to understand their world, “their lived experience.”1


          Gramsci is not a dogmatic, economic reductionist and consistently stresses the organic nature of culture.  However, he was insistent that “. . . ultimately the most important question is that of power:  Who has the power and who does not?  Who is the oppressor and who is oppressed?  And what are the specificities of the relation of oppression?” (p. 6).  For Gramsci, the dominant class culture embodies its worldview even as that perspective assumes the everyday status of common sense.  Given this reality, political scientist Michael Parenti (1999,  p. 13) cautions us that “. . . whenever anyone offers culturistic explanations for social phenomena, we should be skeptical.”  Why?  Because cultural explanations are closer to tautologies than explanations.  Culture itself is what needs to be explained (Parenti, 2006).  However, it should be understood that these cultural narratives, while powerful, are not hermetically sealed from challenges.  Efforts to produce counter-narratives constitute contested cultural terrain, and this was the ongoing struggle to which Gramsci devoted so much of his life’s work.


          Finally, in that context, there would seem to be a cautionary note here for scientists as intellectuals.  Crehan argues “Gramsci’s concern is always with the process by which power is produced and reproduced or transformed and how intellectuals fit within this rather than with individual intellectuals themselves” (p. 143).  A cultural neuroscience or neuro-anthropology that fails to account for class will have, at best, no explanatory value and, at worst, further obfuscate reality under the guise of value-free scientific inquiry.


Through the Mind’s Mirror, Darkly


          Again, the quandary is why there is such a paucity of real-world empathic behavior, especially in the United States?  If only some 4 percent of the U.S. population can be classified as sociopaths—individuals utterly incapable of empathy—what accounts for a mass culture characterized by an empathy disorder of virtually pathological proportions?  (Studies reveal substantially less incidence of sociopathy in some East Asian countries with percentages ranging from 0.03 percent to 0.14 percent, conditions warranting a follow-up study of its own.)


          I’m proposing that future research pursue Goldschmidt’s (1999) observation that “Culturally derived motives may replace, supplement or override genetically programmed behavior.”  The mirror mechanism, a hard-wired biological mechanism, minus positive cultural nurturing, is unlikely to flourish (Rizzolatti and Craighero, 2006).  For example, studies on attachment theory and emotion regulation (Shaver, et al., 2008) suggests links between attachment security and pro-social behavior, including self-transcendent values and empathy.


          An enhanced sense of security correlates with being sensitive to other’s needs and a willingness to engage in pro-social responsive behavior.  Conversely we know that empathy is less likely to manifest itself under conditions of attachment insecurity because the individual is more likely to be self-absorbed, personally distressed, and empathically unavailable.  These avoidant individuals fear being “sucked in” by empathy and compassion, not only because of the “hassle” but because people in need bring out their own feelings of personal distress (Shaver, et al., pp. 135-136).  A study on the negative consequences of neo-liberal economic policy in Latin America concluded that an empathic orientation may be crowded out when people are preoccupied with personal needs, insecure, and fearful about tomorrow (Vilas, 1997).  To me it seems entirely plausible that culturally-driven psychological insecurity could weigh as heavily as material deprivation.  Ervin Staub, a pioneering investigator in the field, makes the case that even if empathy is hardwired, people will not act on “. . . unless they have certain kinds of life experiences that shape their orientation toward other human beings and toward themselves” (Staub, 2002, p. 222).


          The role of socio-cultural variables in influencing psychopathology (Marsella and Yamada, 2007) is now accepted, and I’m proposing here that it would be instructive to examine whether certain pathogenic cultural factors explain the etiology of what I’ve tentatively labeled a societal empathy deficit disorder (SEDD).  In their well-documented discussion of psychopathy as a disorder characterized by callousness and lack of empathy, Blair and Blair (2009) discuss the existence of a population that has been subject to insufficient moral socialization.  Such individuals reveal an absence of empathic response to the distress of others, an impaired reaction to “moral transgressions.”  What is striking here, at least to me, is the ascription of these behaviors to a subset of outliers and not to the larger society, the implicit message being that the latter’s everyday behavior is well within the “normal” range.


          That is, highly competitive societies optimize the behavior of genetically-based, primary sociopaths.  In her book, The Sociopath Next Door, psychologist Martha Stout argues that American culture’s celebration of extreme individualism and “me-first” thinking reinforces anti-social behavior in the United States, including an increasing incidence of primary sociopathy.  If, as suspected, cold and calculating individuals devoid of empathy are represented in higher numbers at the upper levels of business, media, and politics, we can assume these values will become the cultural norm.  Therefore, under a pathological capitalist culture, psychopathy is a successful adaptive behavior for secondary sociopaths intent on getting ahead in society (Mealey, 1995).


          Setting aside the genetic, permanent condition for the moment, I’m drawing attention to effective or secondary sociopaths whose empathy deficit is more a product of environmental circumstances (Mealey, 1995).  The terminology remains stubbornly imprecise but we might extrapolate from what Damasio (1990, 1994, 2007) labeled an acquired sociopathic personality when referencing individuals.  Here I’ve described it as an empathy-challenged personality condition having structural roots in the socio-economic system.  This incongruity between our substrate of empathy and the external environment significantly contributes to the creation of empathy-suppressed individuals because the culture virtually requires the methodical bracketing off of empathy.  It’s less a foreclosure and more a question of to whom is empathy directed.  As a result, we habitually violate our biological moral compass (Tollberg, 2007; Johnson, 2005) and secondary sociopathy not only becomes normal behavior but a necessary, rewarded adaptive behavior under the aforementioned “feeling rules” (Lindsay, 2008; Miller, 1999, p. 45). The primate scientist Frans de Waal succinctly captures the system-maintenance function of contrived callousness when he asserts, “You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions (de Waal, 2007).  Miller (1999) goes a step further by adding, “It may not be strictly necessary to be a sociopath in order to be in a position of power in society, but the rules of the game require doing a good imitation of one.”


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