We Empathize, Therefore We Are: Toward A Moral Neuropolitics


You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions.

?F. B. M. de Waal


Empathy is the only human superpower—it can shrink distance, cut through social and power hierarchies, transcend differences, and provoke political and social change.

—Elizabeth Thomas


People in Third World countries think and laugh and smile, just like us.  We have got to understand that we are them; they are us.

—Rachel Corrie (as a 10-year-old)


The official directives needn’t be explicit to be well understood:  Do not let too much empathy move in unauthorized directions.

—Norman Solomon



In his magisterial study, The Slave Ship, maritime historian Marcus Rediker has documented the role played by emotional and especially visual appeals in ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Not unlike the structural violence endemic to global capitalism today, the abolitionist James Field Stanfield argued that the terrible truths of the slave trade "had been withheld from the public eye by every effort that interest, ingenuity, and influence, could devise"  (Rediker, 2007, p. 133).


Therefore, "Stanfield appealed to the immediate, visceral experience of the slave ship, over and against abstract knowledge about the slave trade, as decisive to abolition . . ." (p. 156).    The abolitionist’s most potent weapon was the dissemination of drawings of the slave ship Brooks.   Rediker asserts that these images were "to be among the most effective propaganda any social movement has ever created" (p. 308).


Based on recent findings from neuroscience we can plausibly deduce that the mirror neurons of the viewer were engaged by these images of others suffering.  The appeal was to the public’s awakened sense of compassion and revulsion toward graphic depictions of the wholesale violence, barbarity, and torture routinely practiced on these Atlantic voyages.  Rediker notes that the images would instantaneously "make the viewer identify and sympathize with the ‘injured Africans’ on the lower deck of the ship . . ." while also producing a sense of moral outrage (p. 315, Olson, 2008).


In our own day, the nonprofit Edge Foundation recently asked some of the world’s most eminent scientists, "What are you optimistic about?  Why?"  In response, the prominent neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni cited the proliferating experimental work into the neural mechanisms that reveal how humans are "wired for empathy."  This is the aforementioned discovery of the mirror neuron system or MNS.  The work shows that the same affective brain circuits are automatically mobilized upon feeling one’s own pain and the pain of others.


Iacoboni’s optimism is grounded in his belief that with the popularization of scientific insights, these findings in neuroscience will seep into public awareness and " . . . this explicit level of understanding of our empathic nature will at some point dissolve the massive belief systems that dominate our societies and that threaten to destroy us" (Iacoboni, 2007, p. 14).  Whether or not this occurs, Iacoboni’s prediction underscores the complex relationship between science and culture and social historian Margaret Jacob’s insight that "No institution is safe if people simply stop believing in the assumptions that justify its existence" (Jacoby, 1987, p.  ).  Iacoboni’s recent book, Mirroring People (2008a) and interviews (2008b) as well as Rizzolati and Sinigaglia’s Mirrors in the Brain (2008) promise to make this new work accessible to the lay public.  In similar fashion, Steven Pinker concludes a recent piece on the science of morality with these challenging but hopeful words from Anton Chekov, "Man will become better when you show him what he is like" (Pinker, 2008).


In 1996, through single cell recordings in macaque monkeys researchers reported the discovery of a class of brain cells dubbed "mirror neurons" (Gallese, 1996).  Located in area F5 of the premotor cortex, these mirror neurons fired not only when the monkey made an action, but also when the monkey was observing somebody else making the same action.  The monkey’s neurons were "mirroring" the activity she was observing.  Later on, by mapping regions of the human brain using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), it was discovered that human areas that presumably had mirror neurons also communicated with the brain’s emotional or limbic system, facilitating connection with another’s feelings, probably by mirroring those feelings.  This neural circuitry is presumed to be the basis of empathic behavior, in which actions in response to the distress of others are virtually instantaneous.  As Goleman puts it, "That this flow from empathy to action occurs with such automaticity hints at circuitry dedicated to this very sequence."  For example, in the case of hearing a child’s anguished scream, "To feel distress stirs an urge to help" (Goleman, 2006, p. 60).


The existence of mirror neurons was only inferred by these fMRI studies.  But in 2007, Iacoboni, the neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried and their associates at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), studied brain activity in people who had already been wired up by Fried who was attempting to uncover the origins of their epileptic seizures.  Through the insertion of electrodes into the frontal lobes, this team of scientists identified several mirror neurons that were activated by both performance and observation of an activity.


Valayanur Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) observes, "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 calls 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).


Giacomo Rizzolatti, one of the Italian neuroscientists who discovered mirror neurons, notes in his new book, Mirrors in the Brain (2008), that mirror neurons "show us how strong and deeply rooted is the bond that ties us to others, or in other words, how bizarre it would be to conceive of an I without an us."  This hardwired system is what permits us to "grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation by feeling, not by thinking" (Rizzolatti in Goleman, 2006).  Human and other primate brains have developed what Gallese terms embodied simulation, or the "experiential insight of other minds" allowing us to "pre-reflexively identify with others" (2004, 2007) so that the other becomes "another self."  (n.d. p. 9)  As Decety notes, empathy then allows us to "forge connections with people whose lives seem utterly alien from us" (Decety, 2006, p. 2).  Where comparable experience is lacking, this "cognitive empathy" builds on the neural basis and allows one to "actively project oneself into the shoes of another person" by trying to imagine the other person’s situation (Preston 2002; 2007).  Empathy is "other directed" and recognizes the other’s humanity.  Little wonder that some scientists believe the discovery of mirror neurons is the most significant neurological finding in decades, perhaps rivaling what the discovery of DNA was for biology (Ramachandran, 2006).


The neuroscience of empathy parallels investigations being undertaken in cognate fields but the subject matter itself has a long history.  The word "empathy" is a translation of the German word "Einfühlung," literally "in-feeling."  Gallese (n.d.) traces its initial use to 1858 when R. Lotze described the process by which humans relate to other species and inanimate objects.  While Dean (2004, p. 6) believes it was coined by Robert Vischner in 1872 to explain how humans interact with art objects.  It was the German philosopher Theodore Lipps (1903) who first introduced the term to psychology as "inner imitation."


Both the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud called attention to the importance of imagining oneself in another’s situation, in her person.  In Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments he uses the example of how one person reacts to another person suffering a beating:


"By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, . . . and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them . . . when we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm; and when it does not fall, we feel it in some measure, and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer (Smith, 1759/1976, pp. 9-10).


In Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, Freud wrote, ". . . it is only by empathy that we know the existence of psychic life other than our own."  (Freud, 1926, p. 104; Pigman, 1995)   Some forty years ago the celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall observed and wrote about chimpanzee emotions, social relationships, and "chimp culture," but experts remained highly skeptical.  A decade ago the famed primate scientist Frans B.M. de Waal (1996) wrote about the antecedents to morality in Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, but scientific consensus remained elusive.  All that’s changed.  As a recent editorial in the journal Nature (2007) put it, it’s now "unassailable fact" that human minds, including aspects of moral thought, are the product of evolution from earlier primates.  According to de Waal "You don’t hear any debate now."  In his more recent work, de Waal plausibly argues that the precursor to the sociality of human morality—including our capacity to empathize—is a natural outgrowth or inheritance of our closest nonhuman primate relatives.


Overwhelming evidence has been marshaled to support E.O. Wilson’s early claim that not only were selfish individuals sanctioned but "Compassion is selective and often ultimately self-serving" (Wilson, 1978).   Following Darwin, highly sophisticated studies by biologists Boyd and Richerson (2004; Hauser, 2006, p. 416) posit that large-scale cooperation within the human species—including with genetically unrelated individuals within a group—was favored by cultural selection.  Evolution selected for the trait of empathy because there were survival benefits in coming to grips with others.  In his book People of the Lake (1978), the world-renowned paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey unequivocally declares, "We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation."


Studies have shown that empathy is present in very young children, even at eighteen months of age and possibly younger.  In the primate world, Warneken and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute at Leipzig, Germany, recently found that chimps extend help to unrelated chimps and unfamiliar humans, even when inconvenienced and regardless of any expectation of reward.  This suggests that empathy may lie behind this natural tendency to help and that it was a factor in the social life of the common ancestor to chimpanzees and humans at the split some six million years ago (New Scientist, 2007; Warneken and Tomasello, 2006).  It’s now indisputable that we share moral faculties with other species (de Waal, 2006; Trivers, 1971; Katz, 2000; Gintis, 2005; Hauser, 2006; Bekoff, 2007; Pierce, 2007).  Pierce notes that there are "countless anecdotal accounts of elephants showing empathy toward sick and dying animals, both kin and non-kin (2007, p. 6).  And recent research in Kenya has conclusively documented elephant’s open grieving/empathy for other dead elephants.


Mogil and his team at McGill University recently demonstrated that mice feel distress when they observe other mice experiencing pain.  They tentatively concluded that the mice engaged visual cues to bring about this empathic response (Mogil, 2006; Ganguli, 2006).  De Waal’s response to this study:  "This is a highly significant finding and should open the eyes of people who think empathy is limited to our species" (Carey, 2006).


Additionally, Grufman and other scientists at the National Institutes of Health have offered persuasive evidence that altruistic acts activate a primitive part of the brain, producing a pleasurable response (2007).  And recent research by Koenigs and colleagues (2007) indicates that within the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or VMFC is required for emotions and moral judgment.  Damage to the VMFC has been linked to psychopathic behavior and individuals with psychopathic tendencies present significant empathic impairment  (Blair, 2005, pp. 53-56).


More specifically for my purpose, Damasio (2007, p. 6 and also Adolphs et al., 2000), cites lesion studies and functional imaging evidence indicating that the ability to put oneself "in someone else’s shoes" is precluded by damage to the insular cortex.  Finally a study by Miller (2001) and colleagues of the brain disorder frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is also instructive.  FTD attacks the frontal lobes and anterior temporal lobes, the site of one’s sense of self.  One early sympton of FTD is the loss of empathy and the brain wave activity of mirror neurons in individuals with autism reveals misfiring.


Prefiguring the argument to follow, here I distinguish individual "moral" misbehavior, a syndrome Damasio termed acquired sociopathic personality (2007, p. 6; 1990; 1994) from what I’m labeling a societal-wide culturally induced empathy disorder having structural roots.  In a capitalist society, this impaired empathy dimension of sociopathy becomes normal behavior, an adaptive survival strategy that is rewarded under the prevailing rules (Lindsay, R. 2008; Knight-Jadczyk, 2003).  Obviously this begs several questions which will be taken up below.  [Parenthetically, the leading authority on psychopathic behavior cautions that individual "[P]sychopaths have little difficulty infiltrating the domains of business, politics, law enforcement, government,’ academic and other social structures" (Hare, 1996 p. 40; Cleckley, 1941)].


Again, while there are reasons to remain skeptical  about the progressive political implications flowing from this recent work, a body of impressive empirical evidence reveals that the roots of prosocial behavior, including moral sentiments like empathy, precede the evolution of culture.  To reiterate, the neurophysiological data strongly suggests that morality is grounded in biology.  As Greene contends, it’s not "handed down" from on high by religious authorities or philosophers but "handed up" as a consequence of the brain’s evolutionary processes (Greene in Vedantam, 2007).


This work sustains Noam Chomsky’s visionary writing about a human moral instinct and his assertion that, while the principles of our moral nature have been poorly understood, "we can hardly doubt their existence or their central role in our intellectual and moral lives" (Chomsky, 1971, n.p., 1988; 2005, p. 263).


In his influential book Mutual Aid (1972, p. 57; 1902), the Russian revolutionary anarchist, geographer, and naturalist Petr Kropotkin, maintained that ". . . under any circumstances sociability is the greatest advantage in the struggle for life.  Those species which  willingly abandon it are doomed to decay."  Special cooperation provided an evolutionary advantage, a "natural" strategy for survival.


Kropotkin readily acknowledged the role of competition, but he asserted that mutual aid was a "moral instinct" and "natural law."  Based on his extensive studies of the animal world, he believed that this predisposition toward helping one another—human sociality—was of "prehuman origin."  Killen and Cords, in a fittingly titled piece "Prince Kropotkin’s Ghost," suggest that recent research in developmental psychology and primatology seems to vindicate Kropotkin’s century-old assertions (2002).


Finally, in her recent study on the origins of human rights, historian Lynn Hunt hypothesizes that certain eighteenth century novels were an important factor in expanding a sense of psychological identification with others, what she terms an "imagined empathy."  This physical experience in the human mind led directly to the concept of universal human rights because "For human rights to become self-evident, ordinary people had to have new kinds of understanding that came from new kinds of feelings."  (Hunt, 2007, p. 34)  She cites, in particular, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-48) and Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise (1761).  She concludes that ". . . you know the meaning of human rights because you feel distressed when they are violated" (p. 214).


So where does this leave us?  If morality is rooted in biology, in the raw material or building blocks for the evolution of its expression, we now have a pending fortuitous marriage of hard science and secular morality in the most profound sense.  The technical details of the social neuroscientific analysis supporting these assertions lie outside this paper, but suffice it to note that progress is proceeding at an exponential pace, the new discoveries are persuasive (Iacoboni, 2008a, 2008b; Lamm, 2007; Jackson, 2006) and our understanding of empathy has increased dramatically in barely a decade.


That said, one of the most vexing problems that remains to be explained is why so little progress has been made in extending this empathic orientation to distant lives, to those outside certain in-group moral circles.  That is, 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.  Iacoboni suggests this disjuncture is explained by massive belief systems, including political and religious ones, operating on the reflective and deliberate level.  As de Waal reminds us, evolutionarily, empathy is the original starting point out of which sprang culture and language.  But over time, the culture filters and influences how empathy evolves and is expressed (de Waal, 2007, p. 50).   These belief systems tend to override the automatic, pre-reflective, neurobiological traits that should bring people together.  Iacoboni hypothesizes the presence of what he labels super mirror neurons in the frontal lobe area of the brain.  These more complex, highly developed super mirror neurons may control the so-called lower-level or classic neurons.  In Iacoboni’s words "The super mirror concept blends the idea of specialized cells for actions (mirror neurons) and some executive control within the mirror neuron system.  So, in my view, super mirror neurons are strongly influenced by culture BECAUSE they are a special type of mirror neurons" (Personal communication, 5/6/08).

This research—arguably the apex of the cutting edge of neuroscience work today—is in the preliminary stages but further investigation might suggest how cognitive resistance works to sort, inhibit or otherwise modulate neurophysiological responses.

Again, empathic capacity is hardwired, involuntary and unconscious, but this need not imply a prosocial response.  Long ago, Aristotle argued that compassion (empathy) required knowing that another is undergoing serious suffering; that it is not that person’s fault; and that we could be that other person.

Neuroscience has confirmed the first condition but the two remaining ones involve cognitive empathy.  A generally accepted definition is the "deliberate attempt to willfully imagine what it is like to be in the emotional situation of another person" (Preston, 2007).

Whether emotional cognitive empathy is acted upon largely depends on top-down modulating mechanisms including cultural norms (see below), opinions, beliefs and states of mind.  Social neuroscience points to four specific factors:  prior knowledge about those in need; negative emotional priming; prior experience with those in distress; and finally, affective and cognitive predisposition towards "the other" (Decety and Jackson, 2004).

Preston restates the experience factor as similar past experience—representation from comparable situations—as playing a critical role in the level of intensity, accuracy and willingness to offer help (Preston, 2007).  The exact mechanisms remain elusive and warrant further study but it seems indisputable that the affective state in all these examples can be externally generated.


Hence a few cautionary notes are warranted.  The first is that social context and triggering conditions are critical because, where there is conscious and massive elite manipulation, it becomes exceedingly difficult to get in touch with our moral faculties.  Ervin Staub, a pioneering investigator in the field, acknowledges that even if empathy is rooted in nature, people will not act on it ". . . unless they have certain kinds of life experiences that shape their orientation toward other human beings and toward themselves (Staub, 2002, p. 222).  As Jensen puts it, "The way we are educated and entertained keep us from knowing about or understanding the pain of others" (2002).  Circumstances may preclude and overwhelm our perceptions, rendering us incapable of recognizing and giving expression to moral sentiments (Albert, n.d.; and also, Pinker, 2002).  For example, the fear-mongering of artificially created scarcity may attenuate the empathic response of putting oneself in another’s emotional state.  Recent studies suggest that ". . . affective dispositions, or attitudes, differ depending on whether the other is seen as a competitor or a cooperator, and in turn influence whether we react with a congruent or a non-congruent emotion to another’s affect."  That is, competitive relationships tend toward counter-empathic responses (Decety and Lamm, 2006).

The limitations placed on exposure to powerful images that might stir deep emotions within the American public is another.  We can extrapolate from Hodges and Klein’s (2001) research on "exposure control" in individuals.  The surest way to avoid being drawn in by empathic triggers is to avoid exposure in the first place because "After exposure has occurred, attempts to restore oneself to a pre-exposure state are effortful and often ineffective."  Ideological gatekeepers understand the influential role played by emotion in individual moral thought, judgment and finally, action.  This is because "Images transcend language and geographic region, and they are able to strike instantly at the very heart of the viewer" (Pizzaro, Detweiler, and Bloom, 2006, p. 91).  And "[I]t is widely believed that images returning from photographers and camera crews in Vietnam contributed substantially to the outrage of American citizens, which ultimately brought an end to the Vietnam war" (p. 91)  By contrast, media coverage of the Gulf War of 1991 was so sanitized and tightly controlled that reality never intruded on the public’s perception of events.  For example, the infamous "turkey shoot" of fleeing Iraqi soldiers and the burying alive of others still remains off-limits and largely unknown in terms of public awareness  (Eldridge, 2005).  The recent destruction of CIA videotapes showing the torture of prisoners is another.  Landstuhle regional medical center in Germany, which routinely receives grotesquely maimed soldiers from Iraq, is off-limits for photos and reporters are closely monitored by military escorts.  And we know the Pentagon forbids media photo coverage of the remains of soldiers departing from Ramstein Air Base in Germany or coffins returning to Dover, Delaware.  (Tami Silco, who took the now-famous photo of 20 flag-draped coffins leaving Kuwait, lost her job.)  Coverage of memorial services for the fallen are also forbidden even if the unit gives its approval.

One might argue that Americans have become collectively inured into somnolence but Sabrina Harmon’s hundreds of photos from Abu Ghraib, including the now-iconic image of a hooded and wired figure standing on a box, are all that stood in the way of the government’s desire to see this crime and cover-up concealed from the public.  Harmon said she took the stomach-turning photographs of abuse and humiliation because "I was trying to expose what was being allowed, what the military was allowing to happen to other people."  For her efforts, Harmon was prosecuted, convicted and sent to prison.

And in April, 2008, The Washington Post published a photo of two-year-old Ali Hussein being pulled from the rubble of his house in Baghdad after it had been struck by a U.S. 200-pound guided missile.  The child later died at a hospital.  This was the first image of its kind published in a major U.S. newspaper.  Again, this is a case where not only do affect and cognitive elaboration merge but the initial emotional experience for the viewer prompts more sophisticated reasoning.  Ultimately this produces a more nuanced moral sentiment and efficacious response.  In sum, if the truth of America‘s five-year-long occupation of Iraq were revealed, public shame and moral outrage would generate an empathic voice crying out for cessation (Olson, 2008). 

Conversely, the virtually ubiquitous feedback loop of the towers falling on September 11 tended to create a feeling within the viewer that she was in fact falling, producing both identification with falling victims and a powerful sense of fear of "terrorism" (Lakoff, 2001).


The second cautionary note is Hauser’s (2006) observation that proximity was undoubtedly a factor in the expression of empathy.  In our evolutionary past an attachment to the larger human family was virtually incomprehensible and therefore the emotional connection was lacking.  Joshua Greene, a philosopher and neuroscientist, adds that "We evolved in a world where people in trouble right in front of you existed, so our emotions were tuned to them, whereas we didn’t face the other kind of situation."  He suggests that to extend this immediate emotion-linked morality—one based on fundamental brain circuits—to unseen victims requires paying less attention to intuition and more to the cognitive dimension.  If this boundary isn’t contrived, it would seem, at a minimum, circumstantial and thus worthy of reassessing morality (Greene, 2007, n.p.).  Given some of the positive dimensions of globalization, the potential for identifying with the "stranger" has never been more auspicious.


As noted by filmmaker Ben Henretig, distribution of video on the internet (including YouTube) offers an unparalleled online platform for engendering empathy and action.  "You can view, surreptitiously, police brutality in Egypt (exposed by Egyptian bloggers), protest violence in China, or even a plea to stop housing demolition in New Orleans" (Henretig, 2008).  "The Hub," a grassroots, participatory global website sponsored by the human rights organization WITNESS, now reaches people in over 80 nations.


But not in every case.  Carlisle (2007) notes that through the use of technology (including long-range killing and new types of training) the military has attempted to desensitize and circumvent the n

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