In a book just published, Zero Degrees of Empathy, professor Simon Baron-Cohen suggests that evil is best understood as being a lack of empathy rather than the presence of something else. In an interview in the New Scientist, he explains how he set out to understand how people could do terrible things to each other. After years of study, he’s concluded that it’s partly down to cultural norms that tell you what’s okay to do to someone else and partly down to how about 10 circuits in the brain that he calls the ‘empathy circuit’ work.
He suggests that we all have different degrees of empathy, that differences between us exist for all sorts of reasons and that our early childhood experience plays a big part in helping us feel safe and secure in the world.
Empathy is really important because it is the thing we have in ourselves that actually stops us from doing harm to others. We feel sympathy when we feel for someone, but empathy means that we are literally feeling what they feel. If we can feel for ourselves the hurt that we cause others, we are less likely to do anything that causes them pain of any kind.
Empathy is absolutely crucial to society and of course is one of the great spiritual qualities. Shaman have always told us that we are all connected, quantum physics might tell us that science agrees this is so, but empathy lets us feel it for ourselves. And now there is scientific proof that we really are all connected.
If you get a chance, follow the link at the bottom of this article and watch this fascinating Ted talk by neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran about mirror neurones. We all have motor neurones at the front of our brain that fire up when we perform an action, such as pulling a lever, according to what we are actually doing. The big discovery came when scientists realised that some of those neurones would also fire up in our brains when someone did something in front of us. In other words, if you reach for an apple in front of me, some of the motor neurones that would fire up if I reached for an apple (or anything else!) would spark up in my brain!
This process of what happens in the brain between people is called Mirror Neurones. Ramachandran thinks that these have played a huge role in evolution, and especially the evolution of culture, as this means that if I develop a new skill and do it in front of you, just watching me puts your brain in rehearsal for actually doing it yourself.
More importantly, Ramachandran talks about some of the same neurones firing up in our brains when we watch someone else being touched that would fire up if we were being touched. He says that if we then block the receptors that tell the brain that it’s not actually us being touched, we have no way of knowing who is being touched. We only feel what others are feeling. That’s why he’s nicknamed them Gandhi neurones, because they essentially link us all together.
What that means is that even though we are individuals, our connection to the whole is just as important to the nature of our very existence. In fact, our brain is hard wired to link into the whole to a point where we actually need other circuits to remind us that we are separate! As Ramachandran says, the absolute scientific reality is that the only thing separating all of us is our skin.
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