Empathy Cells

03.14.06 | 16 Comments

Scientists have discovered the cells in the human brain that are responsible for empathy. They are called Mirror Neurons, and the more you think about them, the greater the implications.

But before we go any further, go to the PBS site and view the 14 minute Nova segment for yourself. Take the time out of your day to expand your knowledge. It’s worth it.

Now that you’re done with the video, let’s talk about the implications of mirror neurons. First, let’s set the record straight. We knew all along that empathy exists. Psychologists are probably shrugging their shoulders at the hooplah. However, the importance of this discovery is that empathy is something built into us at a cellular level.

It also raises some questions. Can these regions of the brain be expanded the more they are engaged, akin to exercising a muscle? Do they atrophy in someone who is a hermit or otherwise consciously avoids engaging empathicly with others? The video touched briefly on autism and the relationship to mirror neurons–could this be a holy grail (or perhaps rosetta stone) for autism research? Can certain drugs heighten or deaden mirror neuron activity? When you start talking about empathy as a biological function instead of solely as a pyschological function, suddenly all sorts of possibilities emerge.

Now that I have you fired up about the biological implications of empathy, let’s back up and face some ugly truths. Psychologists have told us that in some ways, engaging ourselves on a fantasy level is very similar to engaging ourselves in a physical manner. The discovery of mirror neurons adds a biological support to this assertion. Playing violent video games and watching violent movies can make you feel more violent yourself. I’m a firm believer in free speech, but I’m also a believer in personal responsibility. It’s time to take responsibility for the movies we make, the songs we play, the video games we create, and the roleplaying games we write. Of course, the people who consume those creative works hold a personal responsibility, too. Unfortunately, sometimes you don’t know what you’re getting into until you’re already there. Nor do children necessarily have the ability to make those choices.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting censorship. I enjoyed the heck out of Sin City, and I’m looking forward to a sequel. I’m suggesting that we take responsibility for creating characters or situations leading to a positive empathic experience instead of a negative one. In Sin City, even though the protagonists were rough around the edges, their defining characteristic was that they were trying to do the right thing in a world that punishes good deeds. Roleplaying is another excellent example. Most roleplaying involves the characters as heroes. They overcome evil, help the innocent, and so on. Even though the players clearly know the difference between fantasy roleplay and mundane reality, in an engaging game I’d be willing to bet those mirror neurons are getting a workout. So while roleplaying, we are also reinforcing a real-world lifestyle in which we make choices for actively helping others and overcoming adversity. The opposite of this are games like the drow setting, in which you play evil characters with hidden agendas. As a player, it goes so far against my personal code that I could simply never get “into” that kind of character and now I have no interst in even trying.

Please share your own thoughts in the comments. I’d be interested to get a real dialog going about this.

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Comment by Cray
2006-03-14 14:45:02

Yeah, the gamers are going to be old and senile and relate to friends and family their “true” experiences of slaying dragons, and traversing dark tunnels on their way to glory and riches…This brings up the debate of whether biology or environment has a greater factor in a person’s life. That mirror cell stuff is very interesting.

It’s ironic that you took “evil twin” for your last character, isn’t it?

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Comment by Prest0
2006-03-14 15:34:01

Yes, it’s quite ironic. It’s one of those things that sounds better on paper than in practice– at least for me. I just have a hard time being evil. I’ll have stay focused on being selfish and evil.

Ah yes, the age old nature vs. nurture arguement. It seems pretty clear to me that it’s both. Clearly there are biological factors that make people predisposed toward (whatever), but enviroment also plays a heavy role in a person’s development. Which plays a *greater* role depends on what quality you want to focus on.

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Comment by Neal5x5
2006-03-14 16:00:18

I’ve tried to play the bad guy, but just can’t get into it. I’ve got too much of a “white hat syndrome” to allow myself to enjoy harming others, even in an imaginary way. In one game, a friend and I found out we’d been duped into hurting people by an NPC and it pissed us off so much we didn’t talk to that GM for weeks.

As for the mirror cells, that may explain why therapists can use roleplaying (the therapy stuff, not the dice stuff) as a technique to predispose some people to make choices they otherwise would not make, such as being kind instead of an ass. Mirror cells also make sense on an evolutionary level to explain why we are a social species (and have thrived because of it) and those who lack that capability are ostracized.

Of course, could there be an opposite side? An evil mirror cell? In that case, Stevenson’s old Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (no relation) takes on new relevance.

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Comment by Prest0
2006-03-14 16:12:34

Hmmmm. That’s a mighty interesting thought. What would such a thing look like? My guess is that it wouldn’t be a neuron, but maybe some kind of chemical blocker. Something that would allow an individual to perceive (“grok”, if you will) another’s emotions without personally identifying with them. Such a thing might very well lead to sociopathic behavior. Which, if mirror neurons are something that strengthen or atrophy with use/disuse, could lead to further self-reinforcing sociopathic tendencies.

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Comment by Martin
2006-03-14 16:27:05

In all cases, it is the responsibility of the user to properly use the product. If you let your small children play violent games then you as a parent are at fault for improperly using the product. When I was a child I didn’t get to watch certain movies because they weren’t good for me. It didn’t matter how much I wanted to watch them. It didn’t matter that other children got to watch them. I didn’t.

So, I go back to my original statement: in ALL cases, it is the responsibility of the consumer to properly use the product.

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Comment by Prest0
2006-03-14 16:42:51

But is the parent the consumer, or the child?

And can some products ever be “properly” used? Can a white supremacy roleplaying game be “properly” used? Or a snuff film? As someone involved in the creative arts, I see myself having a responsibility to both entertain and reinforce positive attitudes.

Yes, even in the horror genre. Horror adventures just give players the opportunity to overcome greater adversity.

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Comment by Martin
2006-03-14 16:55:03

Until a child is 18, by law, the parent is the consumer. If, as a minor, I purchase a screw-driver and then stab someone with it, in my opinion, the parent is very much at fault. If we want to change the age at which a person is no longer a minor then that’s a different story. But, legally, now, it’s 18 years. Not 17 years, 355 days. 18. Courts have decided they can arbitrarily change that in specific instances. To an extent that’s fine too. We are, as the movie says, a social animal which means we have to live by society’s rules.

If you feel you have a responsibility then that’s your business; however, it isn’t inherent in what you do. That responsibility is only there because you think it is.

Now that I’ve actually watched the film, I think they’re making some really huge leaps. They haven’t established a direct relationship. Meaning, one thing happens when another happens, but they didn’t establish that the first thing happens BECAUSE the second thing happens.

I don’t even necessarily agree that you can relate what they found directly to empathy. I don’t like the argument that because these things exist we are able to learn, or learn faster.

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Comment by Prest0
2006-03-14 17:05:57

Certainly I wouldn’t say it’s the center of learning. I don’t think that they are either. I think it (“it” being empathy) can aid in learning from other humans.

Among other things. Like watching football.

Reponsibility to improve the world around us (or at least not make it worse) may not be inherent in creativity itself, but it’s inherent in our being a part of society. It’s a part of the social contract. It can be summed up in five words. Don’t shit where you sleep.

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Comment by Kyle
2006-03-15 09:19:48

Interesting, to say the least. I disagree with Martin one one fundamental point. Responsibility exists, regardless of whether or not you acknowledge it. It goes back to whether there is fundamental good and evil forces at work in the world. If there is, certain responsibilties flow from good, and motivate us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. In other words, there are objective responsibilties that exist whether or not you acknowledge them. They’ll kick your conscience around, whether you want them to or not. It’s a pretty nihilistic existence, otherwise.

The comments on this website thus far seem to bear out this assertion. The naturally good people just can’t seem to be bad, even on an imaginary level. At their most basic core, something is moving them to be uncomfortable with being bad. I agree completely. The most popular drow (Drizz’t) ain’t an evil drow, now is he? If he went around stabbing babies, his popularity would be nil. He’s popular because he’s from an evil culture, and rejected it. Sure he’s a killer, but killing isn’t of itself an evil act.

It’s the intention behind the act that defines it as evil. Criminal law punishes not necessarily the act, but the mens rea (the mind’s intent, loosely translated from latin). Negligent homicide is punished differently than premeditated capital murder. Why? The intent, or lack thereof.

I do agree that no causal relationship has been established, though. Because one thing is present when there is something else doesn’t necessarily make the two cause and effect. But I don’t believe in coincidence, either…:) There’s definitely some relationship, but what? Are they a by-product or a necessary ingredient?

I believe from personal observations that some people are more empathetic than others. It could very well be they are hard-wired to be that way. Can they learn otherwise, can they make a choice to be more empathetic? Probably not, if their brains are set up that way, i.e. sociopaths. It would take a fundamental re-wire, and I don’t think that’s possible. They’re probably too far gone. Developmentally speaking, an abandoned child will be pyschologically damaged fairly soon after birth, if not given the proper love and attention. You’d have to catch a sociopath quite early to do any good.

I’m on the fence on the whole “proper use of a product” thing. However, “gangsta” rap has no redeeming value in society whatsoever. There is no “good” intrinsic value to it. I don’t think you can use it for anything else. Same thing with a video game that has you running around shooting cops. Nothing good can come out of that. Associate yourself with bad things long enough, they’ll rub off. Conventional wisdom holds true in that regard.

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2006-03-15 15:35:36

[…] Not that I want to take away from a more serious discussion, but this activated the geek neurons in my brain. As you watch this video, keep in mind that these guys did all their own choreography AND special effects. Trackback · […]

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Comment by Neal5x5
2006-03-15 15:49:46

One negative aspect of the inbred desire to be empathetic and the desire to change things for the better is the potential for abuse. How many of the great conflicts among our species began as someone’s attempt to help someone they knew by adding lebensraum (sp) or forcibly putting an end to sin, etc.? Most tyrants and perpetrators of crimes against humanity site a good cause as their motivation. I suspect for the majority it’s a convenient excuse, but for some, their horrific actions are a result of a genuine desire to make a better world.

As for the nature of responsibility for one’s actions, I think it is a behavior that has entered our genetics in a way unlike most other species. It is not merely a social contract; irresponsible behavior, even without condemnation by peers, leads to negative feelings that can, ultimately, destroy a person’s self image. Eliminating those inborn feelings to get rid of the guilt can be done, but only with highly unpleasant side-effects.

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Comment by Dirty Unicorn
2006-03-15 15:51:09

Ah yes, but more importantly I want you to visualize that you’re in the desert. You see a turtle on it’s back basking in the sun, struggling to flip over…

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Comment by Martin
2006-03-15 18:09:39

So, if responsibility exists then it is the responsibility of the hammer makers to make sure people don’t hit themselves in the head. It then becomes the responsibility of the gun makers to make sure people don’t shoot people.

You can’t have it both ways. If it’s Preston’s responsibility to create something that isn’t evil then it’s the gun maker’s responsibility to protect people.

As I said, the bottom line is that it is the consumer’s responsibility to properly use the products they buy, not the manufacturer’s responsibility to make sure they use it properly.

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Comment by Jerry
2006-03-16 11:30:45

We have the choice to put out a good product that awards the heroes for being heroic and punishes them for being unheroic or worse criminal.

The GM has a choice to follow our module or they can make changes as they see fit. It can look totally different from the writer’s vision.

The player’s engage the game as murderous thugs. They choose to rape and rob rather than suppress and save. Not the writers fault this occurred.

The greatest gift God gave to man is the ability to make a decision. When we were created in the image of God this is the image. Not legs arms and head stuck on a body. But the abiity to choose. Its up to us to use that gift wisely.

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Comment by Kyle
2006-03-16 15:47:36

We do have personal responsibility, but individuals have personal responsibility not to hit themselves in the head with hammers. That’s why I’m on the fence on this deal.

You CAN have it both ways. Just a bit of common sense is all that’s necessary.

As Jerry pointed out, we have the ability to make choices. I choose NOT to hit myself in the head with a hammer……again.

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Comment by Ed
2006-03-17 19:58:58

ummm….my head hurts….too big thinky goin’ on…..

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