NOV 11

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22: NOV 11


  • Robert Sapolsky, from Behave, Chapter 14, "Feeling Someone's Pain, Understanding Someone's Pain, Alleviating Someone's Pain." 535-552.

Hidden Brain, Empathy Gym, segments 3 and 4

  • We will start today by following the research from the second half of the Hidden Brain podcast. (see above.)

Small Group Exercise

  • From Jamil Zaki, we get a complicated picture of the value of human empathy. Depending how we experience painful situations that elicit empathy, we might contribute to someone overcoming trauma or we might heighten our own pain. Empathy can include tribal responses (whites reading about Native Americans study), but it doesn't have to (Soccer study). The prospective pain of empathy can lead us to avoid others in pain (donation table study). On the other hand, "pumping" empathy the right way might make us more open to helping people or voting for solutions to problems like homelessness (Zaki's virtual reality study).
  • Looking at this research and sharing your own experiences of empathy, try to answer this question: Is Empathy gym worth the risk? If you do think you should "work your empathy" and "pump it", how do you avoid the negative consequences?

Sapolsky, Behave, C 14, 535-552

  • A Mythic Leap forward - covering mirror neurons and what they do and don't show about moral life.
  • 1990s U of Parma, rhesus monkeys under study, PMC - premotor cortex, PFC communicates with PMC during decision making (and taking action), "about 10% of neurons for movement X also activated when observing someone else doing movement X. so called mirror neurons --mirroring can be abstract, involve gestalts, fill in missing pieces, seems to incorporate (encode) intentional states. "picking up a cup to drink" activates them.
  • 537: S is sceptical of theory that mirror neurons are there to enhance learning (537: a, b, c), but allows (538) that it might aid movement learning or refining movements. Still, there are mirror neuron critics who endorse a version of the social learning theory -- learning from others (Hickok). But he also criticizes idea that MNs help us understand others.
  • 538: Do mirror neurons help you understand what someone is thinking, aid to Theory of Mind? are these neurons focused on social interactions? (stronger effect at close distances) -- but Hickok (2014 The Myth of Mirror Neurons) criticizes this as correlation, no evidence that it helps learning. and not clear that intentionality requires this kind of aid. We can understand lots of intentions we can't perform.
  • [However, mirror neurons might be a "general utility feature" in Theory of Mind without always being about learning. It could be more about a biological mechanism of communication, layered along with observation. Sapolsky cites evidence that mirror neurons interact with brain regions related to Theory of Mind. - Alfino]
  • 540: Very skeptical of idea that mirror neurons explain understanding other's actions or empathy. Specifically of Gallese and Ramachandran -- cites evidence of overhype. "Gandhi neurons" Pretty public admonishment! Cites list of scholars he's agreeing with.
  • The Core Issue (in Empathy): Actually doing something.
  • S resumes the topic of the 1st half of the chapter. Empathy can be a substitute for action. "If feel your pain, but that's enough." In adolescents (chapter 6) empathy can lead to self-absorption. It hurts to feel others pain when your "you" is new.
  • 543: research predicting prosocial action from exposure to someone's pain: depends upon heart rate rise, which indicates need for self-protection. 543: "The prosocial ones are those whose heart rates decrease; they can hear the sound of someone else's need instead of the distressed pounding in their own chests." (Echoes research showing less prosocial behavior to strangers under cognitive load, hunger condition, social exclusion, stress. Block glucocorticoids and empathy goes up.)
  • Research on Buddhist monks, famously Mathieu Ricard (digress). without Buddhist approach, same brain activation as others. with it, quieter amygdala, mesolimbic dopamine activation - compassion as positive state. (Mention hospice, compassionate meditation.). Richard reports “a warm positive state associated with a strong prosocial motivation.” (Very much like the experience of hospice volunteering.)
  • Evidence from “empathy training” of similar change in neural activation.
  • Doing something effectively
  • empathy disorders and misfires: "Pathological altruism"; empathic pain can inhibit effective action. Doctors and others need to block empathy to have sustainable careers.
  • Is there altruism?
  • 2008 Science study: we predict spending on ourselves will increase happiness, but only altruistic uses of the money did so in the study.
  • S suggests that given the design of the ACC, and the abundant ways the social creatures get rewards from prosocial reputations (reputation, debts to call in, extra benefits in societies with moralizing gods), maybe we shouldn't be looking for "pure" altruism. (recalls that belief in moralizing gods increases prosocial behavior toward strangers.) some evidence charitable people are raised that way and transmit the trait through family life. 548
  • reminder of Henrich on "moralizing gods" and “contingent afterlives”. Probably helped humans become comfortable in urban environments.
  • Final study of the chapter. 2007 Science, test subjects in scanners, given money, sometimes taxed, sometimes opp to donate. Hypothesis: If one is purely altruistic, you would expect identical dopamine responses. Follow results 549:
  • a. the more dopamine (pleasure response) you get in receiving unexpected money, the less you express in parting with it - either voluntarily or not.
  • b. more dopamine when taxed, more dopamine when giving voluntarily. Seems to identify a less self-interested person. Could also be "inequity aversion" - we sometimes just feel better when a difference is eliminated.
  • c. more dopamine when giving voluntarily than taxed.
  • In the end, Sapolsky thinks empathy is still a puzzling product of evolution. Altruism and reciprocity are linked however, so maybe we should stop scratching our heads about "pure altruism".
  • Seems to endorse the idea that altruism (compassionate empathy) is trainable -- like potty training, riding a bike, telling the truth! So don't forget you workouts at empathy gym!