MAR18

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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, "about 10% of neurons for movement X also activated when observing someon else doing movement X. so called mirror neurons --mirroring can be abstract, involve gestalts, fill in missing pieces, seem to mirror intentional states.
  • 537: S is sceptical of theory that mirror neurons are there to enhance learning. Still, there are mirror neuron critics who endorse a version of the social learning theory.
  • 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.
  • 540: Very skeptical of idea that mirror neurons explain empathy. Specifically of Gallese and Ramachandran -- cites evidence of overhype.
  • 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 "you" is new.
  • 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. without Buddhist approach, same brain activation as others. with it, quieter amygdala, mesolimbic dopamine activitation - compassion as positive state. (Mention hospice.)
  • empathy disorders and misfires: "Pathological altruism"; empathic pain can inhibit effective action.
  • 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, maybe we shouldn't be looking for "pure" altruism. (recalls that belief in moralizing gods increases prosocial behavior toward strangers.)
  • returning to that Science study, important to note that the positive effect from altruism only occurred when observer was present!
  • Final study of the chapter. 2007 Science, test subjects in scanners, given money, sometimes taxed, sometimes opp to donate. Follow results 549:
  • more dopamine (pleasure response) to the money, hard to part with it.
  • more dopamine when taxed, more likely to give voluntarily.
  • more dopamine when giving voluntarily.


  • Lessons from Sapolsky in this chapter:
  • 1. Our brains and emotions don't make us good, but make it possible for us to respond in ways that we identify as moral life.
  • 2. Altruism probably needs self-interest.