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23: APR 6


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

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.
  • 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.
  • [We might pause on this to appreciate the basis of Sapolsky's skepticism given the overall view of human morality we've developed in the course.]
  • 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.
  • 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.)
  • [Interesting implications for society with high stress, lots of social exclusion... Another implication: You have to be in a "good place" for empathy to lead to compassion. Makes evo sense. Reinforces "empathy gym" concept - maybe some people don't learn how to do this. ]
  • 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.)
  • 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 [Note: this is a good object lesson for the course.]
  • mention of Henrich on "moralizing gods" [but then, you knew that already]
  • Feeling good about being charitable might be a family transmissable trait.
  • Returning to that Science study, important to note that the positive effect from altruism only occurred when observer was present! Suggests that the pleasure is tied to social perception.
  • 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. [Guess who gets the most pleasure from that? Relatively more altruistic/less self-interested people.]
  • 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!

Small Group Exercise

  • Briefly assess the research we have been reviewing on empathy this week. Where there some surprising things?
  • Then discuss some of the following questions:
  • Are you persuaded that empathy is trainable? Where is the empathy gym anyway?
  • Are you persuaded that we have biological capacities for empathy without necessarily a universal motivation toward compassion?
  • After this reading are you more or less concerned about ways that empathy can be problematic (pathological or blocking action)?
  • After this reading are you more or less likely to want to cultivate empathy? (Please take polls of your breakout groups.)

Paper discussion on PP1: What Do We Owe Strangers?

  • The prompt, for convenience:
  • What do we owe strangers, as a matter of morality and justice? Consider both strangers in your own country and strangers outside your country. Draw on your previous thinking about personal "justified partiality" as well as your understanding of culturally evolved values to develop your view. Think also about the kinds of "goods" (economic, in-kind, human rights) we are or are not obligated to offer strangers, depending perhaps on whether they are in your community, nation, or world. Finally, try to use the theories of justice and other concepts and principles we have developed to formulate an answer to the question, "What do we owe strangers?" Your answer should provide a well-organized and clear rationales (Logic) reflecting your assessment of relevant course materials (Content) or other resources. It should show awareness of and engagement with some of the diversity of viewpoint on this question.
  • Advice:
  • Get right to work.
  • Make sure you are answering "what" and "why" questions. What is your position (overall and in details)? Why do you hold it?
  • It is a good thing to prioritize your obligations by some kind of principle, value, or other consideration. But avoid this equivocation: "It is reasonable to put my community/nation first. Until we solve the problems in my community/nation, we should not be obligated to help global strangers." "First" can mean "priority" or "ordinally" (before the next thing you do).
  • Try to notice jumps in reasoning and "gaps" between principles or concepts and their application. Sometimes these occur when we make a hard problem "easier" by oversimplifying it.
  • Don't be reluctant or afraid acknowledge limits, uncertainties, or problems with your view.