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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

i feel your pain, man

According to a Times article today, Recent neurological studies seem to show that humans and other animals have "mirror cells" in their brains that fire both when we have a certain experience ourselves and when we observe other people having that same experience. In humans, these mirror cells help us socially by allowing us to, in effect, feel what we perceive other people are feeling, and thereby predict their actions. (more in expanded post)

When I read the article, what immediately came to mind (as a result of this semester's Social Studies tutorial readings) was Adam Smith's notion of "fellow feeling," a kind of sympathy he believed was innate in all humans. He explains the concept in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:
As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels. For as to be in pain or distress of any kind excites the most excessive sorrow, so to conceive or to imagine that we are in it, excites some degree of the same emotion, in proportion to the vivacity or dulness of the conception.
Researchers are effectively suggesting that while Smith's belief that all people have an innate propensity to sympathize with one another may be true, it's not thanks to our imaginations, but to the wiring in our brains. As one researcher interviewed in the article put it, "'[I]f you see me choke up, in emotional distress from striking out at home plate, mirror neurons in your brain simulate my distress. You automatically have empathy for me. You know how I feel because you literally feel what I am feeling.'"

Although the article doesn't say anything about whether biological men or women are born with different mirror neuron capacities, I would bet this is a question that will be heavily researched, if it's not already. Scientific evidence to substantiate claims that biological women are naturally more nurturing and empathetic than biological men? I bet Mansfield's drooling already.

One interviewee, Dr. Keysers, did say, " 'People who rank high on a scale measuring empathy have particularly active mirror neurons systems.' " However, there's no mention of whether women tended to score higher on that empathy test than men. Even if they did find that difference to be true, it would not necessarily proove that women are 'naturally' more empathetic. That would depend on, among other things, whether activity levels in neuron systems are genetically fixed at birth. I don't know anything about neuroscience, but I wonder whether levels of mirror neuron activity might vary depending on whether we use them more or less often. If so, it would be interesting to study whether socializing differently gendered people to express more or less empathy can actually affect their mirror neuron systems themselves (like building a muscle by exercising it)...

6 Comments:

At 12:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow, very cool beans. and great connection to the smith TMS, katie. its so easy to bash Adam Smith these days, but he was right on on a lot of this stuff...

 
At 3:18 AM, Blogger katie loncke said...

thanks anonymous! yeah, you're right, it's become kind of trendy to vilify Smith because certain of his ideas have been used to justify free trade policies/neoliberalism. but dude was pretty perceptive about some things.

 
At 1:52 PM, Anonymous Cait said...

original smith and the way people use his words today are two diff. things. my guess is that a lot of people who claim that smith justifies free trade/the absolute infallibility of the market probably haven't read tms. . .

 
At 1:52 PM, Anonymous Cait said...

but, the mirror cell thing is uber cool

 
At 1:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

as a former SS10er, I was also reminded of Rousseau's Origins of Inequality essay--especially as per your "muscle" theory:

Were it true that commiseration were merely a sentiment,” Rousseau asks in “Origin of Inequality,” “that puts us in the position of the one who suffers, a sentiment that is obscure and powerful in savage man, developed but weak in man dwelling in civil society, what importance would this idea have to the truth of what I say, except to give it more force?"

Rousseau assigns "pity" as a characteristic of natural man essentially equivalent to Smith's sympathy (though less elaborately described)--but for Rousseau civilization constrains this trait such that it is not as prevalent as it is in the state of nature--this can even be reconciled with Smith's famous "it is not the benevolence of the butcher...but his self-interest" quote in that it is precisely modernity, or rationalization, or reification or colonizing of the life-world, etc, that dampens this empathetic force--one Smith-derived argument against Neoliberalism.

In terms of the neurological findings and your hypothesis that the intensity of the activity of mirror cells depends on socialization, it seems Rousseau was more explicitly on the forefront than Smith even.

 
At 4:21 PM, Blogger katie loncke said...

Interesting! that hadn't occured to me (and i only hope i can remember ss10 material as well as you after i'm done with the class!).

but in terms of the "Smith-derived argument against neoliberalism," couldn't neoliberals just argue that modernity doesn't "dampen" empathy, but simply removes it from economic interactions, a process some might argue is beneficial since rationalizing the economy protects it from the capriciousness of sentimentality? I have heard people give this kind of interpretation for the butcher-baker-brewer example: namely that Smith was pointing out how great it is that we don't have to depend on the good will of these people in order to be able to do business with them. i'm just playing devil's advocate here...

 

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