Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Beyond good or evil…

This is the basis for my "faith" in life : mirror neurons, as simple as that.

As far as I’m concerned, the very idea of goodness stems directly from them. What are they and what do they do?

Well , so-called mirror neurons are brain cells that become active when we watch other people doing and/or feeling things. The same circuitry lights up, for instance, when we watch someone lift a glass to their mouth and drink, as would light up if we ourselves were doing just that. Thus the “mirror” denomination. There’s an echo in our mind to what other people are doing, and especially feeling. So that when all is well with others, the mirror effect can help us feel good too. It’s related to the tail wagging the dog thing too. If we smile (even forcing a smile) we can end up feeling smiley when in fact we’d started out with a frowning kind of feeling; but that’s not really useful to consider here so I’ll leave that for another post.

Really, the point is that there’s an inner response to the emotions of others whereby whether we want to or not, our neurons “empathize” with others (unless other mechanisms come into play, which of course they do, or we would be living in a real Garden of Eden). The best illustration of this is how we feel when we witness someone hurting themselves, say cutting their finger and we flinch. We flinch because we know how that feels, and the same circuitry lights up (albeit very briefly) as if we’d done it to ourselves. From all that I’ve read, this isn’t a uniquely human phenomenon either. Other primates and, I believe, other mammals (dolphin maybe? I forget) have been found to have similar reactions.

And what is it we all wish to avoid at all costs? (ok, never mind the S&M contingent and other particulars) What we aim for in life - our survival depends on it – is to avoid pain of any kind, whenever possible,. We do not want to feel pain – ever – and it follows that if we are set up so that our mirror make us feel the pain of others, we have an inbuilt incentive to minimize pain for other people too. Ok, I know, there are a whole lot of reasons and contexts where the opposite is true, but deep down, before all of that, (infants naturally react to other infants’ pain, and will try to console them as many an experiment has shown.). Inherently, we wish other people well, if only for the purely selfish reason that we might be obliged to “share” someone else’s pain.

To my mind, this is the reason for which there is more peace than war in the world, why “getting along” is the default manner among humans, and whereby I am confidant that "Good” will always prevail.

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