Empathy Is For Monkeys, And Rats, And Babies
Yes, it’s a video. Are you excited? Really? Yes, you’re going to have to watch the video to keep up with this post so go on, read it. I’ll wait….
No doubt, Jeremy Rifkin is a smart individual, however, that does not make him eternally correct. Yes, I’m about to say that I think he’s got a couple of things wrong. Observation is a really big part of science but the conclusions we draw from them are not always right.
Before we get into it I’ll set out the two presuppositions I’m relying on here. I’m not going to try to explain them in a short post so forgive me this shortcoming for the purposes of this post.
- In our heads is a simulation of the world around us. We live in that simulation, not the real world, and remain always isolated from the real world by sensory systems and motor systems.
- There is no one watching the simulation. That simulation is what we refer to as our consciousness. It runs 24/7/365 except when we are unconscious and even then, some parts of it are still running. Anaesthesia works by stopping the simulation. Without it we feel no pain, acquire no new memories or experiences etc.
I welcome comments on these presuppositions but cannot explain them at length in this post. On to the video.
At about the 1:50 mark he says two things that drive me ‘nuts’:
- Mammalian brains are soft wired to do things
- He uses the term ‘mirror neurons’
Specifically he says: ‘We are soft wired to experience another’s plight as if we are experiencing it ourselves‘
This implies that it is mechanically oriented in some way that our brain does something when we observe it happening to others. I believe this is a naive understanding of the neuronal network in our brains and that it is a simplistic look at what neurons do.
Think for a moment about the knowledge that you need to understand what a human is doing when they try to open a nut. What skills must you understand? What knowledge must you possess to determine even what the human is doing before figuring out why or to what purpose. These things are things which we all take for granted. We learn a lot of them as children: how to move our limbs, what food looks like, the position of our fingers as they move to action and how to predict the forces being exerted when fingers move a certain way. What it looks like when a primate is ingesting food. What the body language of a primate is when being studious, eating, masticating and so on. We humans learn this before the age of 5.
All of these things are stored in our brains like rules. The rules of physics, rules governing ‘normal’ behaviors, rules governing recognizable objects or objects of familiar shapes. You can look at 1437 different mugs, cups, and glasses and in probably all cases determine what the object is probably for without any help. This is because of the rules you have stored up over time in your brain. With each of these stored patterns are also patterns of muscle movement. The way that the simulation in your head works is that you model things. If I ask you how to open a jar of peanut butter, in your mind you can see yourself (hands) going through the motions of opening the jar. As you do so, all those ‘mirror neurons’ are firing up exactly as if you are opening a jar of peanut butter. Whether you imagine it or actually do it, your brain does the same things because you LIVE in that simulation. The difference between imagining it and doing it is whether you actually orient your body toward a physical object and engage physical sensory systems and physical motor systems. Either way you are modelling the action in your head applying all the stored up rules and pattern recognition. This gives you reasonable expectation of what should happen as you open the jar. If the lid does not come loose in the expected manner you don’t stand there waiting for things to change, your brain engages new patterns and rules in order to effect the actions that you expected.
What the monkey was doing was learning patterns and rules storing them as he watched the human open the nut. Those patterns can then be used later by the monkey to acquire a tasty morsel. The monkey used observation to effect a model of how to open that kind of nut. As the monkey built the rules and patterns it looks exactly as it does as the monkey is trying to figure it out on his own. Try to observe this in your own brain as you have someone teach you some trick that you have not yet learned: a card trick, how to yo-yo, how to balance a pencil on your nose … anything.
That is not soft wiring. This is the function of our brains. This is it’s purpose: to simulate the world around us, being informed by our senses as to the rules and patterns we can use for the simulations we do. Soft wiring implies there is something else going on. No, this is the whole thing.
He goes on to state that our brains are soft wired for empathy. Bad mistake. Humans with no empathy will show the same results in the MRI, just like the monkey and the nut story. From there he goes on to say stuff that should make a use car salesman blush. The premise that we are wired for empathy is false. When our brains simulate the experience of others in order to build patterns and rules it triggers the calculations as though we experienced it. Remember we live in that simulation and modelling the experience of another in the simulation is the same thing as experiencing that simulation model personally. This isn’t ’empathy’ as it is classically defined, it is simply how the simulator in your head works. Nature is frugal. Why have multiple simulators when a single simulator can be reused for many applications.
Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
When people say they got lost in the movie they were watching it is exactly because the simulator was busy simulating the world presented to them on the screen and was too busy to keep running a simulation of the physical world directly around them. When we empathize it’s because we understand the feelings of another and we understand those feelings because we modelled them in our simulation and ACTUALLY DID FEEL the same things, or what we imagine them to have been. We can never know exactly how something felt to another person except in vague generalities. Empathy is not something we are ‘soft wired’ for – it is a side effect of our consciousness, the simulator in our heads.
To conclude: There are NO mirror neurons and empathy is proof that we live in the simulation running in our heads, not some wiring mistake.