Mirror neurons may hold the key to understanding how human beings respond to one another’s plight
from IN CHARACTER, April 2008
Simon Lovell is a British-born stage magician whose long-running Broadway show Strange and Unusual Hobbies exploits his dexterity with playing cards. But for most of his adult life, Lovell turned a less reputable dime. He was a full-time con man. It was a trade he came by naturally. By age four he was already learning gambling-table tricks from his grandfather, and before long young Simon was traveling with carnivals and three-card-monte troupes, absorbing the patter and the confidence and the ethic of the “short con” (in and out before the victim knows what hit him). It was an easy way for Simon to put himself through college; it was an easy way to put himself through life. Like some opportunistic grifter in a David Mamet play, seducing hapless victims and then betraying them without remorse, Lovell plied his craft for ten lucrative years, until the age of thirty-one.
And then one day everything changed.
He had spotted his mark in a hotel bar in Europe, and, after chumming the man up and plying him with drinks, had drawn him into a “cross”—a classic con game in which the victim is made to believe he’s part of the team, primed to make a bundle if he just, well, plays his cards right.
It went beautifully. “He lost the whole enchilada on one big hand,” Lovell recalls. “We took him for an extremely large amount of money.”
The script at that point called for Lovell to berate the mark (“I told you to wait for my signal!”), drag him out of the hotel room, and tell him to get lost. But in the hallway of the hotel, the disengagement sequence faltered. The mark went to pieces. “I’ve never seen a man break down that badly, ever,” Lovell says. “He was just sliding down the wall, weeping and wailing, and in a very sorry state. He looked as though he was in need of a visit to Bellevue.”
And that’s when it happened. “It was like a light suddenly went on,” Lovell recalls. “It was very strange. I thought: This. Is. Really. Bad. It was the only time I had ever felt that. It was like my heart started to beat. For the first time I actually felt sorry for someone.”
Lovell did something, then, that he couldn’t quite believe himself. I gave him some of the money back. Not all of it—I had my people to pay—but I gave him enough.” Then he went back inside the hotel room, sat down, poured himself a drink, and said, that’s it. When you run cons you have to have an ice-cold heart,” he says. “There was an absolute epiphany that if I’m going to start feeling sorry for people, I just can’t do it anymore.”
Almost overnight, his life changed. The necessary ink cloud a con throws up to keep the world (and himself) from knowing who he is, cleared. “I had become,” he says, “a real human being again.”
Just what happened to Simon Lovell in that hotel corridor? He himself is not much help here. All he knows is that whatever happened to him was fast and dramatic and, apparently, permanent. It felt like an almost Promethean kindling of compassion. But what really went on inside his brain?
We do not yet have a neuroscience of compassion, although a number of scientists are converging on compassion’s more quantifiable cousin, empathy. Empathy is sometimes described as “emotional sympathy.” Both compassion and empathy are complex responses that seem to involve many brain systems. Both consist in tuning in to another person’s emotional experience— although compassion involves the added dimension of care, a desire not just to imagine another’s circumstances but to want to relieve his suffering. Empathy is contained by compassion, but does not contain it. You can have empathy without compassion, but you cannot have compassion without empathy.
Empathy is increasingly being recognized by scientists for what it is: the very denominator of what it means to be human. It seems to be hard-wired into us almost from birth, though actually imagining the perspective of others might more accurately be said to emerge around the age of four. If sociopaths are sometimes considered “inhuman,” it’s because they apparently lack one of the signal determinants of what we’ve decided it means to be human: the ability to connect with another. And one way we connect is by imagining ourselves into each other’s worlds.
“The neuroscience of empathy is still young,” says Tania Singer, a neuroscientist at the University of Zurich and one of the field’s most active investigators. The terrain is a forest of questions. Are the old mechanistic models of the brain still valid, or are they obsolete? Is there a lateral difference – that is, do the two hemispheres play different roles? Does emotion or cognition dominate? And is the pathology model of understanding the brain – we discover how parts of it work by studying people in whom those parts aren’t working at all – going to yield to a more, well, holistic approach?
This much is becoming clear: The story of empathy is probably going to involve fairly recently discovered cells called mirror neurons. And it’s probably going to involve the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a plum-sized area a couple of inches behind the eyebrows, where primal social emotions are thought to be packaged. It may involve a curled little strip of tissue in the middle of the brain called the anterior cingulated gyrus, which seems to detect and manage conflict. And it’s sure to involve other parts of that mighty prefrontal cortex, which just generally plays traffic cop in the busiest city in the universe.
Mirror neurons are cells that fire not only when they’re commanded to fire to move us, but also automatically, as reliably as an echo, whenever we notice someone else moving. Discovered accidentally in monkeys by researchers in Parma, Italy, in the early 1990s, and later pegged in roughly the same spot in the brains of humans, mirror neurons have been hailed as the most major discovery in neuroscience in two decades. Together the cells form a circuit, spread through several brain regions and attached both upstream to the prefrontal cortex and downstream to the most primitive parts of the limbic system. They connect who were with whom we evolved to become.
Mirror neurons seem to prove an explanation – really the first explanation – of how empathy works at the cellular level. Though scientists vary in the degree of meaning they place in the find, Vittorio Galese — one of the original discoverers of mirror neurons in monkeys, and one of the most radically enthusiastic — believes mirror neurons are a tiny model of the brain’s organizational structure: the whole brain functions as a kind of mirror device.
If that’s even mostly true, it blows apart the long-embraced model of the brain as a kind of sequential processor, in which other people’s words and gestures are detected in the hindbrain, fed through the limbic system, and finally converted into meaningful emotions in the frontal cortex. “That old model is just wrong,” says the neurologist Marco Iacoboni, in whose California lab human mirror neurons were discovered. “It sounds completely counterintuitive to say, but there’s evidence that motor actions are actually part of our perception.” It’s not the joy or distress I see in your face that makes me smile or slump in sympathy, in other words: it’s that I reflexively mirror the joy or distress I see in you, and that action – my body reading my own behavior – is what generates the emotion. The most intriguing research to support this theory was conducted by the eminent British neuroscientist Jonathan Cole on patients with facial-muscle paralysis. These individuals couldn’t smile in response to another’s smiles, or frown in response to another’s anxiety. “It turns out that these patients are not even able to understand the emotional state of others,” says Iacoboni.
Such findings make empathy seem a richer and subtler process than we thought. We aren’t merely radios tuning in to other people’s frequencies, the research implies. We’re more like stringed instruments that other instruments set vibrating – and are amplified by the vibrations we get back – and so on in an infinite feedback loop. It changes the whole idea of communication between human beings from something almost robotic into something almost organic.
“When Bill Clinton said, ‘I feel your pain,’ everybody made jokes about it,” Iacoboni says. “But he was actually anticipating what neuroscience was about to tell us.”
So essential to empathy are mirror neurons believed by these researchers to be that the eminent neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has said he thinks autism may be caused by a mirror-neuron dysfunction. Iacoboni expects we will learn that sociopaths, too, are deficient in mirror neuron cells – or are at least saddled with a flawed mirror-neuron system. “It’s going to be difficult to know if that’s because they were born without those cells, or if their experience did not shape the system enough. It’s hard to study.” In the older model of empathy, we all functioned in our interpersonal dealings as detectives, deducing other people’s internal states by observing their behavior. The new research suggests we’re more like Method actors, actually reproducing those states in ourselves. Empathy, by this telling, is as automatic as seeing or hearing. It just happens. Mirror neurons simply fire. Even, we have to assume, in Simon Lovell as he pulled con after con. The reason the message didn’t get through for so long is that there is another neural system in play.
A useful way of appreciating how the brain seems to work out “moral” issues is to think of it as a kind of Odd Couple-like partnership between two modules. You might call them, very unscientifically, the Grandmother Module and the Spock Module. (A third region, the anterior cingulated gyrus in the middle of the brain, seems also to be involved as a kind of referee between them.)
Spock captained the debating team in high school. He does the packing on car trips, counts cards in Reno (always playing the percentages), reads the philosopher John Stuart Mill (who argued that we should choose to do what produces the best results for the most people), and lives mostly in the frontal cortex, up top and to the outsides of the hemispheres. Grandmother always wanted to be a nurse, but discovered she couldn’t stand the sight of blood. She prefers Kant to Mill (believing, like him, that some things are just intrinsically right and good and we should honor them). She reads Harlequins, plays the lottery (when she’s feeling lucky), fastens her goals on the fridge with little daisy magnets, and picks up her mail in the ventromedial region – at the bottom of the frontal cortex, near the middle. The two are in constant dialogue, and together form the machinery of moral reasoning. During moral dilemmas – those pregnant moments that can define values, expose character flaws, or even change lives – the two are drawn into a kind of competitive tension. The Grandmother Module asks questions https://nygoodhealth.com like, Oh my, are you sure you can pull the trigger? Are you sure you can fleece this poor fellow? Look at him: he’s … like you. The Spock Module relies on pure utilitarian reason: What’s “right” is circumstantial, but generally, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Spock is often called on to explain, after the fact, our own instinctive behavior.
The Spock Module dampens our natural empathic impulses – which is not so much a killjoy function as an essential one. Those impulses need dampening. Mirror neurons fire less strongly when we observe someone performing a function than when we perform it ourselves, and that’s by evolutionary design. “If we felt a sufferer’s pain to the degree that they feel it,” says Iacoboni, “we’d be overwhelmed and unable to help them.” To dial down the empathic response, to let us keep our head amid chaos: that seems to be the job of still-little-understood systems in the frontal lobe — the Spock Module. “And I guess in some people that control system is really, really robust,” Iacoboni says. Robust from birth, possibly, and certainly strengthened over time by, say, practicing cold-hearted cons on innocent people, over and over.
What seems to have been happening in the brain of Simon Lovell, as he inched toward his epiphany, was an epic Mexican standoff between Grandmother and Spock. “At some point, evidently, for some reason, Simon’s control system just couldn’t contain [the emotion] any more,” Iacoboni says. Had he been brain-scanned as it all unfolded, “What I would predict is that there’s a strong mirror neuron response, a strong limbic response – and in these frontal areas that we believe repress the limbic activity, there would be no activity whatsoever.”
To hear Simon Lovell tell it, the flood of compassion came out of nowhere. “Which makes sense,” Iacoboni says. “These are cognitive-control mechanisms. You need to be almost un-alert, need to be caught by surprise for these to be subverted – because otherwise you’d use your control systems to suppress these emotions. So it makes sense that it was something sudden.”
But that still doesn’t explain what triggered the moment when Spock was unable to surmount Grandmother – and why.
Here’s one guess: at a certain point the whole circumstance had simply become personal for Simon, in a way that made it impossible to duck responsibility for the suffering he was causing.
The work of the Harvard philosopher and cognitive psychologist Joshua Greene sheds light here. In an experiment, Greene presented subjects with moral dilemmas, all the while scanning their brains with a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine. The dilemmas required snap decisions in imagined life-and-death situations. They were cunningly designed to manipulate the degree to which either emotion or cognition was brought to bear. Greene guess that it would depend on the nature of the dilemma — to what degree the “moral violation” the subjects were asked to perpetrate felt “personal” or “impersonal.” The more personally on the hook the subjects felt for the morally objectionable act, the more likely the Grandmother Module would come into play — emotions would overtake reason. The more distance they could keep from the damage, the more emotion could be kept out of the moral calculus.
Imagine, Joshua Greene proposed, a runaway train. Five people are helplessly stuck on he tracks. If you could save their lives by pulling a switch and shunting the train onto a siding where a single person was stuck, would you do it? Most people, Greene reckoned, would say yes. (And his research subjects in fact did.) But then Greene threw a curve. What if simply pulling a switch to reroute the train wasn’t an option? What if the only way to stop that train from barreling down on those five people was to physically push somebody off a bridge, into the train’s path, listening to his screams as he fell? Most people, he figured, would probably balk – even though killing the one was still the “rational” thing to do. (Green’s research subjects indeed balked.) Most of us can’t overcome the physical revulsion at doing actual harm to other human beings. (As Grandmother would say, They’re like you.) The likelihood that a subject will undertake a deeply taboo moral violation – like killing someone, or hurting him, or betraying him – even for a “good reason,” depends on how much emotional detachment he can muster.
Greene looked at the scans of brains choosing to sacrifice one person to save five by shunting the train. Then he looked at the scans of brains of those unable to push somebody onto the tracks. The in the first instance, the scenario that allowed emotional detachment, regions associated with cognitive processes – the Spock Module – lit up. But in he second instance, when the subjects had to face their demons square on, and recoiled, the ventromedial area was aglow. We might expect that, for a spell, both areas were furiously active as Grandmother sent signals of moral disgust and Spock tried desperately to rationalize the behavior. But then activity in the higher prefrontal areas would have diminished – as if the subjects were finally simply unable to be clinically detached. Grandma had wrestled Spock into submission.
If you think of Simon Lovell’s turning point as essentially a moment of moral decision-making, when some personal “truth” burns through a long-held, self-serving cover story, then Joshua Green’s model is a relevant prism. For ten years Lovell had found plenty of ways to distance himself from the victims (“They weren’t people, they were walking wallets, that’s all they were,” he says of his marks), and plenty of ways to rationalize what he was doing. But the gathering guilt and unease – what Lovell calls the accumulated weight of “ten years of bad karma” – finally became stronger than his cognitive control system’s ability to manage it. The whole enterprise became, you might say, unavoidably personal for Lovell. Grandmother’s sermonizing grew too loud to ignore. He fell victim to compassion.
Compassion, according to Aristotle – the first thinker to propose a theory on how it is (or is not) generated I human beings – involves a three-step process. We must see the suffering is significant, that it is undeserved, and that the sufferer could just as easily be ourselves. (“There but for fortune go I.”) Without these three conditions in place, the heard remains locked. Advances in brain-imaging technology within the last decade have allowed us to test what Aristotle could only guess at, to see the effects of these three triggers on the brain.
When we notice appreciable suffering, empathic circuits in the brain light up: this much mirror-neuron research has been pretty much proven. Another person’s suffering makes us emotional, so long as it captures our attention.
Is the suffering undeserved? This is a front-brain question – a job for Spock. The University of Chicago cognitive neuroscientists Jean Decety has addressed it, roundabout, in a number of studies. When suffering is detected the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, probably chiefly on the right side, pumps for context – and it’s the context that will determine to what degree the cognitive apparatus suppresses the limbic response, downgrading the state of emergency, reducing the empathic pulse. A man being beaten on the sidewalk immediately arouses our interest and compassion – but if we learn that the copy was simply defending himself after the man had cold-cocked him with a beer bottle, our compassion for the stranger flags. Mothers generally cannot easily bear to see their children in pain. But if the pain derives from, say, a flu shot, then the urge to intervene to stop the suffering diminishes – for now the suffering is deemed not wicked bad luck but rather a necessary cost of getting better. (Last year, Decety set up an experiment in which subjects were asked to observe a painful treatment for tinnitus. Brain scans revealed a stronger empathic response when the treatment was ineffective – the suffering was, you might say, without purpose – than when it was effective.)
Can the observer imagine a similar fate: What happened to this person could happen to me? It is the cognitive component to empathy – responsible for the simple act of trying to imagine another’s circumstances – that allows us, over and above the natural, primal compassion we feel for a member of kin or tribe, to project ourselves into the shoes even of those who are utterly dissimilar from us. You don’t have to have walked in those shoes – you just have to imaging that you could. In a study co-authored by a number of neuroscientists last year, subjects were asked to remember a personal experience of fear and anger from their past. Then they were asked to imagine an equivalent experience of another person, as if it were happening to them. Scans revealed that “when people could relate to the scenario of the other,” they felt the sufferer’s pain as if it were their own: the neural signatures were almost identical. “But when they could not relate to the other’s story, differences emerged on all measures.” The actual physiological response was reduced, there was less recruitment of emotive brain regions. Clinton thus stands definitively exonerated: “I feel your pain” is a valid trope – at least “to the extent that one can relate to the state and situation of the other.”
Compassion is an ephemeral, elusive thing, and so efforts to take a neural “snapshot” of it seem quixotic at best. Nonetheless the neuroscientist Richard Davidson approached the task directly when he set out not long ago to map a kind of compassionate embrace-of-everything that Buddhists call lovingkindness.
Davidson and his team at the University of Wisconsin’s W. M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior recruit as research subjects Tibetan monks hand-picked by the Dalai Lama. The monks were injected with a radioactive tracer and fitted with electrodes, and Davidson and his colleagues watched the results onscreen as the monks climbed the ladder of their breath up, up into the rarefied precincts of good will. No single area of the monks’ brains came alive, but Davidson and the researchers did see discrete changes – notably, a shift in activity from the parietal love (as the monks detached from their conscious sense of self) to the premotor part of the frontal lobe, a region connected to the deeper emotions and involved in plans (such as springing to the aid of those in distress).
The root of lovingkindness meditation is the extension of care, in ever widening sweeps, until not a living creature is missed. Receive everyone as if they were your mother is the famous dictum: the compassion you feel, when you can convince yourself they are, is almost boundless. And the neural signature of those moments should be dramatic. So too, Simon Lovell, whose ability, cultivated over a decade of ruthless cons, to view his marks as not quite human, could not withstand that final test in the hotel hallway. Those clinical rationalizations were smashed by something like a sense of common humanity. “Maybe in that moment,” Joshua Greene conjectures, “Simon Lovell became a little more monk-like.”