April 3, 2006

Mirror Neurons

I looked out through the window as the train rolled slowly out of Howrah Station. The evening skyline of Kolkotha dissolved behind me into a haze of smog and dusk. Then I saw her.

A child, only about four or five years old, she was standing alongside the rail tracks, licking her fingers dipped into a broken mudka of yoghurt, perhaps thrown away by a passenger. As my window passed her, she looked up and our eyes locked together briefly. Her eyes were dry, seemed to hold no anguish, no pain, empty. I am not a bleeding heart liberal - far from it. On the political compass, I am more free-market minded and libertarian than Milton Friedman. Yet, something in her eyes bored right through my eyes, grabbed and shook violently the deepest recesses of my mind.

They say an image is worth a thousand words. I don't have a picture of the child, except the one etched in my memory. Years later, I would read about another girl, pictured above, a victim of the senseless bombing in Varanasi, India, perpetrated by mindless fools hell-bent on sacrificing life in the altar of the dead. The expression on her face was not quite the same, but close.

As the train sped away, the girl seemed to ask me plaintively, "what did I do to deserve this?" I helplessly spread my hands and said silently to myself, "I don't know...".

Mirror Neurons
...Researchers at UCLA [1] found that cells in the human anterior cingulate, which normally fire when you poke the patient with a needle ("pain neurons"), will also fire when the patient watches another patient being poked. The mirror neurons, it would seem, dissolve the barrier between self and others. I call them "empathy neurons" or "Dalai Llama neurons". (I wonder how the mirror neurons of a masochist or sadist will respond to another person being poked.) Dissolving the "self vs. other" barrier is the basis of many ethical systems, especially eastern philosophical and mystical traditions. This research implies that mirror neurons can be used to provide rational rather than religious grounds for ethics (although we must be careful not to commit the is/ought fallacy). Excerpt from an essay by V. S. Ramachandran, "Mirror Neurons and the Brain in the Vat", Edge, January, 10, 2006.

What made me feel the despair of this child, with whom, I had but a fleeting exchange of a glance? Why do I see her face every time I take a spoonful of yoghurt to my mouth? Why do I worry about a nameless, unseen, victim, whether she had survived a horrible explosion? Mirror neurons?

A team of UCLA researchers have recently found that a patient's mirror neurons would fire, as she watched another being poked with a needle. This is an interesting finding. It brings empathy closer to the body. Did my mirror neurons fire when I saw and felt the despair of the child? My mirror neurons seem to fire even if the sight of another person in pain or despair were virtual. A well acted scene in a movie, or a well written episode in a novel, seems to bring forth a surge of emotions in me.

Several years ago, I read a short story, Agni Pravesam by Jayakanthan in Tamil. It was about an innocent young girl in her first year of college, who was seduced and raped(?) by a stranger from whom she had accepted a ride home on a rainy evening. The girl, unaware of the implications in the conservative and orthodox community to which she belonged, told her widowed mother about the incident. Her mother, a pragmatic woman, castigated her for her foolishness, but declared after giving her a bath that she was exonerated and "purified" (her "sin" washedaway!). When I read it, a controversial story then, I felt the anguish of the girl, who almost had no idea of what had happened to her, and her mother's anger and resolve in fighting an intrusive and regressive community. Call me a sentimental fool with a surplus of mirror neurons!

V. S. Ramachandran, a noted neuroscientist, building on the findings of the UCLA researches, suggests in his recent essay on mirror neurons, that these specialized cells in the human brain that evoke empathy for others seem to "dissolve the barrier between the self and others."

Do mirror neurons imply that we are hard-wired to be altruistic? It's one thing to empathize with another's pain, but it's an entirely different matter to act upon it. If I were poked with a needle, I would act instantly to move away from the needle or take steps to alleviate the pain. I did nothing of that sort to alleviate the despair of the girl I saw at the Howrah Station, even though her image was etched deep in my mind, and would haunt me for many years to come.

Action requires the spending of resources, and a decision to act moves the brain into the realm of reason. Emotion may efface the difference between the self and the other, but reason may not. Reason cannot afford to fail to perform the calculus of cause and effect of behavior, of cost and benefit to the self. The neuronal pathways that are stimulated by the firing of the mirror neurons may not be the ones that are traversed by reason.

I am not suggesting that empathy is ephemeral and implies nothing more than a few "crocodile tears". Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, describes various "spheres of intimacy", and as one moved from the innermost (family) outwards through the spheres, the "social distance" from one's own self incresed, and the extent of benevolence showed towards others diminished. As many economists are, Smith was perhaps influenced by the laws of Physics, and in this case, Newton's inverse law of universal gravitation.

Whether or not there is an "inverse law of altruism", I think there's a gulf between empathy and altruism, and not everyone in every situation has the bridge of reason ready to cross it. It's probably built, synapse by synapse over time, the product of the interplay between emotion and reason, an intriguing possibility set forth by Antonio Damasio in his book, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. The bridge is perhaps tailor-made for every individual, and for every situation that one faces.

I think, because I have become.

1 comment :
  1. Three years old, this post is still solid gold!


Leave a Comment