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The Origin of Empathy

  • Laughter is contagious: if you look at a group of people who are laughing hysterically, you tend to laugh too, even if you cannot hear a single word of their conversation. Panic is contagious too: if you see a crowd of scared people, you get scared too.
  • There has long been consensus that each mind contains a theory of other minds: my mind constructs a theory of what is going on in your mind.
  • This "theory of mind" is crucial in interacting with others. It is also crucial for understanding your motives, which, in turn, is a crucial process for the many games of deceit that we play all the time (for example, bargaining a price or romancing a girl).
  • However, this "theory of mind" is more than just a summary or interpretation of the state of one's mind: it is a physical representation inside my brain of the neural state of somebody else's brain.
  • My brain contains a "mirror image" of part of your brain.
  • This explains the empathy: I feel your joy or your pain because my brain physically "duplicates" that brainstate and therefore makes me feel what you are feeling.
  • Imitation and empathy are therefore built-in features of the brain.
  • Culture probably fine-tunes a mechanism that is there from birth. When parents "teach" their children, they craft the "mirror neurons" of their children, the same way that they teach their children to speak a language by fine-tuning the innate language skills of their brain. Children born with similar brains (like siblings) and raised by the same parents are inevitably likely to identify with each other's states of mind. Similarly, when a teacher teaches the values of society to a class, the mirror neurons of the pupils are being shaped to create a uniform brain state towards those values.
  • "Mirror neurons" might be affected by any kind of communication with other people. As you live in your environment, the environment trains your mirror neurons to reflect its values.
  • Mirror neurons are a possible explanation for the power of peer pressure and of fads.
  • Mirror neurons explain altruism: the single most powerful motivation to help someone in trouble is that I can feel their pain and the only way to stop feeling it is to help them get out of trouble. Then I will feel their joy.
  • Mirror neurons might be the single most important feature for creating societies and civilizations.
  • Mirror neurons do not reset overnight. They are "remembered" just like anything else. This means that my mind contains (part of) the minds of all the people encountered in my lifetime. My mind contains your mind, in fact it contains all the minds with which I have interacted, although only as much as was "revealed" during that interaction.
  • My "self" contains more than me.
  • Cooperation is rather primitive among other mammals and birds. The reason could be that only human brains evolved such sophisticated mirror neurons. Today mirror neurons may in fact be working beyond their original mission, causing us to sympathize with and help people even in circumstances that may harm us; something that was certainly not the original reason for mirror neurons to evolve.
Proof-edited by Alexander Altaras