2. Feeling Empathy
In the same way we know people with extremist personalities, we all know people at both ends of the empathy spectrum: the ones who will rush right over with a freshly baked lasagna when your cat dies and the ones who make you work until 9 p.m. on the night your kid has the solo in the seventh-grade choral concert. Typically, wed call the latter Scrooge coldhearted. But the biologys all wrong. Aint the heart thats cold; its the brain. As with virtually every one of our biological functions, theres a survival value in feeling empathy for others; teaming up with a community to get a job done or fend off an attack is more advantageous than doing it alone. Its more than just adaptation at play, though. Its brain function.
Our moral system is largely dependent on how connected we feel with others; the more connected we feel, the higher our degree of generosity and compassion. Part of the biology comes from a phenomenon involving what are called mirror neurons. Someone does something around you (yawns or crosses her arms), and you pick up on it and reflect the same action back. Mirror neurons like tiny, neurological video cameras record life as it happens. Theyre how children learn and why you may pick up a southern accent after living a year in Louisiana. These neurons are found in various areas of the brain, and they fire in response to peoples actions. When you see a person performing an action, you automatically want to simulate the action with the brain (certain circuits in the brain may actually prevent you from doing it, though). This applies to watching someone dance on Dancing with the Stars or serve an ace at the U.S. Open, which is why we can perform better after a real pro shows us the way. Mirror neurons enabled the brains of our ancestors to increase dramatically in size, because their learning (and survival) ability grew so dramatically. The cool thing is that mirror neurons dont fire only with yawning and other inconsequential bodily blurts; your mirror neurons also react to emotions, generating empathy. When you see someone touched in a painful way, your own pain areas are activated; when you see a spider crawl up someones leg, you feel a creepy sensation because your mirror neurons are firing.
Social emotions such as guilt, shame, embarrassment, and lust are based on a uniquely human mirror neuron system found in the part of your brain called the insula (remember, the part of the brain associated with addictions). Its why you feel sad in the face of tragedy; you can empathize with the people who experience it. Its what allows you to connect with other humans and transcend your differences. Its also one of the reasons why church services and rituals can be so effective in helping people stay happy; they help teach you how youre supposed to feel and how powerful it can be to help others. We also know that different parts of the brain react depending on the morality of the decisions you make. In some MRI tests, researchers found that the left frontal lobe and temporal lobes were activated when making moral judgments, and it seems that when some of that neural circuitry is injured, morality can also be impaired. Cats have very small frontal lobes so they tend to not be as compassionate. Women appear to access this part of the brain (not the cats, their own) more than men, especially during childbearing years.