Saturday, May 22, 2010

Follow Up: Monkey See... What Should We Do?

When I was looking at the senses I wrote about monkey see monkey do neurons. How the brain, in monkeys and in humans, follows along when we watch actions. The same neurons that fire when a monkey opens a nut fire when the monkey watches someone else open a nut. Hence the name. Though they are also called mirror neurons instead of monkey see monkey do neurons. Mirror neurons probably looks better in the scientific literature.

There are some interesting implications on what the existence of mirror neurons in our brains imply. After all if we act out what we see... then that may be the basis for empathy. If we can literally 'feel' in our minds what others are doing and experiencing then... is that how empathy forms?

Now I haven't been following up the science in detail so I don't know what the latest consensus is. And just because we can go through the motions doesn't mean that mirror neurons are the basis of emotional empathic responses. And even if that's shown to be true... it doesn't invalidate the other aspects of our nature and somehow just turn us into empathic beings.

Which is why a presentation from RSA Animate irks me so much. The Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce has put online a number of presentations and lectures given at events they've held. It's a fascinating series of talks on all sorts of topics. RSA Animate is a series of videos in which some of the lectures are played along with a sped up drawing of the key points, phrases, and ideas in the lecture. The 'animated' part is created using a large whiteboard. The effect is rather good. Lectures (or it seems edited versions of some lectures) are enhanced by watching someone draw notes for you as you watch.

One of the RSA Animate presentations is The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin. Now the main substance is an interesting idea. Maybe even a very important one. But....

Part of the presentation is a few more details on the actual experiment that first showed mirror neurons. A few seconds later and he's telling us that research tells us we aren't wired for aggression or anger or violence but for sociability and affection and companionship.

Now I never thought human beings were 'just' violent at our cores. But I'm not sure we're 'just' empathic at heart either. As in much of science I suspect the reality is much more nuanced and grey than a black or white look at the world.

I'm not throwing out the overall idea of the talk. I'm not saying some of what he's proposing and talking about doesn't sound like a good idea. What I am saying is: Why do people take a little bit of research and assume that all the previous research and findings were completely wrong? I understand it's nicer to think of us as polite empathic creatures instead of violent self actualizers... but again... isn't probably more complicated than one or the other?

I like to think we all have better angels in our nature (to badly paraphrase) but I also know we aren't always angels. Humans are much more interesting than just angels or just devils. That's what I like about people.

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