When a natural disaster strikes, like the recent earthquake in Nepal, news and images are immediately beamed out to the world thanks to technology. From shaky photographs taken on mobile phone cameras to live coverage, the vast human tragedy quickly reached television and computer screens around the world. As it unfolded, many watched and prayed, many watched and were driven to help. There were few who saw the images and remained unaffected.
When we see suffering human beings, even with whom we have no personal connection, isn’t empathy our first instinct ? For many of us this INSTINCTIVE EMPATHY rises for animals and birds, as well as the earth and ecosphere.
Feeling empathy is the first step towards the mental and emotional processes that lead to actual action, like compassionate giving and altruism. Why do we need to think about this? Because ever since Charles Darwin propounded the theory of evolution in the 19th century, where natural selection was considered to function on “survival of the fittest”, there has developed a view that selfishness is the basis of all nature. Theories of “social Darwinism” trace the rise of laissez faire capitalism, racism and, to some extent, imperialism, to an innate selfish and “me first” view of what it meant to be human that arose from the “survival of the fittest” mind-set.
This 19th century notion that human beings are somehow “hardwired to be selfish” lingers on in popular culture. Biology itself has moved far beyond simplistic explanations of Darwinian thought, and in fact the discovery of “mirror neurons” in the 1980s and 1990s holds out the possibility that we might be actually be “hardwired towards empathy and altruism”.
Here is how “mirror neurons” work. If a ball hits me on the head, signals are sent to my brain that enable me to feel pain. If I watch a ball hit another human being on the head, something happens in my brain that is not a direct sensation of pain, but is an experience of pain nevertheless. It could be called “empathetic pain”. A certain type of neuron in my brain “mirrors” the pain of another, so that I can feel what the other is feeling. THIS IS THE SEED OF EMPATHY.
Neuroscientist V. S. Ramchandran, who has extensively researched “mirror neurons” and their implications, credits them with enabling human beings to develop an “allocentric” view, which means being focussed on others, as opposed to the “egocentric” one, which means being focussed on oneself. According to him, “At some point in evolution, this system (mirror neurons) ……. allowed you to create an “allocentric” view of yourself. This is, I claim, the DAWN OF SELF AWARENESS.”
So, not only are we “hardwired” to be kind, we actually benefit from it.
——- Swati Chopra