The year is 1990 and a man is sitting across from a monkey.
Between them is an object that will, in mere moments, become the Raisin Heard Round The World. This is the lab of Giacomo Rizzolatti, and the monkey is part of an experiment to determine what pre-motor cortex neurons fire in the performing of an action. By hooking an electrode up to a neuron and a loudspeaker and listening for activity, they can determine whether that neuron fires or not when a particular action is performed.
They have found one such which fires whenever the monkey reaches to pick up a raisin. Well and good. One down, several million to go. But this time things go a little differently. By chance, the scientist happens to pick up one of the raisins while the monkey is still plugged into the system, and the loudspeaker crackles with activity. Thinking it a technical malfunction, he does it again, and again the speaker lurches to life. A realization slowly works its way through the team – the monkey neuron that fired when performing an event also fires when watching the event performed. The first “mirror neuron” had announced its existence in rather spectacular style, and opened the floodgates for a radical new understanding of the interactivity of our mental life.
Subsequent research revealed conclusively that, when we watch actions being performed, groups of pre-motor neurons fire in our brain that we ordinarily use to perform those actions ourselves. So, we understand the actions of others in large part by neurally mimicking them, stopping just short of overt physical repetition. When I see you do something, in a way, I am doing it as well, and that lets me understand your action intentions much better than if I worked through just abstract reasoning alone.
The natural next question, then, was how deep these mirroring processes went. Could they be used to gain more insight, for example, into our shared emotional lives? Dr. Tania Singer, now Director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, saw empathy as a particularly promising emotion to investigate. Subjectively, it feels very much like the mirroring we’ve been talking about so far. When I see you in pain, it somehow causes me pain as well. How, precisely, does that work?
The challenge was to find a neural explanation for the phenomenon by creating situations fraught with empathetic meaning. Singer’s famous experiment, published in 2004, involved that ever-promising combination of romantic love and electric current. She took couples and attached electrodes to their hands. These electrodes delivered either non-painful or rather painful shocks to one or the other members of the couple. On a screen, each participant was able to see three seconds in advance how bad the upcoming shock was going to be, and who would be receiving it, all while an fMRI scanner recorded their brain activity.
It turned out that many of the same areas responsible for the pain response when the scanned participant felt a substantial shock also lit up when her partner did outside of the scanner, that the brain relives to some degree the pain of others. More than that, the activation was more intense for those who, in questionnaires given after the experiment, described themselves as generally more empathetic. The self conception of the participants rated empathy mapped perfectly with the intensity of their interior neural modeling of others’ pain.
It was a landmark result, but Singer was far from done. For her next investigation, she decided to see how issues of fairness and gender might play a role in neural empathetic responses. This time, she hired actors with the help of a good company like headhunters Utah to run through an elaborate priming scenario with the participants. A participant would show up and play a distribution game with an actor who was introduced as another participant. The game involved money sharing, and one of the actors was instructed to always be generous, and the other to always be markedly unfair, in their distribution of the given money. By the end of the experiment, participants generally had a very positive conception of the fair actor, and a generally distrustful one of the unfair actor. Next, Singer replicated her earlier experiment, except instead of the participant being linked with her loved one, she was now fed information about the two players.
Then something really rather amazing happened. For female participants, the empathy-related brain responses showed up regardless of whether the fair or unfair player was receiving a painful shock. Her distrust or personal dislike of the person getting shocked played no role in the intensity of her empathetic response. Male participants, on the other hand, glowed with empathy whenever the Fair actor was shocked, but registered no response at all when the Unfair actor was and, in fact, showed marked activation in their pleasure-associated reward centers when they knew that the guy behaving unfairly was getting a nasty jolt.
It was a fascinating result that has since spawned a flood of interesting questions about when our Empathy Engines are engaged, and when they are left dormant, and evolutionary questions about why the difference between men and women in this and subsequent experiments is so substantial.
What I love most about Dr. Singer, however, is that it would have been the easiest thing to disappear down the hole of academic research on these topics, but instead she chose a very different path. She took an interest in the neural, psychological and philosophical differences between Empathy and Compassion, with an eye to using her biological insights into both to help people craft programs and environments that are more nurturing of compassion as our default response to each other’s misery.
As Dr. Singer put it in an interview with Psychologie Heute, “Empathy is quite generally the ability to share feelings with others: when you, for example, are hurt, or worried, or afraid, and I am standing there, then I as an empathetic human experience negative feelings as well. Such affective resonance is practically universal: pretty much everybody does it… Compassion, on the other hand, is a reaction to another’s suffering from an entirely different world. We can verify this through brain physiology: when somebody is in pain, a compassionate reaction does not replicate the painful state itself, but rather produces feelings of concern and warmth as well as a motivation to help the sufferer.”
Empathy can be “painful”, and felt by the brain as such. Compassion, Singer claims, leaves a far less destructive toll on us, and if we could teach people how to attain compassionate neural states, the potential for easing the burden on doctors, caretakers, and those who have to regularly enter into the misery of others, would be of incalculable benefit.
In order to get a discussion going about how compassion might be taught, she has organized collaborative workshops between artists, sociologists, neuroscientists, and economists, one of the results of which is a marvelous e-book which is available for free download to anybody interested in the evidence for the teachability of compassion, and ideas for how to go about making a society that considers the inculcation of a compassionate standpoint a primary objective.
Currently, she is conducting a massive project, a one-year longitudinal mental training project called the ReSource Project, the scale of which simply staggers the imagination, in order to determine the neural, subjective, health-related and behavioral changes that meditative practice may have on us.
It is the rare scientist who not only discovers new and profound things about human nature, but who also has the desire and ability to turn those discoveries into practice for the realization of a better human community. When they do come along, though, we are left to stand with awe and inspiration about how very much one can do with this life we’ve been given. Dr. Singer’s science has inspired a wave of study about the limits and development of our interconnectedness on a neural level, and her work a newfound interest in revolutionizing our emotional development on a societal scale.
All that before the age of 44, leaving us all with a beautiful message to take away – if you thought the age of meaningful research was over, buried away with the Newtons and Pasteurs, you couldn’t be more wrong.
So, get out there and do some science!
Dr. Singer’s classic 2004 paper, “Empathy for Pain Involves the Affective but not Sensory Components of Pain” can be found here, and if you’re a reader of German (as well you should be), her 2014 interview with Psychologie Heute which I quoted above is here. For a general history of mirror neurons and their role in empathy, I love The Empathic Brain by Christian Keysers, and if that inspires you to look more closely at the structure of neurons and the diversity of what they can pull off in concert, then Joseph LeDoux’s The Synaptic Self is one of my favorite books ever, a sweeping account of the nitty gritty of brain function that is still accessible to an enterprising layman. Then, once you’re all up to speed, you can go ahead and check out Dr. Singer’s more recent papers, listen below, and the e-book mentioned above!
Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Ricard, M., & Singer, T. (2013). Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Lamm, C., & Singer, T. (2013). Functional neural plasticity and associated changes in positive affect after compassion training. Cerebral Cortex, 23(7), 1552-1561.
Leiberg, S., Klimecki, O., & Singer, T. (2011). Short-term compassion training increases prosocial behavior in a newly developed prosocial game. PLoS One, 6(3): e17798.
Singer, T., & Bolz, M. (Eds.). (2013). Compassion: Bridging practice and science. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.