A Year of Wonder: The Neuroscience of Empathy

By announcing last month that I wanted 2016 to be a year of wonder, I put friendly pressure on myself to pursue on all the big questions that occurred to me. We’ll see how well I’m able to sustain the energy over the course of the rest of the year, but my first riddle was this: ‘If empathy is what makes us distinctly human, what do we know about the neuroscience of empathy itself?’

If a person wishes to wonder deeply about the world, which ingredient is more important – the person, or the world?

Until recently, our answer was clearly the latter.

For the great majority of our time on this planet, human beings have viewed the world almost entirely through the prism of “we,” not “me.” As foragers, we lived in unquestioning obedience to the unknowable marvels of the natural world. And in the earliest civilizations, we lived to serve the needs of our Gods in Heaven – and then, later on, their hand-chosen emissaries on Earth.

In these long chapters of the human story – which together make up more than 93% of our history as a species – our ancestors were most likely to find comfort, and a sense of identity, through their ability to fit usefully and invisibly into a larger community.

To stand out from the crowd was undesirable, since, in reality, doing so could mean ostracism or death.

To walk in someone else’s shoes was unnecessary, since, in effect, everyone wore the same shoes.

And to wonder about the world was to focus one’s gaze outward, or upward.

Over time, however, the human gaze has shifted. Beginning with the rise of the great religions, continuing through the citizen revolutions in France and the Americas, and running right up to and through the age of social media and the Selfie Stick, we humans have begun to increasingly look inward – and to find an equally endless source of awe and wonder as we do.

At the same time, a wave of new discoveries in fields ranging from neuroscience to psychology have taught us that our need to wonder is more than just a desire to daydream; it is the way we deepen our empathic capacity to connect with our fellow creatures.

“What do we human beings do all day long?” asks neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni. “We read the world, especially the people we encounter.”  And according to Iacoboni and his colleagues, we do so by relying on “mirror neurons” – a special subset of the more than 100 billion neurons that are busily and ever at work in the most complex structure in the known universe: the human brain.

They’re called mirror neurons to describe the ways that observing the behavior of someone else – from eating a peanut, to yawning, to experiencing sudden pain – can trigger the same brain activity in the observer as in the observed. “Our brains are capable of mirroring the deepest aspects of the minds of others at the fine-grained level of a single brain cell,” Iacoboni explains. “This is utterly remarkable. Equally remarkable is the effortlessness of this simulation. We do not have to draw complex inferences or run complicated algorithms.

“When we look at others, we find both them and ourselves.”

Similarly, a growing chorus of researchers has begun to suggest empathy is a foundational building block in our process of developing social cognition. “The brain is a social organ, made to be in relationship,” explains psychiatrist Daniel Siegel. “What happens between brains has a great deal to do with what happens within each individual brain . . . [And] the physical architecture of the brain changes according to where we direct our attention and what we practice doing.”

And yet, as far as words go, empathy is a new one – it didn’t even appear until the early 20th century. It comes from the English translation of the German word einfühlung, which was used to describe the relationship between a work of art and its subject; it was later expanded to include interactions between people.

Those interactions, according to social theorist Jeremy Rifkin, are what give rise to a deeper human capacity for making sense of the world. “Empathic consciousness starts with awe,” he contends. “When we empathize with another, we are bearing witness to the strange incredible life force that is in us and that connects us to all other living beings.

“It is awe that inspires all human imagination. Without awe, we would be without wonder and without wonder we would have no way to exercise imagination and would therefore be unable to imagine another’s life ‘as if’ it were our own.”

In other words, we have slowly flipped the paradigm of human understanding: strictly speaking, it is not the world that makes us wonder; it is our wondering that makes the world. Or, even more specifically, as the Chilean biologist-philosophers Francesco Varela and Humberto Muturana point out, “the world everyone sees is not the world but a world, which we bring forth with others.”

This epiphany is changing more than just our understanding of the brain. In recent years, scientists in fields ranging from biology to ecology have revised the very metaphors they use to describe their work – from hierarchies to networks – and begun to realize, as physicist Fritjof Capra says, “that partnership – the tendency to associate, establish links, and maintain symbiotic relationships – is one of the hallmarks of life.”

The downside of all this navel-gazing? A heightened risk of narcissism, consumerism, and reality television.

The upside? A steadily increasing empathic capacity, anchored in our development of a shared sense of vulnerability, and a paradoxical desire to seek “universal intimacy” with the world.

“We are learning,” Rifkin writes, “against all of the prevailing wisdom, that human nature is not to seek autonomy – to become an island to oneself – but, rather, to seek companionship, affection, and intimacy. We have been sending out radio communications to the far reaches of the cosmos in the hope of finding some form of intelligent and caring life, only to discover that what we were desperately seeking already exists among us here on Earth.”



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