Of Mice and Men and Empathy

I have a pet mouse. It’s not exactly a pet because it doesn’t live in a cage, but it lives in my office and uses my internet cable as a ladder to the air vents in the wall to enter and leave the house. It does this every evening, so I often see it scurry behind my desk, up the cable and out through the air bricks. Sometimes, my pet mouse stops at just about eye level and turns around briefly to check me out, but if I so much as blink, it races off. I don’t blame it.

As I sit at my desk working or web surfing, I often think about my mouse and what it thinks about when it looks at me. I’m pretty certain it is not burdened with language centres like I am, but is it conscious or is it, as so many learned scientists like to believe, just an unconscious or dimly conscious creature incapable of thought, reflection or random acts of kindness?

Rats in loveOne of our greatest human conceits amongst countless others is the contention that “only humans are capable of feeling empathy or compassion.” Anybody who has a pet dog knows that is nonsense, but now even science is coming to the party. Recent studies have proven pretty decisively that mice may be better “Christians” than we are. In one study, an uncaged rat went out of its way to free a caged rat and had to spend a considerable amount of time and effort to figure out a way to open its cage. Not only that, but it chose to engage in this act of compassion despite the enticement of freely available chocolate, which apparently rats love. To make matters even more interesting, it released its captive before it ate the chocolate and freely shared it with the other rat after releasing it. (Sources: Psychology Today and Science Daily)

Or how about this one, also from Psychology Today, Wild Justice and Emotional Intelligence in Animals:

CeAnn Lambert, director of the Indiana Coyote Rescue Center, saw that two baby mice had become trapped in the sink and were unable to scramble up the slick sides. They were exhausted and frightened. CeAnn filled a small lid with water and placed it in the sink. One of the mice hopped over and drank, but the other was too exhausted to move and remained crouched in the same spot. The stronger mouse found a piece of food and picked it up and carried it to the other. As the weaker mouse tried to nibble on the food, the stronger mouse moved the morsel closer and closer to the water until the weaker mouse could drink. CeAnn created a ramp with a piece of wood and the revived mice were soon able to scramble out of the sink.

On the other side of the equation, just the other night I saw a story on TV about a group of people on a beach in California who stood by and watched a man drown. Even though he was not in deep water and they had the means to save him, not one of them went to help him because they were afraid of the legal consequences if they did. In another segment on the same program, which was exploring just how selfish and brutal we have become (actually it was about America in particular), firefighters came to a burning house but refused to put out the fire because the owners hadn’t paid a $75 fee that entitled them to the firefighters’ services.

battery hensSome animals kill other animals, just like we do, but they don’t tend to torture them or slaughter them unnecessarily. They’re hungry, they kill and they eat. Foxes didn’t invent bizarre torture chambers like these cages for battery hens, for instance. Humans came up with that idea.

Now that I’ve removed us humans from the pinnacle of goodness, let’s take a quick look at evil, because this is where we reign supreme. Those of us who like the triune brain/frontal lobes theory like to believe the frontal lobes are the most evolved parts of the brain and are responsible for our feelings of empathy. There might be some truth to that, but, as I mentioned in an earlier blog and others have written about more eruditely elsewhere, the frontal lobes are now thought to be the seat of the executive centre and only incidentally connected with empathy or compassion. I can’t think of a single “less evolved” animal that regularly and methodically plans and executes the kinds of evil deeds we do. The fact that we undertake them consciously and upon reflection justify and “improve” our torture and murder techniques  just makes it worse.

We frontal lobe lovers like to lay the blame for ego and evil on our reptilian brains, but that really doesn’t hold water, either. Crocodiles don’t torture their prey and they certainly don’t go to elaborate lengths to invent horrible ways of killing others just for the sake of gaining, say, some oil-rich land.They kill, they eat and then they sleep or make baby crocodiles. There’s nothing inherently evil in any of that, so calling the reptilian part of the brain “reptilian” and saying it’s the seat of evil is kind of an insult to crocodiles.  Besides, our “reptilian” brains work tirelessly to keep us breathing, so we should show them a little gratitude.

Okay, I know you can come up with stories about cannibalism and infanticide in the animal kingdom. I’m not saying they’re all ascended masters or saints – just that an objective look at the facts seems to indicate that we are very far down on the evolutionary ladder (if there is such a thing) when it comes to stuff that really matters, like love and empathy.

So if evil can’t be so easily explained away, where does it come from? Well, I’m way above my self-imposed 500 word per blog limit, so I’ll save that for another post. Or you tell me. Thanks for visiting.

Shambhala Sun – This is Your Brain on Mindfulness (July 2011)

This is Your Brain on Mindfulness

Meditators say their practice fundamentally changes the way they experience life. MICHAEL BAIME reports on how modern neuroscience is explaining this in biological terms.


Note the balanced brain on the right

One of the most interesting areas of research on the effects of contemplative practices has explored the possibility that the actual structure of the brain is changed by meditation practice. Several neuroscientists have shown that some of the brain regions activated during meditation are actually different in people who meditate regularly, and the most recent evidence suggests that the changes can occur in as little as eight weeks. This finding is at odds with what we think we know about brain structure in adults. We used to believe that sometime shortly after twenty-five or thirty years of age the brain was finished with growth and development. From then on, the brain became progressively impaired by age and injury, and it was all downhill from there. But recent meditation research suggests that this glum outcome may not be inevitable. Meditation practice is associated with changes of specific brain areas that are essential for attention, learning, and the regulation of emotion.

via Shambhala Sun – This is Your Brain on Mindfulness (July 2011).

The Science of Compassion

Some time ago, I wrote a Hub about the survival value of compassion. In it, I questioned the truth of the accepted doctrine of “survival of the fittest.” That phrase is all most of us really know about Charles Darwin and the one that is used to justify all sorts of horrible behaviour. I’ve just stumbled across a short video clip that offers another Darwin quote that completely contradicts the notion that “survival of the fittest” is just the way it is in nature and we might as well face it.

In this short video clip, Dacher Keltner, aka the “Kindness Scientist,” mentions that Charles Darwin stated that “sympathy is our strongest instinct.” I’ll take his word for it, since Keltner actually studied Darwin and read his works. I’ll let the video speak for itself, but want to add my two cents worth before you move on to the more entertaining video.

It has always seemed obvious to me that sharing had greater survival value for a species than looking out for number one. A cheeta may bring down a gazelle in an act of aggression, but if he doesn’t share it with others, they will die. He will also only kill one cheeta. He doesn’t gather together an army and slaughter whole herds of gazelles. If he did that, the cheetas would wipe out their food source and die. I’m being simplistic here, but I hope you get the idea.

Take sharing to the next level and you get compassion and kindness. The video below suggests that these have tremendous survival value, both collectively and individually.

Most of us humans seem to instinctively understand our place in the scheme of things. As long as we have the basics covered, we’re reasonably content. Empires don’t seem to be built by human beings. It seems to me they are built by some strange alien life form that looks human but behaves differently. Maybe these psychopathic creatures whose goal seems to be to enslave humanity are just an evolutionary aberration. I don’t really care what their origin is. The point is, they break all the rules of nature – the rules that keep things in balance and harmony.

What do we, as caring, compassionate humans do about it? Historically, we have done very little, but I think now that we’re waking up to what’s happening, we can easily overcome them. How? Once we realise there are more of us than there are of them, we can form our own survival networks and drop out of the system. They will then lose their food source and die out. Easier said than done, and I’m afraid we won’t do it until the danger that faces us really hits us in the guts. In the meantime, let’s just keep spreading the word.

Anyway, enjoy the video. I did.