According to recent research published by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the USC Brain and Creativity Institute and the USC Rossier School of Education, "The human brain may simulate physical sensations to prompt introspection, capitalizing on moments of high emotion to promote moral behavior."
"Individuals who were told stories designed to evoke compassion and admiration for virtue sometimes reported that they felt a physical sensation in response. These psycho-physical 'pangs' of emotion are very real -- they're detectable with brain scans -- and may be evidence that pro-social behavior is part of human survival…We are an intensely social species…Our very biology is a social one."
In recent history mirror neurons have taken center stage with much excitement, prompting titles like: "imitation leaning as the force behind the 'great leap forward' in human evolution." As V.S. Ramachandran wrote,
"Mirror neurons can also enable you to imitate the movements of others thereby setting the stage for the complex Lamarckian or cultural inheritance that characterizes our species and liberates us from the constraints of a purely gene based evolution." What's most notable about this that both research fields suggests that it's natural for human beings to feel pain or disease when others feel pain or disease--even if those in distress are entities in a story. We are born imitators and that’s been one of our great successes.
The brain and body are wired to emote. To feel is part or our very survival mechanism and is likely tied to the production of a “self”. Imagine now the kind of simple or complex excuses we have for exploitation, homelessness, differential advantage, warfare, and so on. The excuses tied to these situations may be a kind of ideological pseudo-logic programming established to overwrite or buffer the neuro-emotional responses to such situations in favor of the immediate status quo (that status quo most likely being, “I can’t stay and help. I must acquire money to acquire calories”).
With brainwave research-based products on the market like The Gateway Program and iDoser as well as the interest neurologists have had for compassion meditation research, and mirror neurons it seems the question of “What is morality” is no longer in the bog of postmodern relativism. Indeed we may be approaching a new schema of morality the likes of which Tom Campbell and other scientist-meditators and social scientists have written and spoken at length about—something outside of classism and more tied to the needs of all. It is humorous to note that today almost any advance in any field of technology is threatening to us because we can look out our windows or into our screens and see the length to which our species lacks in moral reasoning. Our ability to establish a moral sanity may greatly affect our chances of worthwhile survival in this century.
Image by Pink Sherbet on Flickr courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing.