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 Mind games: Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, author of the best-selling book Phantoms in the Brain. Ramesh Pathania / Mint

Mind games: Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, author of the best-selling book Phantoms in the Brain. Ramesh Pathania / Mint

Understanding the triggers of empathy

Understanding the triggers of empathy

New Delhi: Ever since his 1998 book Phantoms in the Brain became a surprise best-seller, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran has gone where few neurologists have gone before: into the heart of popular culture. His 2007 TED conference talk was widely acclaimed, and his theories on mirror neurons—neurons that fire when one is poked, for instance, but also fire when one sees somebody else being poked—are no longer restricted to strictly academic circles. Last month, the maverick hero of the medical television drama House, M.D. even used Ramachandran’s mirror-box technique to cure a patient of phantom-limb pain. In New Delhi, to deliver the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture, Ramachandran spoke about mirror neurons, the nature of evil, and being a brain in a vat. Edited excerpts:

Mind games: Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, author of the best-selling book Phantoms in the Brain. Ramesh Pathania / Mint

A few years ago, you had said that mirror neurons would do for psychology what DNA did for biology. What have they illuminated about psychology since then?

Well, not any specific issue... But we’ve learnt about things like autism, which people couldn’t make any sense out of. Here’s a child who cannot empathize and who cannot play in the sense that a normal child can play, can’t engage in pretend play—“I’m Tarzan, I’m Superman" —or use action figures, or lacking in emotional empathy.

If you look at the properties of mirror neurons, they’re involved obviously in empathy, involved in taking another person’s point of view…all of this corresponds quite precisely…to the known deficits in autism. So it can’t be a coincidence if you say this is the main core deficit of autism. But this is still controversial, because we’ve proposed this and there’s a lot of evidence in its favour, but I wouldn’t say it’s conclusive.

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Autism aside, one of the higher human functions of mirror neurons is empathy…

Yeah, just as there are mirror neurons for motor actions, there are mirror neurons for touch. If I touch you, you experience the touch sensation.

And pain…

And pain too. If somebody pokes me with a needle, my anterior cingulate neurons will fire. Now it turns out, if I watch you being poked, the anterior cingulate neurons fire. Not all of them, but a subset of them.

These are what you call the Gandhi neurons?

Yes, the Gandhi neurons. Now, the thing is, if somebody pokes you and I watch, I get empathy, but I don’t really feel the poking. That’s because the skin receptors…are sending out a signal back, saying you’re not actually being poked. So it’s as though you’re being poked, try to empathize and feel that person is being poked, but don’t actually experience it, otherwise it’d be confusion.

But if these Gandhi neurons fire in this way, why doesn’t this feeling of empathy with pain stop people from killing or maiming?

What we’re arguing is that there are deficient mirror neuron systems in psychopaths and people who kill, because they have less empathy for people. And maybe people such as [Mahatma] Gandhi and Mother Teresa—and this is just pure speculation—have an enhanced mirror neuron system. Maybe we’d be able to train our mirror neuron system using biofeedback, making all human beings more empathetic and compassionate.

So a mirror neuron can influence actual behaviour?

Oh yeah, absolutely...it can.

You recently wrote an essay about the concept of the self, and it seemed to be an interesting trend that neuroscience is moving closer to philosophy…

That’s always been the case in science. You take a look at modern physics, starting from Einstein—even relativity is anticipated by [Immanuel] Kant. So the same thing is happening with the mind-body, mind-brain problem. There’s a notion of self-identity, self and others, the distinction between self and others—a major preoccupation among philosophers. So you’re saying now, by studying mirror neurons, you can get a real scientific handle on that problem.

Will the science become more philosophical as we move closer to understanding the brain’s chemistry and physics?

It’s the other way round. The philosophy is going to become more scientific. But you’re right too, the science is going to get to a point where you say you’ve understood most of it, and then the rest of it is philosophy. It’s like Shakespeare said. Hang philosophy, if philosophy cannot explain Juliet.

You once posed a thought experiment, about choosing between being a real human and being just a brain in a vat, with all memories and personality intact…

That problem we’re not likely to confront for several millennia maybe, so it’s moot. But it’s a theoretical problem. The standard repartee is: “So what, and maybe that’s what you are now." Maybe some evil scientist has put brains in vats and this whole thing is, you know, not really happening… Most people would pick the real life, but you can’t rationally justify it. There’s no way scientifically you can justify that you don’t want to be [a brain in a vat]. In a sense you are a brain in a vat already—it’s called the cranial cavity. So why do you prefer the real thing? You can’t logically justify it, and I think that’s a big, big dilemma in philosophy that’s largely being ignored.

What would your own preference be?

My own preference would be the real thing, but I can’t justify it in any scientific way. There’s no way I can justify it scientifically.

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