Monday, 21 February 2011

The science of heartlessness

From The science of heartlessness - Science -
We've all encountered people with such divergent attitudes toward suffering -- and it often brings up a rather prickly question: Why are some of us bleeding hearts while others have hearts of stone? Science actually provides us with a number of clues.

A Dutch team, for example, has looked at how oxytocin, a hormone frequently associated with female reproduction, influences parenting styles. Dutch scientists watched as a bunch of mothers interacted with their two-year-old children, who were trying to solve a difficult puzzle. Some mothers were patient and helpful; others were not. And the not-so-helpful mothers were more likely to carry a particular version of the oxytocin receptor gene: Their "mommy chemical" system may have been set just a tad to the selfish side, slightly blinding them to the emotions of their children.
But humans have access to another brain system that raises sympathy, too. When you stick out your tongue at a baby, the baby will often stick its tongue out automatically. The motor region of the baby's brain is mirroring your own motor region. Our emotional regions also have a system that helps us to mirror another's feelings. Although many scientists refer to this system as "mirror neurons," referring to brain cells that reproduce other people's emotions in our own brain, that's speculation.

Mirror neurons do exist in monkeys, that's established. When scientists monitored one nerve cell at a time to see how one monkey responded to a second monkey's actions, they found that some neurons fire just as if the watching monkey were performing the action himself. Whether a monkey reaches for food or merely watches another monkey reach for food, his neurons fire identically. Scientists can confirm mirror neurons in monkeys because they're allowed to slip superfine wires into a monkey's brain and tap into one cell at a time. They can't get a permit to do that to humans.
That they'd want to shows a distinct lack of empathy IMHO. If it does no harm - why not be their own experimental animals?

Yes, well, it's Salon. Not exactly a primary source. Nonetheless, for a PopSci article, not too inaccurate as far as I can see. Right now I'm so overwhelmed preparing the COMP8100 course on Requirements Elicitation at the ANU that I have little time for blogging.


Laserlight said...

I am an Aspie, have a hard time telling what other people are thinking, and am generally pretty heartless. My wife readily imagines what someone else must be feeling, and is excessively sympathetic.
(Zoe, I expect you'll disagree about the "heartless" bit, but the people I do sympathize with are people I know by email).

Major said...

"If it does no harm - why not be their own experimental animals?"

It says why right there in the quoted text "they can't get a permit". It can take six months to get ethics approval to initiate a research project which consists entirely of reading old patient charts and extracting non-identifying details.