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Lions Roar : November 2006
OUR BRAIN HAS BEEN PRESET for kindness. We automati- cally go to the aid of a child who is screaming in terror; we automatically want to hug a smiling baby. Such emotional impulses are “prepotent”: they elicit reactions in us that are unpremeditated and instantaneous. That this flow from em- pathy to action occurs with such rapid automaticity hints at circuitry dedicated to this very sequence. To feel distress stirs an urge to help. When we hear an anguished scream, it activates the same parts of our brain that experience such anguish, as well as the premotor cortex, a sign we are preparing to act. Similarly, hear- ing someone tell an unhappy story in doleful tones activates the listener’s motor cortex—which guides movements—as well as the amygdala and related circuits for sadness. This shared state then signals the motor area of the brain, where we prepare our response, for the relevant action. Our initial perception pre- pares us for action: to see readies us to do. The neural networks for perception and action share a com- mon code in the language of the brain. This shared code allows whatever we perceive to lead almost instantly to the appropri- ate reaction. Seeing an emotional expression, hearing a tone of voice, or having our attention directed to a given topic in- stantly fires the neurons that that message indicates. This shared code was anticipated by Charles Darwin, who back in 1872 wrote a scholarly treatise on emotions that sci- entists still regard highly. Although Darwin wrote about empa- thy as a survival factor, a popular misreading of his evolutionary theories emphasized “nature red in tooth and claw” (as Tennyson phrased the notion of a relentless culling of the weak), a notion favored by “social Darwinists,” who twisted evolutionary think- ing to rationalize greed. Darwin saw every emotion as a predis- position to act in a unique way: fear, to freeze or flee; anger, to fight; joy, to embrace; and so on. Brain-imaging studies now show that, at the neural level, he was right. To feel any emotion stirs the related urge to act. The low road makes that feeling-action link interpersonal. For instance, when we see someone expressing fear—even if only in the way they move or hold their body—our own brain activates the circuitry for fear. Along with this instantaneous contagion, the brain areas that prepare for fearful actions also activate, and so on with each emotion—anger, joy, sadness. Emotional conta- gion, then, does more than merely spread feelings—it automati- cally prepares the brain for appropriate action. Nature’s rule of thumb holds that a biological system should use the minimal amount of energy. Here the brain achieves that efficiency by firing the same neurons while both perceiving and performing an action. That economizing repeats across brains. In the special case of someone in distress, the perception–action link makes coming to their aid the brain’s natural tendency. To feel with stirs us to act for. The Instinct for Altruism Brain-science writer DANIEL GOLEMAN describes how we are hardwired for kindness—and why that impulse is sometimes short-circuited. about the mind. Watching the mind, and then doing some- thing about it. MATTHIEU RICARD: The whole point of mind training and meditation is not just to have a pleasant relaxation for a few moments and a little bit better day. RICHARD GERE: A vacation. MATTHIEU RICARD: Whew! I’m so relaxed. I’m at the beach. It’s beautiful. That’s not the point. The point is rather to change the baseline you come back to. The point is to make that baseline more peaceful, more altruistic, and more emo- tionally balanced. RICHARD GERE: More free, liberated to do more in the areas of creativity, compassion, altruism, all the heightened emo- tions that, in fact, as a culture, we do value. MATTHIEU RICARD: Freedom is a most misunderstood concept. I heard a young girl on the BBC say, “Freedom is just to do anything that comes to my mind.” That’s the best recipe for endless torment. 72 SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2006 PHOTOS©ROBERTA.RIPPS