What Neuro-Science Adds and Takes Away

The powerful don’t empathize with those less powerful, according to new research reported in The New York Times. The reason offered is that, “when people experience power, their brains fundamentally change how sensitive they are to the actions of others.”

This is a nice example of how cognitive neuro-scientists, focusing entirely on “objective” evidence, in this case the activity of “mirror neurons,” miss out on the common sense meaning of human behavior. An earlier explanation of this well-known effect, offered by Susan Fiske, a psychologist at Princeton, is that “powerful people don’t attend well to others around them because they don’t need them in order to access important resources.” They “already have plentiful access to those.”

Conversely – and perhaps more importantly – the less powerful are acutely attentive to the opportunity to gain allies or avoid powerful enemies. Empathy is instrumental, and our drives to survive and thrive guide our sensitivity and perception. That’s the reason we have to understand motivation.

To be sure, the researchers suggest that theirs is a “complementary” reason, not the only explanation. It makes sense that human motivations inevitably are implemented by neurological activity. We inhabit our bodies and our bodies help us out. And sometimes our bodies are a bit ahead of our minds, initiating actions before we are consciously aware of the dangers and opportunities we encounter. In those cases, consciousness can supervene and influence the outcome.

Perhaps a better way of putting this is that the understanding of motivation and neuro-science are two sides of the same coin, two perspectives on the behavior of our “mind-bodies.”

Looked at this way, what the researchers appear to have found is one of the many mechanisms in the brain that help us in our never-ending struggle for survival. That is not insignificant. But more significant for our well-being is understanding the motivations that guide our behavior, making it possible to have more intelligent, compassionate and aware selves as well as communities that promote and support those selves.

The neuro-researchers sum up their findings by suggesting that the powerful are hardly “heartless beings incapable of empathy.” They were subject to a temporary set of manipulations in an experiment. Or, as they put it: “The good news is that they are, in theory, redeemable.”

The better news would be our finding ways as a society to remind the powerful, who do not “need” the weak, to become more mindful of them. They are fellow humans, after all, brothers and sisters, colleagues, citizens. Moreover, if ignored, they might sabotage our plans or, worse, rise up in rebellion.