It’s unarguable that human nature reveals a continuum of behaviors ranging from the most wretched to the sublime, at times bordering on the saintly. At a minimum, this means acknowledging, in the words of Amin Maalouf that “There is a Mr. Hyde inside each of us. What we have to do is prevent the conditions that will bring the monster forth.”
At the righteous end of the spectrum is our propensity for empathy, a trait deeply rooted in our primate heritage. Empathy — putting oneself in another’s emotional and cognitive shoes and then acting appropriately — is now an incandescently hot topic, virtually a cottage industry of books, articles, and YouTube videos.
Whereas the evolutionary process has given rise to a hard-wired neural system that equips us to connect with one another, many experts believe that our empathically-impaired society needs nothing less than an “empathy epidemic.” Among the factors frequently cited as interfering with constructing an empathic culture we find everything from parenting, education, and economic inequality to early childhood programs, meaningful social connections, and misplaced emphasis on achieving social status.
Dr. Marco Iacaboni, one of the world’s recognized authorities on the neuroscience of empathy, argues that the discovery of mirror neurons, the neurons responsible for empathy, is “so radical that we should be talking about a revolution, the mirror neuron revolution.” Why? Because of the profound implications for how we think about both individuals and the future of our endangered planet. These neuroscience findings can be the foundation for a fortuitous marriage between science and secular morality but, as Prof. Iacoboni argues, this requires dissolving “the massive belief systems that dominant our societies and that threaten to destroy us.”
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