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Thread: Mirror Neurons and Genocide

  1. #1 Mirror Neurons and Genocide 
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    Why didn't the concept of Mirror Neurons didn't take effect when, for example, The nazis were killing millions of jews in their concentration camps? Why didn't they have a natural sense of empathy?


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  3. #2  
    Administrator KALSTER's Avatar
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    I'll quote a part of something I wrote on another forum:

    So, what are morals exactly? Loosely (very loosely), you could say that it is the way we deal with others, both those in our close communities and those we consider outsiders or even enemies. When you think about it in this way, morals are present in any organism that reacts to other organisms. So how does evolution influence these behaviours? The same way it drives other forms of change in a group of organisms over time. Behaviours that increase reproductive success win over ones that are less so over time. This is a very simple concept, though traits can evolve and slowly spread throughout a population simply by not being inhibitive enough.

    There are different drivers of behaviours; some being genetic/instinctual and others are taught by teachers and learned from cause/effect relationships throughout life. How we learn is influenced by what we have already learned, genetic nudges and the emotional responses affected and steered by both. Us humans have the greatest learning potential of any animal, and this has made us more adaptable than any other.

    We evolved to have a basic, genetically evolved interpreting program in our brains from birth that has a great capacity for learning. Part of this are our basic instincts and the capacity for the emotions that drive us. This bit is pretty rigid at the moment of our births, but what we are taught by our teachers and our environment as we grow up has the ability to change very quickly in response to various pressures. Our cultures evolve to suit our environment within the confines of what our genetic capacity, along with what the cultural knowledge entails, allows. So, we have evolved into social beings that find survival benefit in a cooperative social unit. Lots of other organisms are also very social indeed; from ants all the way up to chimpanzees and the particular dynamics of each social system has ensured their survival. We are essentially qualitatively the same as chimpanzees and other social animals in most ways. The vertebrates all have emotions, ranging in simpler forms (with some present in some animals, to all of them present in some others), from fear all the way to love. You can even detect most "human" behaviours to some degree in chimpanzees for example. BUT, one attribute where we are separate to most other animals (possibly all), is our ability to form a Theory of Mind of those around us. One aspect of the theory of mind and where we have extraordinary capability, is empathy. We are able to put ourselves in the minds of others and feel what they feel and experience what they experience to a degree.

    Now take all this together and think logically about what you'll get: a society where rules exist that are designed (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) to improve survivability and some to pander to personal emotional drivers. You get all the basic morals you will find in virtually all human cultures throughout history (and before that). Senseless killing, adultery, thievery, incest and others are condemned by nearly all cultures, while virtues like reciprocity, kindness and courage are virtually universal as well. Even virtues like altruism, that are often cited as being incompatible with an evolutionary origin to morals (because if you give your life for others, you die and can't reproduce, so that virtue can't propagate) are easily explained. An individual that possesses the potential to give his/her life in order to save others, likely will have siblings with similar traits, because the ability might have come from their father who was never put in a position to act on it before reproducing. So, the trait has the freedom to develop. A group of organisms where some individuals have the capacity to sacrifice him/herself to save the rest, gets the evolutionary benefit of it the first time such a situation arises, while those groups without the trait die out or gets severely thinned out during one such encounter. Of course you will find a leader that gains power through fear and intimidation and enforces laws and "moralities" that are designed to mostly serve themselves, but among the population and indeed throughout the world, I believe that by far the majority of people are good to those they see as being part of their immediate social family. But this is where an important divide comes in.

    We seem to have evolved to have two nearly distinct sets of morals; a set for those who are close to us, and a set for "the others'. Dunbar's number seems to put a maximum on the number of people we can associate with as being part of your group, a number somewhere between 150 and 230, or thereabouts. This limit seems to be imposed by the limited capacity of our brains to hold a relatively complete profile of those we regularly come into contact with. This limit is thought to be behind the relative small sizes of human tribes before large settlements started being formed, which comprises nearly 200 000 years from when Homo sapiens sapiens first emerged, based on excavations. This moral duality served a purpose, in that those not close to us were almost invariably competing for the same resources. Feeling hate towards the "others" and anger at what they do that competes with your own people was necessary when you had to defend those resources. When no competing was taking place, indifference was the norm. Today we have complicated social structures were tolerance seems to be the chief emotion attached to strangers who are not competing with us or our kin, abstract fondness connected to those who have services and goods we make use of. But this Dunbar limit is never gone. We easily jump from indifference to hate and anger when we feel ourselves and our community are being negatively affected by "others'. We would never dream of murdering a relative or someone in your perceived community, but would not think twice about violently opposing those that threaten us, verbally or physically. We too easily revert to our instincts when emotions alone drive a lot of our actions.


    I hope I make some sort of sense.


    Disclaimer: I do not declare myself to be an expert on ANY subject. If I state something as fact that is obviously wrong, please don't hesitate to correct me. I welcome such corrections in an attempt to be as truthful and accurate as possible.

    "Gullibility kills" - Carl Sagan
    "All people know the same truth. Our lives consist of how we chose to distort it." - Harry Block
    "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." - Aristotle
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  4. #3  
    Forum Freshman Bellerophon's Avatar
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    lokariototal,

    Mirror neurons are first and foremost an intersubjective phenomenon, you could say that it is the underpinnings of empathy but it is not necessarily the basis of ethics. Now, to answer your question, if you were to kill someone with a knife, that would entail some intersubjective interactions. You would have to see your victim up close, you can see the sweat on his face, hear his breath, see the terror in his eyes, all indicators of his internal state of fear. This is where mirror neurons come in. Your brain would unconsciously interpret these signals, and you would begin to experience some of them yourself. This is why this kind of close-up murder takes more commitment to go through with.

    Now if you were to kill ten million people by hand, the effect of mirror neurons would most likely be a big obstacle. Genocide, however, is usually more efficient. Making a bunch of people dig a hole, then have a firing squad shoot them into it requires a lot less interaction on an intersubjective level, and thus mirror neurons don't come into play.
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    Ramachandran describes mirror neurons as a subset of neurons in the motor cortex that are able to fire merely by watching the movements of another person. His claim is that we have a leg up evolutionarily by being able to simply observe and learn. Famously, he figured out how to help amputees unlearn pain with mirror images.

    I don't know how the question of inflicting pain relates to mirror neurons. Perhaps the motor cortex just isn't a place where pain registers, which would mean that the question could use some reframing?
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  6. #5  
    Forum Freshman Bellerophon's Avatar
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    The term "mirror neuron" is a bit misleading. It's not a specific set of special neurons, rather, it's a phenomena that occurs in normal neurons in different parts of the brain.

    Quote Originally Posted by lwpoet
    Ramachandran describes mirror neurons as a subset of neurons in the motor cortex that are able to fire merely by watching the movements of another person
    Ramachandran's mirror-box therapy is fascinating, and I remember him talking about mirror neuron as a "group of neuron" in a TED talk, but I can't remember if he ever talked about mirror neurons as a "subset of neurons in the motor cortex" in any of his scientific papers. If you can show me wrong I'd appreciate it. Disregard that, it's all over the place

    I think it's more precise to talk about "mirror neuron systems", since it's an effect that's been observed in "normal neurons" in different parts of the brain. Ramachandran himself has written on how the mirror neuron system is a function of sensory (especially visual) input.
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  7. #6  
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    yes, that TED Talk is the one.

    Not for the first nor the last time, I'm sure, I misspoke. "Motor command neurons in the frontal cortex" not "subset of neurons in the motor cortex."

    He's noting two systems. Motor and sensory.
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