Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Cindy Wigglesworth - Good Human Beings and the Right Temporoparietal Junction

From Huffington Post's TED Weekends, this article by Cindy Wigglesworth (author of SQ 21: The Twenty-One Skills of Spiritual Intelligence) in response to Rebecca Saxe's TED Talk, How We Read Each Other's Minds.

Other authors also responded to this TED Talk:

Good Human Beings and the Right Temporoparietal Junction

Cindy Wigglesworth

Posted: 05/18/2013
Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
When we watch a short video like Rebecca Saxe's TEDTalk we may be left confused. What does this mean for us in terms of morality?

In the April 2010 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the article by Rebecca Saxe and her co-authors make the context of their research around the RTPJ more clear: "According to a basic tenet of criminal law, 'the act does not make the person guilty unless the mind is also guilty.'" We can see why it would be good for a juror to have a well-developed RTPJ. We need to see the intention of the accused.

But is a well-developed RTPJ sufficient to create a moral or exemplary human being?

Let's consider who might represent our ideal moral human being. Who are the noblest people you know of? When I ask people this question similar names occur again and again. People like Nelson Mandela, the Buddha, Jesus, the Dalai Lama, Abraham Lincoln, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and other spiritual leaders, visionary leaders and political peace activists. I then ask what do you admire about these people? Typical replies include that they are: wise, compassionate, courageous, authentic, visionary, forgiving and humble.

I suggest we hold those characteristics as the crucial context -- the "true north" -- as we examine the innovations and discoveries of neuroscience. As a society we hopefully care deeply about how we can get a little closer to that level of goodness. We can hope that science can help us chart a path in this direction, or at least point out the roadblocks.

Most of us would agree that one strong example of a "not-good" person is the psychopath. Psychopathy is "a psychological condition in which the individual shows a profound lack of empathy for the feelings of others, a willingness to engage in immoral and antisocial behavior for short-term gains, and extreme egocentricity." [1] This "profound lack of empathy" means he only cares about what he wants and feels no guilt about manipulating or using aggression to get it. These folks scare us. And they teach us something important about the path to goodness: it must include empathy.

Empathy is frequently discussed as involving at least two types:cognitive empathy and emotional (or affective) empathy. Cognitive empathy involves thinking things through to see from the other person's point of view. It is sometimes called Theory of Mind. If we predict well we can accurately guess what the other person will do, assume or feel. In the pirates with the cheese sandwiches the older children could think from the point of view of the first pirate and see why he would assume that the sandwich on top of the chest was his sandwich. This is a useful skill. It enhances moral judgment because we can see that the first pirate made a reasonable assumption and had no evil intent. But cognitive empathy is only part of being a good human being. In fact, some psychopaths have good cognitive empathy.[2] It may help them accurately predict how others will react to their manipulations.

Emotional empathy is a much more visceral experience. It includes limbic system resonance where the emotions you are feeling trigger parallel physiological and emotional reactions in me.[3] I am "feeling with" you. Emotional empathy may create the "brake" on our tendency to act from self-interest in aggressive ways. If my aggression is going to hurt you, and your pain is felt in my body, I am likely to pause and perhaps stop or lessen my aggression.[4]

I would suggest that we need both cognitive empathy (requiring a well-developed RTPJ) and emotional empathy as part of being "non-psychopaths." But does that make us good people? Not quite. Something more is needed.

What sets a truly noble person apart? What makes a Gandhi, Dalai Lama, or Mother Teresa different? There is a decision made by these people to hold themselves to a higher standard. They make a decision to live up to noble values -- to live from their highest nature. In what part of the brain does this ability reside? To my knowledge no one has fully answered this yet. I suspect we will find that the executive decision-making center of the brain, residing in the prefrontal cortex, is involved. I believe our path to nobility will call upon the emotional and logical components of the brain. There will be also a piece of right brain visioning required. I believe there will be some developmental neural "weight-lifting" and whole-brain integration skills. We will have to conceptualize what nobility looks like and then integrate our whole brain to align with that goal. We will then have to make daily choices and take actions so we can live toward that ideal. All this, if true, will mean that the RTPJ will be just one piece in our nobility-machinery.

[1] Almost a Psychopath by Ronald Schouten, MD, JD and James Silver, JD, p.18 2012 Harvard University

[2] In addition to the hyperlink you might want to look at this article by R. James R. Baird, National Institute of Mental Health

[3] For more on this I recommend A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, MD, Fari Amini, MD and Richard Lannon, MD, Random House, 2000.

[4] For more on this I recommend The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen, Basic Books, 2012

My TEDTalk, above, is about the process by which we learn to read each other. Here are five reasons that I study how human brains think about other minds.

(1) It is a hard, and awesome, problem. To me, the most breathtaking idea I've ever heard is that each thought a person ever has, every moment of experience, of insight, of reflection, of aspiration, is equivalent to a pattern of brain cells firing in space and time. How does a pattern of brain activity constitute a moral judgment? A moment of empathy for a fictional character? The idea for a sentence you're about to write? Someday, scientists will be able to imagine, simultaneously, these abstract thoughts and how each corresponds to a specific pattern of brain activity. I don't expect this understanding to arrive in my lifetime. But it's thrilling to imagine that future, and to feel that my research might be a small step on the route that gets us there.

(2) It matters to society. Some of the hardest problems we face as humans are social problems: how to get a group of people to agree on a set of goals, and a path to achieving those goals, and in some cases a set of small individual compromises or sacrifices in the interest of the long term and the greater good. Fortunately, cooperating in large groups is a signature accomplishment of the human brain: among similar species, we are remarkably good at working together and negotiating our differences. On the other hand, there is still a long way to go, and a lot we don't know. Our current techniques for persuasion and coordination depend on our intuitions about how to inspire people to act. As an analogy, our human intuitions about physics are good enough to let us catch a baseball at 350 feet, but if NASA had used intuitive physics to get to the moon, the Eagle would have missed. I hope my research will be a step along the way toward a true theory of how people respond to other people, the theory that helps us to coordinate even more powerfully to get where we're going next.

(3) It might help treat disease. Many forms of developmental disorders and brain diseases disproportionately affect people's relationships with others. For example, some children with autism spectrum disorders are extremely intelligent, and can solve logical and mathematical problems that would stump other kids, but don't want to be hugged, don't like sharing experiences, don't respond to a smile. This disconnect can be devastating, especially for the children's caregivers. Another example is fronto-temporal dementia, a progressive brain disease somewhat like Alzheimer's, except that the first symptom is emotional callousness. Patients with this disease usually aren't aware of anything wrong at first; they come to the doctor at the insistence of their (often angry and deeply hurt) spouses. I hope that my research on the biology of social interaction might some day lead to better diagnosis, and better treatments, for these diseases.

(4) It keeps me busy. The problems I work on connect to so many other disciplines. The tools I use for taking images of people's brains depend on physics. The signal I measure depends on the biology of brain cell metabolism. The inferences I make from my data depend on neuroscience. My colleagues working on similar problems are developmental psychologists studying human children, comparative psychologists studying non-human primates, and social psychologists studying how people interact. I speak to audiences of philosophers, of economists, of lawyers and judges. Connecting to all of these different disciplines keeps me on my toes. There has never, in the 14 years I have worked on this topic, been a moment when I felt that I knew enough.

(5) Luck. In my first year in graduate school, I tried five experiments. Four failed. This research came from the one that worked.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form. TEDWeekends will highlight some of today's most intriguing ideas and allow them to develop in real time through your voice! Tweet #TEDWeekends to share your perspective or to learn about future weekend's ideas to contribute as a writer.

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