Society and civilization are made possible by empathy, through the magic of Mirror Neurons


Profound revelation: All humans are WIRED to experience that which they see happen to others, as if they are having the experience themselves.

Dustin Curtis first told me about this concept on a bus ride from Boston to New York two years ago. I was despondent over how mechanistic and selfish neurobiology seems to paint human beings. Survival of the fittest and all of that. From an economic perspective, we all seek our own rational self-interest above that of others. What prevents us all from becoming infinitely bloodthirsty selfish pirates, anyway?

Dustin replied -- well, there's this thing called mirror neurons. He recently wrote about it in his blogazine. Our brains are wired to experience things that we see happening to others. Ultimately that is what empathy is -- being able to feel what others experience. And it comes built in to every one of us, thankfully.

As Jeremy Rifkin explains in the video above, the arrow of human history is really one about ever-increasing levels of empathy. Before we only had empathy for a our family group, then your tribe, onwards to a whole nation state, and so on. Recent developments in the state-of-the-art in empathy has now extended empathy to all human beings who live, and now even the whole Earth and all its creatures. Through this empathy, we are moving forward human capability, creation, love, and ultimately goodness in the world. 

I'm certain we were put on this earth to make other people's experiences and lives better. So by giving into empathy, we can truly feel the same experiences as others and thereby improve them. This affects your life right now, no matter what you do. If you're creating something, anything, you probably want it to be good. You want to solve problems for your customers. You want their experience to be better. That's good for you, but even better for others. And making things better for others is what it's really all about.

This concept of mirror neurons as an underpinning of empathy and society fills me with great hope. We've got a shot, guys!

Scientifically proven: Night owls are smarter and more good looking. Early risers are big pansies.

After 10 hours of being awake, the early birds showed reduced activity in brain areas linked to attention span, compared with the night owls. The early risers also felt sleepier and tended to perform tasks more slowly, compared with the night owls, when their level of alertness was measured.

“The results suggest that night owls generally outlast early birds in the length of time they can be awake without becoming mentally fatigued,” the study concluded.

Just kidding. But interesting research nonetheless! I think this makes sense, though -- I tend to a waking-up-at-noon / sleeping at 4am to 6am sort of schedule, and it seems to be my most natural schedule.

I find that around 2am or so, often I'm so engaged in something that I have no interest in sleeping. Part of the beauty of working on a startup is being able to work at your most optimal hours. If i'm on a roll, I can keep going til dawn. If I'm not, I'll turn in, and wake up refreshed and ready to rock.

If I was an early riser, I have to go to sleep even when I might have something left in the tank. And I just don't feel like that's a good use of my limited time on this planet.

Hat tip Kenshi Arasaki

More brainhacking sci fi on the horizon: A drug that gives you perfect memory

[Researchers have] found that if they boosted production of a protein called RGS-14 (pictured) in that area of the visual cortex in mice, it dramatically affected the animals' ability to remember objects they had seen.

Mice with the RGS-14 boost could remember objects they had seen for up to two months. Ordinarily the same mice would only be able to remember these objects for about an hour.


That's absurd. and in the comments, someone has highlighted fodder for some unhappy horror sci fi: What if you were taking this drug and saw something you desperately wanted to forget?

Imagine what this would mean for rote memorization for test taking! Maybe this would be awesome. Primary and secondary education could finally expand beyond mechanical drudgery.

Conformity is hard-wired into the brain

You're in a room with 10 other people who seem to agree on something, but you hold the opposite view. Do you say something? Or do you just go along with the others?

via CNN on Why So Many Minds Think Alike

Neuroscientists have experimentally confirmed that the brain reacts to disagreements with the larger group in a similar manner to punishment. Groupthink exists, and exists on a massive scale. This makes more and more sense in the mass media age where we consume the same media (NY Times, TechCrunch, and Hacker News for me) and read the same forums and talk about all the same ideas. While the Internet revolution has brought many more voices to the foreground and reduced the role of traditional media (1000 channels on TV instead of 5, 1 million blogs instead of 1 local newspaper), this effect still plays out heavily throughout society. Whenever there is a crowd, there will be group consensus.

The CNN article mentions that groupthink will overwhelm even obviously correct thinking: "The most famous experiments in the field were conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s. He found that many people gave incorrect answers about matching lines printed on cards, echoing the incorrect answers of the actors in the room."

This is significant for entrepreneurs. Apple was absolutely on to something when it said: Think Different. Why think different? Because the masses are wrong. (In fact, the masses are asses. =) ) And this is why many startups and entrepreneurs are perceived to be pursuing inane, crazy or irrelevant ideas. Prevailing wisdom isn't, and it takes a crazy dreamer to ignore the massive and overwhelming tidal wave of group think.