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!

Positivity and negativity in the mirror: You are what you think others to be

Point a finger at someone and three point right back to you. It turns out this is not just a childhood adage.

How positively you see others is linked to how happy, kind-hearted and emotionally stable you are, according to new research by a Wake Forest University psychology professor... They discovered particularly strong associations between positively judging others and how enthusiastic, happy, kind-hearted, courteous, emotionally stable and capable the person describes oneself and is described by others.

“Seeing others positively reveals our own positive traits,” Wood says.

The study also found that how positively you see other people shows how satisfied you are with your own life, and how much you are liked by others.

In contrast, negative perceptions of others are linked to higher levels of narcissism and antisocial behavior. “A huge suite of negative personality traits are associated with viewing others negatively,” Wood says. “The simple tendency to see people negatively indicates a greater likelihood of depression and various personality disorders.”


This research suggests that when you ask someone to rate the personality of a particular coworker or acquaintance, you may learn as much about the rater providing the personality description as the person they are describing. The level of negativity the rater uses in describing the other person may indeed indicate that the other person has negative characteristics, but may also be a tip off that the rater is unhappy, disagreeable, neurotic — or has other negative personality traits.

What we choose to say about the people around us reflects heavily on ourselves -- who we are, what we feel, and what our own personality is like.

See the good in others and they shall see the good in you. And wisely choose the company you keep for they will in turn form who you shall become.

Bourgeois consumption now determines mate selection in yuppie America. And the Internet is going to be big some day.

I'm a sucker for armchair economics and sociology. Here are some passages from a recent article about the widening inequality gap that I found really fascinating:

A trend is underway in America for marriage to be increasingly “assortative.” That means children of well-educated parents tend to marry one another and the children of less educated parents tend to marry one another... Today, the husband and wife are both likely to work in the market, and they choose one another because they have similar tastes in consumption.

When it comes to dating, increasingly it's not who you are, but what you like. Shallow? Yes. But researchers are linking that to a broader trend that society is getting more polarized than ever. We are self-selecting our future mates based on the kind of stuff we like to spend money on. Wild.

Another interesting macro trend happening with this widening equality gap:
An accountant or a nurse is not going to become extremely rich or extremely poor; they could be called “billers,” because they bill for their time. On the other hand, a professional singer or a software entrepreneur is playing in a winners-take-most tournament. The difference in talent between an international pop star and an unknown lounge singer may actually be quite small. However, the nature of these fields is that the difference in rewards can be enormous. People who choose these sorts of occupations could be called “players.”


Several factors have made it a lot easier to quit as a biller in order to take a fling at being a player. The Internet is one. As writer Daniel Pink has noted, the low cost of creating a business on the Web has fulfilled Karl Marx’s dream—an ordinary worker can now own the means of production. (emphasis mine)

So what are you waiting for? Go own the means of production. It's the only way you'll get true freedom... just make sure you win. It's a winner-take-most world out there.

Read the full article in the American

Running instant psych experiments on Mechanical Turk (Joshua Schachter)


Joshua Schachter (of fame) recently ran a simple study around expected value, and got about 2100 responses in an hour for the low low price of around $30 on Mechanical Turk -- enough to get some interesting results really in just one night, and be able to at least make some interesting observations about human decision making.

Mechanical Turk, for the uninitiated, is Amazon Web Services' offering for micro-payments for micro-work. The other main use for it, so I hear, is cracking captchas.

This may have potential to replace those annoying psych surveys that undergrad psych majors have to take over and over again. That's right, kids in Psych 1 may no longer be required to subject themselves to the myriad of strange and boring questionaires created by grad students trying to massage the data into something statistically significant. I love the Internets.

Seen on Hacker News

Observations at an airport

Perhaps the point of life is not to be free, but to be indentured to the people and things in life that you love. Indentured, indebted, ultimately dedicated.


I look at people around the airport waiting for flights, all ages, shapes and sizes, and I think: we are not so different, you and I.


The 6am crowd on mass transit is decidedly a different group than the 7am. Moreso glazed, from lack of sleep or silent despair. At least mine were from lack of sleep. :)

Sent from my iPhone