Manhattan Project #46 Can neuroscientists save us?

(wherein hard-nosed reporter Jed Berman entertains the idea of actually putting an end to violence)

A guy—a neuroscientist—named Marco Iacoboni, who did a lot of the basic research to identify mirror neurons and what they do, blames the change on what he calls massive belief systems, political and religious ideologies, that we developed when our cognitive abilities kicked in. He and other scientists think those belief systems push us to do things we might not naturally, biologically want to do, like killing each other, and override our basic empathetic nature, and, as far as they’re concerned, it’s been a big loss for all of us.

They’re still working on it, but what they’ve discovered through scientific research actually mirrors what other thinkers have suggested for a long time. They talk about a Russian revolutionary anarchist—don’t let that word anarchist get in the way if you can help it—named Petr Kropotkin who figured it out hundreds of years ago. Kropotkin wrote that those species that willingly abandon what he called sociability—basically the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and live cooperatively—are doomed to decay. Does that ring any bells, when you look back over human history? Even Richard Leakey once said he believes the only reason we made it up the evolutionary tree to the human species is because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation.

These guys think the beliefs we’ve developed since we learned to think tend to filter out and suppress our natural, empathetic responses. Things like nationalism and militarism and ethnocentrism, even dog-eat-dog capitalism. They say all of the stuff fed to us by governments and religious leaders has conditioned us away from empathy.

And here’s the part that really rocked me when I read it. These guys think it’s not too late to turn things around. Even Marco Iacoboni, a great man of science, has hope. I memorized this quote; I thought it was so good. He said: “…as these recent findings in experimental cognitive science seep into public awareness, this explicit level of understanding our empathic nature will at some point dissolve the massive belief systems that dominate our societies and that threaten to destroy us.” That’s not from some wild-eyed radical; Iacoboni is a highly respected researcher. And he thinks we evolved as empathetic not aggressive animals and he believes we can be that way again.

When I read that I got an idea. It may sound crazy to you, but after all those years of hurting and wondering why we treated each other so badly, I grabbed onto the first spark of hope I’d come across basically in my whole life. I don’t mean to go all-Pollyanna on you at this point. But what I decided we need to do is fire up a project to put all of this stuff into action. I think we need a New Manhattan Project, and the weapon at the heart of it is mirror neurons. We need to get the word out, open people’s eyes, free up their true human nature. We need to get to the kids while they’re young and preserve their natural sense of empathy—some people simply call it the ability to love each other, wherever the other happens to be, in my backyard, my country, or some nation on the other side of the world.

Yeh, I expected you to shake your head and mentally pat me on the head for getting sucked into something so idealistic and naïve. But there’s evidence that this stuff can work. Back in the days of American slavery, people who wanted to end it started circulating pictures and stories illustrating the horrors of slavery. They didn’t know it, but they fired those images straight into people’s mirror neurons, and it worked. Not right away, but over time. One scholar thinks mirror neurons turned Che Guevara from a thoughtless, rich kid into a revolutionary committed to improving the lot of the poor and disadvantaged. He set out on a motorcycle journey as a lark, but ended up witnessing the suffering of the common people, and that kicked in an empathetic response.

When Einstein laid down the foundation for the original Manhattan Project, he knew it could lead to creation of the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. Why can’t we fire up this New Manhattan Project and let mirror neurons be the ultimate tool of creation, restoring humanity to the positive, cooperative state our human and pre-human ancestors bequeathed to us? Iacoboni and others think it has possibilities. One guy thinks we could use the process to reform prison inmates, by exposing them to good behaviors that their mirror neurons could react to and help them get back on track. We could retrain teachers in school, so they could model positive, empathetic behaviors for kids, and strip away the nationalistic, militaristic rhetoric that most of us had drilled into our heads from the day we walked into kindergarten.

I don’t suppose we could pull this off without triggering some serious opposition. The people who hold power in most countries—governmental or economic—probably won’t like it. Some of the people who want to reclaim our true natures warn that those with a vested interest in keeping things the way they are have always tried to suppress this kind of stuff. Why do you think the military clamped down on journalists after the Vietnam War? They didn’t censor stuff reporters sent home from over there in those days, and when people saw it, their mirror neurons kicked in and they eventually turned against the war. That pissed off the military big time, which is why I could only cover the war as an embed, so the Army could keep the blinders on me and I couldn’t set off people’s mirror neurons with the horror of the latest war.

And embedding wasn’t the only way they worked at it. Reporters couldn’t take pictures at U.S. military hospitals in Europe where they hauled the tragically wounded young American soldiers. And a young American woman lost her job as an aircraft worker in Kuwait because she sent home a picture of flag-draped coffins inside a cargo plane. No, the New Manhattan Project won’t be any easier to pull off than the original was. That one took thousands of people to complete. This one will, too, but maybe, as the word gets around, as more and more people have their eyes opened, and their mirror neurons reactivated, the forces of empathy might really grow.

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