Some thoughts on ecology, evolution and economics

Empathy is a state of mind

Previously, I introduced Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave and the sections of our brain associated with certain thought patterns. The brain is relevant in how we prosecute criminals, vote for politicians and feel empathy for others. Again, nothing that shows up on a brain scanner excuses or explains our actions in these contexts but it does make our actions easier to understand.

Ground Control Parenting

Criminal justice

Sapolsky takes on the concept of free will, the idea that something beyond the biology of our brains determines our actions. He is not a fan. The example that he returns to frequently in this chapter is that, in the 1500’s, epilepsy was frequently punished by death as a sign of possession or witchcraft. He fears that the introduction of increasingly accurate neuro-imaging in the court room could be used to justify the punishment of people with a particular neurological signature, literally thoughtcrime. To skip to the end of this chapter, he is actually afraid of the pleasure that humans take in punishing others. His hope is that people with defective minds or impulse control can be treated the way that we treat epileptics to minimize their harm to themselves and others. What Sapolsky would replace the current criminal justice system with is less clear. He does, however, sketch out a couple of uses for neurobiology in keeping us all safe from each other:

  • Implicit Association Tests – based not on MRI data but measuring slight, unconscious delays when asked to associate racial or gender groups with positive images. The bias of a potential jury member against the defendent’s social or cultural group can be reliably measured.
  • Lie detection tests – Sapolsky does not recommend MRI images as a substitute for existing lie detection tests. They only show when the brain is working harder on answering a question, with some of the same biases and shortcomings of less technical tests.
  • Age of maturity – the development of the prefrontal cortex can be measured to estimate whether a juvenile should stand trial or be trusted in a long term decision such as medical aid in dying or abortion.
  • IQ tests for determining whether an individual should receive a harsh sentence or not. Currently, a score below 70 suggests less ability to understand the consequences of their actions.

Political leaning

The neurological bases for political orientation appear to be found in the insula, a central part of the brain that is associated with feelings of disgust. Studies show that moral judgements become more severe if the questions are asked in a room with a smelly garbage can. Social conservatives appear to have a lower threshold for disgust, showing larger skin reactions to negative images of decay, fecal matter and blood. In addition, liberals have larger amounts of grey matter in their anterior cingular cortex, a site where empathy is registered (see below), while conservatives have enlarged amygdala , where fear and threat perception are processed. The genetic heritability of political leaning is about 50%, suggesting that our environment has about the same impact on our politics as our genes. In fact, given the issues with measuring heritability, our political environment growing up probably holds a bigger sway on our adult ideology.


Humans have a specific type of neuron (a von Economo neuron), shared with other social species, particularly in the anterior cingulate cortex (or ACC), that may help us to be social. The role of the ACC in most organisms is to serve as an alarm system for unexpected outcomes (e.g. a favourite food tastes odd) or for internal bodily complaints. Pain signals are routed to the ACC but Sapolsky explains that the ACC is trying to figure out the meaning of the pain, asking the question, “Is this something I should be worried about?”. The ACC also gets involved in perceiving the pain of others. This seems to be a largely self-interested response but the ACC is highly involved in responding to the pain of others, especially when it decides that the pain my neighbour is experiencing is not their fault or when it decides that my neighbour is very much like myself.

Going beyond empathy for our close loved ones requires a decision that is processed by the prefrontal cortex adjacent to the ACC. This act of reasoning requires effort and does not always lead to action to console or help the person in pain. In fact, if the person in pain is an enemy, the brain’s pleasure circuits may be triggered, so the effort to see my enemy as “like me” may be considerable. Sapolsky dismisses the religious perspective of charity towards strangers, arguing that this activity is mostly geared to enhancing reputations rather than truly showing empathy. However, he quotes the work of a buddist monk/neurologist who shows very different brain pathways and a greater disposition to help when focusing on compassion for all rather than empathy for a specific person in pain. Sapolsky concludes that helping others requires neither a good heart (ACC) nor a good head (prefrontal cortex) but a trained automatic response to reach out to those in need.

Our brains give life to our social, political and spiritual selves. However these masses of neurons have evolved let us continue on the path towards the good.