The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Neural Correlate of Altruism

It is debatable whether there is a neural predisposition for being nice to others, i.e. whether there is something about the human brain that makes children altruists instead of selfish. Children are, of course, influenced by the teachings of their parents, and eventually learn that there is a reward for being nice (first of all to their parents and siblings, then to their neighbords and so forth). However, there is evidence to the contrary: siblings who presumably have similar brains can turn out to be wildly different in the way they behave towards others (one can be extremely selfish in a family of very generous people or viceversa).

The Dutch zoologist Frans de Waal found a general propensity in nature towards imitation, and, in particular, a key feature of cognition: the propensity to imitate others is also the ability to recreate what we see others do. And when we recreate what they do, we strengthen the bond between us and them; which in turn increases the likelihood that we imitate each other. He even advanced the "body-first theory" according to which first we run and then feel fear (because we are running). He suspects that empathy may have evolved before sympathy, not the other way around, which makes sense if you believe that empathy is a bodily reaction whereas sympathy requires some thinking. Altruism is emotionally driven, not cognitively driven. He notes that babies evolve a sense of self (they recognize themselves in the mirror) at the same time that they evolve a concern for others. The co-emergence of selfishness and altruism is also found in other apes, dolphins and elephants. In fact, the key neurons for empathy, the Von Economo Neurons (VENs), discovered in 1925 by the Austrian psychiatrist Constantin von Economo, are only found in the brains of apes, dolphins, whales and elephants. Damage to these neurons causes people to lose any form of empathy, even for their own family, as well as self-awareness, thus confirming the co-emergence thesis.


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