What led that Israeli soldier to shoot a badly injured Palestinian terrorist, at short range, long minutes after he was clearly no longer a threat?
Or: What leads an 18-year-old girl to (allegedly) participate in the murder of her twin sister? Why did border policemen pummel an Arab supermarket employee in central Tel Aviv just because he refused to show them ID?
In other words, why do people commit acts of violence that are clearly not meant to protect them or even their loved ones? It turns out that size matters. In this case — the size of the prefrontal cortex.
Studies are showing a correlation between the size of the prefrontal cortex, which developed in simians and humans and is responsible for social skills, and the level of empathy.
Humans have the biggest brain for their body size, and the broadest circles of social relations. But it seems our prefrontal cortex has a shaky grasp of its supervisory and enforcement requirements and under some circumstances, our emotional regulation system falls apart.
“I really want to know how the emotional system in our brain goes wrong,” says Prof. Talma Hendler, psychiatrist and world-class researcher of the brain, who founded and heads the Sourasky Medical Center’s Functional Brain Center.
What you see is what he feels
Some of her work on post-trauma is required reading at distinguished academic institutions. She has also worked on developing advanced scanning methods and models for the noninvasive treatment of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
The reality we experience and the messages we embrace and distribute are tightly correlated, biologically, to our brain activity, she says. “Empathy is really our reaction to the other’s experience,” Hendler says.
Today scientists believe the brain directs empathy using two main brain processes: cognitive, and affective (which refers to the appropriateness of response, for instance comforting someone crying.
The perpetual stress in which we live exacerbates the feeling of existential threat, upsetting not only the crucial balance between these two systems involved in empathy, but our perception of ourselves. Thus we may wind up, sometimes, unable to understand the state of the other’s mind and hurtful things may ensue.
The affective system is responsible for identifying threats in our environment, and directing our behavior in immediate danger. The same system kicks in when we physically identify with distress in the other. The neuronal activity in this system provides a sort of physical reflection, or echo, of the other; a sort of simulation of his situation; and emotionally, the unpleasant feeling of empathy.
This is the most primitive, basic empathetic system, existing throughout the mammalian empire, which indicates that it evolved early on.
“If I take a knife and cut myself, you’ll feel a certain sense of pain,” Hendler explains. “If I put you into a scanner while that’s happening, we get a signal that when I cut myself, your affective empathetic system operates. We get a similar response even if you don’t directly see me injuring myself, but watch a video describing the injury.”
Mirror, mirror on the brain
The affective system operates based on a neuronal phenomenon called “mirroring,” which is when a given group of neurons in the brain reacts the same when something happens to us, or to somebody else.
However, the boundaries of our empathy aren’t set only by our affective system, especially not in this digital age. It was, apparently, millions of years ago, but decisions may not have been as complex back then. But as hominids evolved, the prefrontal cortex expanded, and with it, all sorts of cognitive and behavioral functions.
The cognitive system is responsible for internal cogitation (the mental process that dominates when we aren’t engaged on some external task). By the same token, it is active when we try to intellectually understand what another person is experiencing. This system only matures at age 3-4 in humans, and changes over the years based on our experiences. It is affected by our lives.
The mentalization system, as Hendler calls it, makes us able to see the other’s point of view; to put ourselves in his shoes and understand his mental state, and experiences what he feels that we do not see, and have not experienced in the same way.
“The interesting thing about this system is that we aren’t born with it already developed, but it is shaped throughout our lives,” she says. “This is a system of abstract thought, that can see beyond the ‘here and now.’”
To be empathetic, sense concern and help the other, or protect him, requires a balance between these systems. So do our social skills, and our ability to care for our children.
‘You feel nothing’
What can upset this balance? Entering an emotional state of defensiveness knocks the emotional system out of equilibrium, says Hendler: It locks onto its most basic mission — self-protection. In that state, it blocks out the other’s pain, and does not supply the correct information to the cognitive system, impairing the ability to understand what the other is undergoing.
“Worse, this imbalance can intensify negative, anti-social emotions of anger and hate, and encourage aggressive, cruel behavior towards other people,” Hendler explains.
The emotional system operates on auto-pilot, to some degree, opting to err rather than incur the slightest chance of impairing survival, she says. “After all, what is a lynching? You are causing pain to a person even in a situation in which he can’t hurt you. At this stage, the embodied simulation is harnessed for self-defense, not empathy for the other. You feel nothing for that person.” In that condition, the mentalization system is the one in control; it is connected to the cognitive systems, which are highly sensitive to cultural messages and biases. It is deeply affected by morality, laws and social definitions of dos and don’ts, Hendler explains.
Some scientists insist that the cognitive system controls the emotional experience in the event of conflict (or protracted stress). In that scenario, faced with a terrorist lying bleeding on the road, the cognitive system takes over — if only because he’s Arab, meaning somebody defined as an existential risk; the emotional system regarding his pain is depressed, and negative feelings intensify, such as anger, hate and aggression as a survivalist conditioning.
There are also stories about people who find the courage to stand up against the mob, protecting the other at vast personal risk.
“Anybody who participated in that beating in Be’er Sheva, when a foreign worker erroneously thought to be a terrorist was killed, was hitting at a young man dying on the ground in his blood, because he looked somewhat Arab,” she says.
“On the other hand, when an ultra-Orthodox person, Yishai Schlissel, stabbed six people and murdered a 16-year old girl at the Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem, none of those security guards who kill Arabs so efficiently shot at him, not even at his legs. He put a lot of people in danger, and the same system of emotions acted here, but not in a state of personal existential threat. Why was it clear to them that he shouldn’t be killed? Because he’s Jewish,” Hendler says.
“I believe that in this case, as distinguished from the case of the terrorist shot in Hebron when he was lying on the ground wounded and neutralized, the cognitive system of mentalization led to an empathetic bias that depressed aggression towards the attacker, because he was ‘one of us.’ This is an example of our brain being shaped by our history, education and culture.”