From NPR, I came across an interesting study from USC that looked at compassion linked to physical pain, contrasted with “learned compassion” related more to psychological pain. It is reasonable to expect that empathy (see one interesting detailed study here), linked to empathetic neural “mirror” circuits in the brain, was likely an adoptive survival trait. This is kind of a short circuit that could have helped to recognize when another in the social group is in pain and needing help, or for quickly learning things to avoid.
What the USC study showed is that empathy related to physical pain was much more quickly processed (hardwired) then nonphysical pain. Antonio Damasio, coauthor and David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience at USC and the director of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, says:
… early humans were probably more likely to survive if they could tell when a friend needed help or a foe was in pain.
“It probably took longer in evolution to get to a stage in which human beings could look at another human being, not see anything externally wrong with them, but imagine that there was something quite wrong in terms of their feelings, in terms of their mental pain,” he says.
Damasio says people still aren’t born with this sort of compassion. They have to learn it.
What I found interesting was that many of the same brain systems were involved in processing both the physical and psychological types of empathetic pain. But processing physical pain empathy was nearly instantaneous whereas to process more complex emotional pain took about 6 seconds longer. It seems as if the appropriate brain systems were co-opted via appropriate learning to give the same effect as an originally evolved function. There are possible implications for raising children.
That raises questions about the effects of news programs and video games in which a traumatic psychological event may flash by in a just a second or two, Damasio says.
He says that might not be long enough for children who are still learning compassion.
Possibly, if children are not learning the full range of compassion, they may not acquire these skills. As empathy and compassion are the foundation of our morality, this could be detrimental to society.
This is also consistent with the argument against the theistic argument that a god or religious thinking is necessary for morality. Morality emerges from the empathy and compassion built into our naturally evolved brains. That does not mean that we don’t need some early foundational training, or brain mapping, to handle more complex social issues.