Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Neuroscience of Empathy

You’re 10. The lunch bell just rang. The epic and thrilling sport of kickball is about to begin. Now it’s time to pick teams. Today you’re relived to get picked in the middle. The other kids are getting picked. Now there’s just two left. You look out with sadness at the last two schmucks. One of them will end up getting picked second-to-last and one sorry kid will have to endure the gut-wrenching feeling of being the only one on either team that didn’t get picked at all. The second-to-last kid is picked. You look out at the face of that last pitiful kid. How do you feel?

If you answered, “Hey! I was that last kid!” you make a really good point. Before we look at empathy, let’s take a quick look at our own emotional pain. Researchers set up a virtual playground where participants were playing the videogame “cyberball” while in a brain scanner (fMRI). And then, in the equivalent of the playground, two of the players rejected the participant. What happened? Ouch. What did the researchers see? A part deep in the brain right between the temples called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) burned bright with activity. They asked the participants how bad it was, and they found that the more distress they felt, the brighter the ACC burned. Getting picked last for kickball is a terrible thing.

But what’s also terrible is watching someone get picked last. The experiment was repeated, but this time the participant watched while another player got rejected. What happened this time? Ouch again. Again, the ACC burned bright. Watching someone else get picked last is also a terrible thing.

It turns out that the ACC seems to be important for feeling any kind of pain. It lights up when you stub your toe or when you watch someone else stub their toe; it lights up when you get dumped, or when you hear about your friend getting dumped. One group even looked at patients who cannot, for neurological reasons, feel physical pain. They found that even these patients were still able to share a pain they never felt; their ACC was active when watching others experience physical pain.

This might lead you to think that the ACC was important in making people altruistic. You may think: the worse you feel about someone else’s situation, the more likely you are to help. The more pathetic-looking they make the African orphan on the commercial, the more likely you’ll donate money. But it’s false. Even though it seems to be an indicator of pain, it doesn’t seem that pain produces altruistic action. In the study of the cyberball watchers, the participants got a chance to write an email to the rejected player, and this was then rated by how helpful and comforting it was. Changes in ACC didn’t predict nice emails. In another study of people looking at pictures of hurricane victims and considering donating money, they found the same thing: ACC was active but didn’t predict generosity.

What did? A part of the brain between the temples near the top of the head (dmPFC). The more dmPFC activity, the more helpful the emails to the rejected cyberball players, and the more money was committed to the hurricane victims. Why?

To answer that, we need another experiment! This time, researchers tested a very strange hypothesis: the most selfless people were actually being selfish. In other words, they tested whether people’s generosity was because they felt bad for people in a bad situation, or whether it was because they considered themselves “one” with the others. Oneness, “reflects a sense of interpersonal unity, wherein the conceptions of self and other are not distinct but are merged to some degree.” They asked people how they would help various kinds of people (from strangers to family), in various situations (from a phone call to helping their orphaned kids) and found that the empathic concern was only important insofar as the people considered themselves one with the other person. Their altruism was driven by their oneness, not their empathy.

So what about our friend, the dmPFC? It turns out that it’s more active when we’re making evaluations about others, particularly when we’re considering others as a part of ourselves, a part of our group.

It seems that the emerging story is that empathy is an important human capacity. You can look at a person in pain, feel bad for him, and keep on moving. In fact, it doesn’t seem to matter how much it actually hurts you to see another in pain. So long as you think of the person as ‘him,’ you’ll probably walk on by (probably crossing to the other side of the road while you’re at it). But the more that you think of the other person as ‘me,’ the more likely you are to let your empathy drive you to action. Jesus may have been speaking quite literally when He said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Disclaimer: Professor Plumb, in the Library, with the Candlestick
Professor Plumb was in the library, but did he actually commit the murder? We see a provocative correlation, a brain region that lights up when you’re about to do good, that same region lighting up when you consider people part of your group, and the observation that feeling “oneness” with others lines up with altruistic action. All the pieces are in line for it to be true, but we don’t know for sure. That is to say, the above goes into the category of “speculative hypothesis.” All these observations might be explained by a third factor. Or it might turn out that some of these observations are actually false. Or an hundred other things. That’s the problem (and the fun) of speculation. So long as the speculation is backed up with a firm Theology (i.e. that we ought to obey Jesus regardless of whether there are discovered neural pathways to support His advice), it’s all in good fun.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Together in the New Jerusalem (4 of 4)

We often hear that we were once a violent race that killed people who believed in other gods. Then we made a great compromise. Some great peacemaker suggested Pluralism, “If you just say that your all-powerful god isn’t all-powerful, we’ll do the same; our gods can share the sky.” And so, by compromising on God’s power, we achieved a cease-fire. And some would advocate that we again accept it. But the advocates are often humanists, and as it is said in business, beware the naked man who offers you his shirt; so now, beware the atheist who offers you his god. Pluralism was a reasonable compromise for two monotheists, but not for an atheist and a monotheist. But what can we compromise on? How can we have peace?

The unique solution to our dilemma is to put our faith in Peace embodied. Jesus came and was the Prince of Peace, and he founded a religion with just the structure to meet the need of our species. The one place where Christianity cannot compromise is where everyone else can (doctrine). Where everyone else cannot compromise, Christianity can. So my dear reader, if your heart is to reconcile all religions, you have the heart of Christ. And if you seek a path that can satisfy all people, you can find it in Christ. And if you seek to bind together all the diversity of humanity in a wonderful unity, your desire can be satisfied by the Church.

Muhammad desired that men might learn humility before God. Christ humbled Himself unto death and bids His disciples do likewise. Confucius was looking for social order. Christ founded His Kingdom on Love to bring perfect order. The Buddha sought an escape from suffering. Christ bore our suffering on Himself, and promised a Resurrection unto joy. Hinduism sought an escape from the unending circle of reincarnation. Christ adjures us to take the straight and narrow path to the Holy City. Yoruba religion sought reconnection with God, others, nature and destiny. Christ tears the curtain of separation between God and man, and demonstrated how love can tie us intimately with all around us. Judaism seeks a Messiah to bring Israel back from Exile. Christ is that Messiah. Laozi was searching for the Way. Christ said “I am the way.”

Many visions of the afterlife, though beautiful in many ways, turn out to be narrow. The blissful unity of Nirvana is wonderful, but it would certainly exclude a man as passionate as Jesus. Buddhist ideas of inner peace are profound, but Muhammad was far too aggressive to find it. The pleasures of Muslim Paradise are easy to yearn for, but the Buddha wouldn’t know what to do with virgins and wine. The freedom and formlessness of the Dao is beautiful, but not a beauty that Confucius with his focus on about cities and politics would appreciate. The structure of Muslim Sharia establishes a firm public order, but not one that Laozi would ever have submitted himself to. There are strange truths present in the words of the mystics, but Rabbi Hillel would much rather know by reasoning. We have all felt the bottomless despair of death so well captured by Greek Hades, but Socrates could never accept an afterlife absent of ultimate justice. But the New Jerusalem is big enough to fit all these men.

In a Christian Heaven we might see, standing at great gates of pearl, Plato and Augustine discussing the City of God. In Heaven, the Buddha may sit silently with St. Benedict and the Desert Fathers under the Tree of Life. In Heaven, Hippocrates may gather leaves of healing with Maimonides and Dr. Livingston. In Heaven, Hector may wrestle with Joshua and Arjuna. In Heaven, Gandhi may join Moses and Dr. King on a freedom march down streets of gold. In Heaven, Solomon, standing in the court of the Final Temple, may explicate the finer points of his administration to Muhammad and Confucius. In Heaven, Laozi may wander with St. Francis and Adam, following the Dao through wondrous Eden.

<== Back to The Universal Church (3 of 4)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Universal Church (3 of 4)

At the opening of the movie Wedding Crashers the priest is about to start reading. John whispers to Jeremy, “20 bucks, First Corinthians.” Jeremy accepts the bet, “Double or nothing, Colossians 3:12.” Jeremy loses the bet, and 1 Corinthians 15 is read. That is the famous “love” chapter (the one opening with “love is patient,” or if you prefer the older translation, “charity suffers long”). At the end of the section, it talks about something that I, as a Bible-clutching believer in Truth never really understood. Love, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I get the bearing and enduring. But believing? Hoping? Isn’t Christianity about disbelieving things? Aren’t there definitely things that need to be rejected?

Christianity seems to have been specifically designed to be the most universal and unifying thing in the galaxy. And this is very strange. Isn’t is supposed to be close-minded and bigoted? Superficially, so it seems. But let’s review some history.

Jews for Jesus

In the first century, the Church was made up entirely of Jewish converts. They still kept Jewish feasts and really didn’t see Christianity as anything but a Jewish sect. Then, God called some Romans to be Christians, too. When the news of their conversion was shared, it blew the minds of the listeners who, to that point, thought God cared mostly about the Jews: “When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, "Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life." There arose a great argument: wouldn’t the new converts have to first convert to Judaism (and get circumcised…ouch!), or could there be such things as non-Jewish Christians. Because of the convincing (to them) evidence of miracle surrounding the conversions, they decided that non Jews could be Christians, too.

Gentiles for Jesus

Fast forward a few millennia and the tables have turned. Christianity, originally a Jewish sect, is now perceived as a non-Jewish group. But not entirely. Meet Glenn Blank (not Beck), a good Reform Jew who was minding his own business. Out of the blue, he saw a vision of Jesus crucified. He did not understand it at the time, but through a process that included a Bible-as-literature class in college, he eventually came to believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. So what did he do? Give up his Judaism and become Christian? On the contrary! He got more Jewish. “I didn't know [my Jewish identity] was important! I thought I'd become a Christian! But in fact, my Jewish identity is important to God, and I began to grow in understanding what it means to be a Jew.” Glenn is an example of what is called today a Messianic Jew, a startlingly large group that has been reported at 250,000 in the US alone; even with only these counted, it would mean that about 1 in 50 Jews worldwide believes in Jesus.

So we see in Glenn something very interesting. The first century question was whether Christianity was broad enough to include non-Jews. Today, it is whether Christianity is broad enough to include Jews. But in both times, God seemed to be calling people in their own cultural contexts not to change cultures, but to believe in Jesus.

Muslims for Jesus. Wait, what?

Now let’s take a look at Islam. Meet Soleh. He was a construction foreman who also taught in the mosque of his remote village. He took a job working on a Christian school for several months. The students at the school were running out of food, and prayed for food, and food came. Soleh believed the coincidental timing of this donation was indeed an answer to prayer. Later, he had a conversation with one of the students about faith, and came to believe in Jesus. He was ready to leave everything to follow Jesus, but was told he didn’t need to; he could follow Isa (the Arabic name of Jesus) without leaving Islam. He returned to his village, gathered his community and, “announced that he was a Muslim who now followed Isa. Not only did nobody seem upset, but many people were very interested, including the village chief who also became a follower of Isa soon thereafter!" The same source also tells the stories of other Muslim followers of Isa like Taufik who “never thinks of himself as being a ‘Christian,’ ... He sees himself being a good Muslim, called to share salvation in the Messiah with fellow Muslims” and Achmad who, “perceives himself as a Muslim who knows Isa.”

How is this possible? A Christian may wholeheartedly claim to be a Muslim, “One who submits.” He may pray 5 times daily facing east. He may give alms. He may fast during Ramadan. He may visit Mecca. He may say and even believe the Shahada (“There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger”). A Muslim cannot accept the Christian idea of Jesus (that he was the Son of God), while a Christian can accept the Muslim idea of Muhammad (that he was a prophet). An orthodox Muslim cannot take Communion, accepting the sacrificial death of the Son of God (because God has no son), or Baptism, taking part in His resurrection (for Jesus never died) while a Christian can observe the Five Pillars. Christianity is a bigger circle than Islam. An orthodox Christian can be a Muslim, but an orthodox Muslim cannot be a Christian.

If there can be Messianic Jews and Messianic Muslims, there can be a Messianic anything. We think of religions as mutually exclusive largely because we, in the West, impose a Christian framework on other religions. We see conversion as a person leaving all that they once knew, and doing something completely foreign. But conversion to Christianity is not a universal rejection; it is a universal acceptance.


Christian universality is possible because Christianity is flexible in the right places and rigid in the right places. Jesus does command that you love him more than your family and your culture. But when the healed man from Decapolis would leave his people to follow Jesus back to his Jewish ministry, Jesus told him to stay. Some are called to literally leave, but most are called to stay, to work within their own cultures.

A Christian may, in the same year, celebrate Holi, Passover, Ramadan and Christmas. She may make pilgrimage to Mecca, Jerusalem and Tibet. She may meditate, pray, chant, sing, worship and do yoga. She may eat meat, abstain from meat; she may eat kosher food, halal food or food sacrificed to Vishnu. She may tell stories about the Jews’ redemption from Egypt, Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, or Rama’s romance with Sita.

St. Paul explicitly encourages this sort of thing. He himself walked amongst the idols of the Greeks and participated in Jewish practices he was freed from. He wrote that “All things are permissible,” even doing very un-Jewish things like eating meat sacrificed to idols. A huge part of Paul’s teaching throughout his life was that Christians didn’t have to keep Jewish traditions.

Real unifying faith

All this allows for a beautiful and unprecedented unity. When we talk about our color preferences, we are talking about something purely subjective. When we enter into the realm of true and false, we cross the threshold into that part of the human experience we can share. Conversations about theology are impossible in pluralism, or at least they’re very short. “Oh! Very interesting. That’s good for you.” True and interesting conversation can only come when people are talking about the same thing. And with Jesus’ audacious claim to be the Truth, the logos, the foundation of rationality, he permits his followers to seek him literally everywhere. The Christian can discuss the truth in a Hindu story, or a Jewish scripture, or a Greek epic, or a mathematical postulate. He can feel the emotional truth in Muslim architecture, Buddhist yoga, or even a secular nightclub [1]. The Christian can baptize a piece of art, or an experience, or a story in the waters of Truth, allowing all that is false or evil or wrong to die, and bringing the rest of it into the Light. GK Chesterton once said that St Thomas Aquinas baptized Aristotle: Thomas found his work and literally saved it from being lost, but also translated the good of it into the new orthodoxy. The Christian can affirm the true and the good in every culture, in every religion, and even in every person. The Atheist must deny all things (certainly all religions). The Pluralist must deny some things (e.g. Christianity and Islam). The Christian, unique in history and amongst philosophies, may truly believe all things.

Calling Christianity intolerant is like saying that the Allies were secretly Nazis. Without context, it might have been confusing to see Patton in Germany with American tanks. Patton’s defection might be a plausible story, or maybe he was a German general all along. But if one simply watched the Battle of the Bulge, it wouldn’t take long to see that the Allies were not friends with the Nazis. Of course, there were Nazi spies amongst Allied ranks, and there were Allied soldiers who poorly represented the group. But it’s difficult to argue that the Allies were pro-Nazi because it was the Allies who defeated the Nazis. And so it is with Christianity.

On Christmas Day, the beaches of Darkness and Intolerance were invaded. Since then, thousands of missionaries, abolitionists, and translators have been broadening the Church. As the Allies marked time from the day of their invasion, so Christians count time relative to “C-Day”. In fact, so do you. In the corner of your computer screen and on your wrist and on the phone in your pocket you can see exactly how many hours, days, months, and years have elapsed since the invasion began (“The Year of our Lord 2012”, abbreviated 2012 AD from the Latin Anno Domini). In 33AD, the Church spoke Aramaic and included Judaism. Within a few decades, its leaders were from diverse parts of the Roman Empire and it included Greek. Today, the Gospel has been printed in well over 1500 languages and the Church includes members from every continent and every major religion. And it continues to broaden.

[1] I have recently discovered the feeling of being ‘one’ with a crowd, moving to loud music in a dark club is true. Of course, there are a million bad things mixed in. But the feeling of unity with strangers is a mystical truth: we are indeed all one blood, and the breath that we draw is from the same Father in heaven. This is the kernel of truth I found at Bootie.