Edith Stein’s first major philosophical work, On the Problem of Empathy, raises some fascinating questions about how we know, not only that other minds exist, but that they, like me, are capable of various psychological states and experiences.
Emotional States of Others
The commonsensical view is that we know how others feel based on inference: I am aware of my own thoughts and feelings directly and that these I sometimes express bodily. And while I am not aware of the thoughts and feelings of others, just their outward bodily movements, I can infer by analogy, from the bodily movements, facial expressions, etc. of others, that they, like me, are persons with thoughts and feelings that find expression in bodily movement.
This is a popular response as to how we come to know the emotional state of others. But it isn’t Stein’s.
Stein says that, when we encounter a person who is elated, or grieving, that what is given to us is not an object but a person. A person who is elated or grieving. And in this experience we . . . are you ready? . . . feel their elation or grief. Yep, it’s as spooky as it sounds.
Well here’s the cool thing. Modern neuroscience is supporting Stein’s understanding of empathy. How? Mirror neurons.
Over the last decade neuroscientists have discovered and have been learning more and more about what they call mirror neurons. Simply put, mirror neurons respond to actions that we observe in others. In the 90’s, neurophysiologists hooked a macaque monkey up to a brain scanner to study the neurons specialized for the control of hand and mouth actions. They discovered that the same group of neurons that fired when the monkey picked up the food also fired, though to a lesser extent, when the monkey saw someone else pick it up. In other words, when the monkey performed the action and when the monkey saw the action being performed, his brain reacted in almost the same way.
What does this have to do with empathy?
Neuroscientist Marco Lacoboni writes, “Mirror neurons are the only brain cells we know of that seem specialized to code the actions of other people and also our own actions. They are obviously essential brain cells for social interactions. Without them, we would likely be blind to the actions, intentions and emotions of other people” [source]
So, keeping in mind what I’ve just shared about Stein’s understanding of empathy, listen to what Lacoboni has to say about mirror neurons:
“When you see me perform an action—such as picking up a baseball—you automatically simulate the action in your own brain. …Circuits in your brain, which we do not yet entirely understand, inhibit you from moving while you simulate. … But you understand my action because you have in your brain a template for that action based on your own movements. … And if you see me choke up, in emotional distress from striking out at home plate, mirror neurons in your brain simulate my distress. You automatically have empathy for me. You know how I feel because you literally feel what I am feeling.” [source]