Saturday, September 17, 2011

Mirror Neurons and Smith's Sympathy

Nicholas Baumard writes (23 June) in The International Cognition Institute (HERE): and takes on a topic which has appeared with increasing regularity recently and, while appreciated as a step towards greater understanding of Adam Smith’s actual contributions, it still leaves much that is not understood.

OK, I admit. Adam Smith never talked about mirror neurons. So why am I bringing this topic up? Because Smith actually did, in a way, tackle the debate about mirror neurons and empathy.

What is this debate? In recent years, empathy, understood as the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sentient being, has received more and more interest. In particular, the study of the neural underpinnings of empathy has received increased interest following a Behavioral and Brain Sciences target article published by Stephanie Preston and Frans de Waal, following the discovery of mirror neurons in monkeys that fire both when the creature watches another creature perform an action as well as when they perform it themselves. In their paper, they (as well as others like Gallese) argued that perception of the object's state automatically activates neural representations, and that this activation automatically primes or generates the associated autonomic and somatic responses, unless inhibited.

But what does any of this have to do with Adam Smith? Like modern psychologists and anthropologists, Smith thought that our capacity to experience feelings about the feelings of others was the basis of social life. In fact, his Theory of Moral Sentiments starts with these words:

"How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it."

And for those who are tempted to doubt the connection between Smith's view of sympathy and its modern counterpart, he immediately adds that it is automatic:

"As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations."

So does this mean that we should see Smith as the 'big ancestor' of the modern mirror neuron theory? Not so fast. Actually, my point is that Adam Smith had anticipated some of the weaknesses of the mirror neuron theory.

Although Smith agrees with modern advocates of empathy that humans have a unique capacity to be moved by the feelings of others, he disagrees about the actual mechanism. We do not feel pain for others because their emotions automatically activate similar emotions in us. Instead, it is because we understand their situation

"Sympathy, therefore, does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from that of the situation which excites it. We sometimes feel for another, a passion of which he himself seems to be altogether incapable; because, when we put ourselves in his case, that passion arises in our breast from the imagination, though it does not in his from the reality."

Indeed, says Smith, we are sometimes moved by others' situations while not sharing the same emotion:

"We blush for the impudence and rudeness of another, though he himself appears to have no sense of the impropriety of his own behaviour; because we cannot help feeling with what confusion we ourselves should be covered, had we behaved in so absurd a manner."

If the advocates of mirror neurons were right, we should experience the same emotions as others. But this is not the case. We do not automatically imitate others' emotions. Instead, we experience our own emotion, which depends on our interest in the other's situation: if a friend is in a bad situation, whether or not he feels bad at the time, we will be sad; in contrast, if an enemy, someone for whom we have some antipathy, is in a bad situation, we may actually be happy; and if a friend feels, say, jealous of his partner, we won't be jealous as well, we will, depending on our opinion of the situation, be sad as well, or maybe angry at our friend who is unjustly jealous. In all these cases, others' emotions do not automatically generate similar emotions in ourselves (a point that is well emphasized in Anderson and Keltner's reply to Preston and de Waal). In other terms, it is not clear that humans have a capacity for empathy (to share someone else's emotions) rather than a capacity for sympathy (to share someone else's interests).”

Follow the link and read some more. Also, best if you read Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759), bearing in mind that his book covers much of his lectures to his moral philosophy class, which were also supported by his students undertaking additional ready and attending regular tutorials where they read their essays and discussed set questions. With today’s shorter attention spans and less stylish reference books, quite different in their 18th-century literary style than today’s, reading Smith may take some effort.

The behavioural school consists of psychologists, sociologists, and some pretty sharp economists of the neoclassical school. The latter realized quickly that their observations of behaviours in their ‘games’ did not correspond to their economics beliefs that they (wrongly) understood were rooted in the Homo economics of the rational calculus in their theory, attributed, surprisingly to Adam Smith. I exchanged emails with a Professor Cramer some years back drawing his attention to this wrong attribution in a multi-author paper in which he featured. He dismissed my comments on ground that he did not write that part of the paper – it was another one of the authors – as if that was a sufficient grounds for dismissing my observation that the reference to Adam Smith on the invisible hand was inaccurate (a mild rebuke as these exchanges were in the early year of Lots Legacy) and I had expected leading economist to be aware of this fact.

On this occasion, Nicholas Baumard, contrasts Adam Smith’s assertions about sympathy with modern behavioral ideas about empathy. Smith’s ideas on self-interest too easily slide in the minds of modern thinkers into an idea of selfishness – check how Samuelson and others equate Smith with selfishness, as in ‘the selfish actions of individuals are led by an invisible hand to benefit society’, which has nothing to do with what Smith ever wrote, though it was in what Bernard Mandeville argued, and which views Smith said were ‘licentious’. Likewise Smith was not an exponent of the idea that self-interest meant selfishness, particularly in the parable of the ‘butcher, brewer, and baker’. Smith’s point is explicit that the customer must have regard for the interests of the trio to agree a bargain. In short, self-interest is not enough; the customer and the trio had to ‘other regarding’, not selfish.

I posted on Lost Legacy ‘Adam Smith On Bargaining’ making this point specific – scroll down to Tuesday 10 August:
Adam Smith on Bargaining and My Experience Applying His Theory’ and take a look at what TMS and Wealth Of Nations really meant.

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