Are Human Beings Neurologically Tailored to Obey Epidemic Suggestions?
An exquisitely unique firing happens inside the human brain when we imitate one another (think monkey see, monkey do) and it happens between what are called: mirror neurons.
Located in numerous regions of the brain – such as the frontal cortex, (controlling voluntary movement) the superior temporal sulcus (involved in the perception of where others are gazing and responding) and the inferior parietal lobule (involved in the perception of emotions in and interpretation of sensory information such as language, mathematical operations, and body image.) Two distinct types of mirror neurons have been discovered by Italian Neuro-scientist Giaccomo Rizzolatti and his team, who published one of the most cohesive research papers on the topic in 1996, entitled: Action Recognition in the Premotor Cortex.
One category of mirror neurons is labeled ‘strictly congruent mirror neurons’ which, in primates, are the dominant mirror neuron. They respond when learning how to hunt, grasp, climb and walk: basically any action where the ultimate goal directly corresponds with the learned movement that is needed to perform it. Humans also have a significant amount of ‘strictly congruent’ mirror neurons but they only represent one third of our sum. The second category of mirror neurons is called ‘broadly congruent’ mirror neurons and they are distinctly human, as two thirds of the sum of our mirror neuron system is made up of the type: they still fire when we imitate each other but to a more distanced and abstract degree. In order to fire, they do not require the observation of the act in order to code information in the brain.
As we’ve learned more and more about who we are in contrast to our closest animal relatives, an easy distinction that has been made in the past was our capacity to empathize. Why are we so affected by early attachment psychology and why do our emotions direct so much of what we do both individually and collectively? Animals don’t require our capacity for empathy because they can live without the aid of an immediate caregiver having not beenborn “prematurely”, as Swedish psychotherapist Ingallil Ferm said in a recent phone conversation.
“We are herd animals and the human brain is pre-programmed for creating relationships and understanding one another. Psychotherapy and neuropsychology are developing daily to treat this field of uniquely human abilities to ‘identify’ with others and relate from that understanding through mentalization.”
The mentalization system is located along the cortical midline and in the temporal lobes, including the prefrontal cortex, temporal poles, PCC and posterior STS. Mentalization and empathy go hand in hand with our unique abilities to suppose the state of another.
“Human babies are born prematurely, unable to survive on their own for 24 hours,” Ferm says: “thus, proving that we have an innate desire to take care of each other.”
The somatic marker system is another very unique human neurological trait. They are located in the pre-frontal cortex and Californian neuroscientist Antonio Damasio famously hypothesized in his Somatic Marker Hypothesis (SMH, 1996) that we neurologically ‘flag’ our emotions in our brain’s motivational and reward systems with these markers when we encounter situations that result in outstanding emotions. We then ‘code’ our very emotions, as somatic markers, into our brains cellular structure through neuroplasticity and unconsciously ‘turn to’ them for reference when complex decision making processes are required of us – think of hoarders and people who clean compulsively, drug addicts use substances to ‘cope’ with problems because they can ‘rely’ on them to provide the desired affect that they first felt when initially encountering the habit, also: shopaholics, control ‘freaks’, sports ‘nuts’ and pornography addicts are practical examples of the SMH in action. We tend to act on what feels good – we assume what has worked will most likely work again and neurologically we tend to look to our emotions that resulted from what we did in the past for advice on what to do in the future.
“Human wisdom is (essentially) how our emotions have behaved and what we learned from them,” Damasio said at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2009. “The qualities that define the human self are its enormous scope. It allows us a projection into our past and into our future. Animals live in the present: they are what they are in that moment, we don’t do that – we are really thinking beings that live some sort of ‘life examined,’ filtered through what has been and filtered through what we want to do.
We operate on many modes of self. Walking in the street, one is quite capable of walking home without noting every landmark you pass – the self can be reduced in scope to being simply an organism, but our autobiographical self is our ‘anchor’ (to ‘consciousness.’)”
Now, another worthwhile question becomes: have these systems: the distinctly human makeup of the mirror neuron system, the somatic marker system and the mentalization system, which reside more prominently in our human brains than in any other animal, have they also contributed to one of the most detrimental forces in human history?
Leo Tolstoy’s “epidemic suggestion” is a term he coined in a 1903 essay he wrote discrediting the popularity and fame of William Shakespeare. My question is, have these previously un-researched neurological traits tailored us to obeying them?
As Tolstoy wrote in his famous essay: “Such irrational “suggestions” have always been existing, and still exist in each and every sphere of human life — religious, philosophical, political, economical, scientific, artistic, literary — and people clearly see the insanity of these suggestions only when they free themselves from them. But, as long as they are under their influence, the suggestions appear to them so certain, so true, that to argue about them is regarded as neither necessary nor possible. With the development of the printing press, these epidemics became especially striking.”
Now, never mind the printing press. Tolstoy was speaking from the early 20th century. According to the sites statistics: in 2011, more video is uploaded to YouTube in one month than the 3 major US networks created in 60 years and 48 hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute, resulting in nearly 8 years of content being uploaded every day.
With this gross amount of cognitive information being, as one could argue “epidemically” suggested, and to which one has to either ignore, form an opinion on, register, consider, endorse or argue about; the way we digest, regurgitate and act must also evolve with it.
Epidemic suggestions are transferred by humans and humans alone (by word of mouth, advertising, peer pressure, broadly congruent and strictly congruent mirror neurons etc.) and can transcend both culture and time (if they are coded in our mirror neuron and reward-based systems neurology as ‘useful’ or ‘worthwhile’.)
As Damasio said in a 2011 Ted Talk, his concept of our ‘autobiographical self’ is made up of emotions we’ve flagged through the use of somatic markers in our brain, and that they “conduct our lived past, anticipated future – prompting extended memory, reasoning, imagination, language and creativity,” giving them credit for what he calls “the ‘instruments of culture’: religions, justice, trades, the arts, science, and technology.” All of which can be painted with the same brush as Tolstoy’s epidemic suggestions.
Some examples of successfully suggested social epidemics, (which are not being presented here as true or false, but simply as examples of ideas that contain the ability to resound through generations whether beneficial or detrimental) are: religious theologies, fashion trends, political agendas, viral online videos, quotes and words to live by, the promise of an afterlife, ‘the hot gift’ this Christmas, assorted xenophobias, the value we place on celebrity, cultures that enforce youth worship, pornography (as an example for a healthy sexual relationships), the lack of room given to distress and challenge in one’s life; even insignificant suggestions such as Michael Jackson’s talent, Coke-a-Cola as a desirable beverage, McDonalds as a reasonable meal for the human body , Starbucks, Wal-Mart, the suburban white-picket-fence lifestyle… all can be included, as they have been epidemically suggested in one way or another and have resulted in a “mass convincement” or as some could argue: a “mass hypnosis” of certain segments of people, spanning willy-nilly over the course of human history.
Culturally specific “epidemic suggestions” have also resulted in culturally specific disorders.
The fear that inspires the “Hikikomori” of Japan is one such case: a disorder that relates to people who confine themselves in there homes for a period exceeding six months, two thirds of Japan’s 1.2 million documented Hikikomori are under the age of 30 and many who were interviewed for Michael Zielenziger’s book, “Shutting out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation”, cited “searching for a sense of individualism in a Japanese environment that couldn’t accommodate it” as a cause for the disorder. The environment, no doubt influenced by the rigidity of the Japanese school system and the overwhelming social pressure to succeed – based on the countries own epidemically suggested version of success (an exaggerated, chronologically ‘provincial’ notion that was strengthened by the countries very same educational system which was instigated in the aftermath of the second world war and contributed directly to Japan’s rapid economic growth) is just one example.
Another example of culturally specific epidemic suggestions relating directly to broadly congruent mirror neurons and Damasio’s emotionally rooted somatic marker hypothesis is what happened in America during the first two weeks of October 2001, after the threat of anthrax attacks came to light an astounding 2300 people claimed to feel symptoms of coming into contact with anthrax, although all were discovered to be false alarms. And due to a wash of other epidemically suggested discourses, America remains infamously ahead of the rest of the world with – culturally exclusive – amounts of reported prescription drug overdoses, childhood obesity, bulimia and anorexia (although eating disorders are increasing all over the world, it has been argued that those cultures with an increased amount of westernization within them correspond with the excessive amount of eating disorders within (LH. Cummins : Eating Disorders and Body Image Concerns in Asian American Women: Assessment and Treatment from a Multicultural and Feminist Perspective.)
When only obeying our immediate emotional responses without understanding the neurological reasoning behind them, we have become, as Damasio says a “self reduced in scope. An organism”, that haphazardly allows our socially constructed environments to hardwire us into obeying broad epidemic suggestions that work against us, the environment we inhabit and the clear understanding of our basic programming as empathetic, herd oriented beings. And in lieu of this knowledge, we’ve instead collectively developed a tendency to opt for: individualism and self righteousness (through consumerism and capitalism), fear (assorted xenophobia), laziness (cultures of convenience created at the expense of environmental sustainability), and misanthropy (genocide and willful ignorance) toward ourselves and the greater community.
But thanks to Damasio, Ferm, Rizzolatti and other hardworking researchers and developers of the neurological and psychotherapeutic fields, recent developments have drastically increased our ability to treat those who are victimized by the aforementioned neurological traits which render us exquisitely susceptible to epidemic suggestions, mass psychosomatic disturbances and neurological disruptions which have arose from social, genetic, physical and attachment based traumas.
And for those who have been lucky enough not to encounter such traumas, the ability to see these neurological traits from an objective perspective now exists in the collective consciousness: the ties they have with the contagiousness of culture and mass suggestion, how and why we mirror one another and why our individual emotions are the prime navigating factors through difficult decision making. Intellectually identifying the neurological ‘how’ of each instinct rather than opting for the path of least resistance and simply relying on the superficial, self-serving, social pressures which urge us to choose the epidemically suggested, individually advantageous options (which have proven to be counter-productive to our natural orientation as herd animals), is undoubtedly worthwhile.