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* Empathy and Inspiration: Biological Link

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February 5, 2009.

From the Morning Edition, July 18, 2005, comes an editorial by Iranian-born writer Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran) about empathy and its function in allowing us to experience the commonality between people of different heritages. She remarks, “Whenever I think of the word empathy, I think of a small boy named Huckleberry Finn contemplating his friend and a runaway slave, Jim. Huck asks himself whether he should give Jim up or not. Huck was told in Sunday school that people who let slaves go free go to ‘everlasting fire.’” But when he imagines Jim, then he remembers their friendship. “He imagines Jim not as a slave but as a human being and he decides that, ‘alright, then, I’ll go to hell.’”

Professor Nafisi was supported in like manner by strict young Muslim men who disagreed with her views but defended her from the school administration in a Taliban-controlled Tehran University because of their respect for her as a colleague and peer. She was later expelled and virtually exiled to the United States.

“This experience,” says Nafisi, “reinforces my belief in the mysterious connections that link individuals to each other despite their vast differences.” It is through empathy that “the pain experienced by an Algerian woman, a North Korean dissident, A Rwandan child or an Iraqi prisoner, becomes real to me and not just passing news.”

Neurobiologists agree with Nafisi. Since the 1960s, research on empathy using new Functional Magnetic Resonance has revealed the working of mirror neurons. These neurons can not only recreate in us the experience of the other, but they also can allow us to feel what the other person is feeling. In early life, mirror neurons allow a child to imitate others, learning language, social behavior and other skills and behaviors necessary for survival. As adults a well-functioning system of mirror neurons allows us to feel the pain of others, to recognize ourselves in their circumstances.

If this is so, then inspiration itself can actually be physically infectious. We know that one person can inspire others with hope, enthusiasm and possibility. We know, for example, that I can build a model of the future in my own imagination and then communicate in a way that others not only understand it, but see and feel its impact on their own future.

Just as our understanding and empathy for the plights of others can be transmitted, so can new possibility.

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