IN GENERAL this last trait, empathy, actually enhances our capacity for moral behavior. But sometimes we can get into trouble when our empathic response overpowers our sense of fairness. But before we look at this exception, let’s take a look at the origins of this important attribute.
Have you ever wondered why you respond reflexively to other peoples’ pain and difficulties? For example, your wife opens a jar of leftovers that she’s taken from the fridge. She smells the vegetables and then quickly pulls her head away—her nose wrinkles with disgust. All of a sudden, you notice that you feel a bit nauseous. On another occasion, you’re watching your son’s baseball team play their last game of the season. The pitcher throws a wild pitch, and the ball hits the batter in the left shoulder. You automatically flinch and tense your left arm.
In the 1990s a group of researchers from Italy discovered mirror neurons. Conducting experiments with monkeys, these researchers identified “a type of brain cell that responds equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action.” Because we can’t easily implant electrodes in the human brain, scientists aren’t sure that mirror neurons exist in people. But we do know “that humans have a more general mirror system.”1
Researchers speculate that mirror neurons are the biological base