The eminent geneticist Richard Dawkins caused controversy last week with his remarks that it would be immoral to carry on with a pregnancy if the mother knew the foetus had Down’s syndrome. His remarks implied that a child with Down’s syndrome has little to add to the world and the condition overshadows any achievement the child might make.
As a neuroscientist and Professor myself I would suggest that he has missed something important namely that human happiness/ mental health /quality of life/ well-being is not determined by what happens/does not happen to us or indeed by what we have/don’t have.
Genetics may be difficult but humans are even more complex!
It is an astonishing fact that the recipe for human happiness can be summarised into just one sentence and here it is. Happiness is determined by an ability to engage and respond appropriately to the people, things and events that surround us. Notice from this, that your own happiness depends on YOU alone and not the people, things and events that surround you.
What is empathy?
The ability to engage and respond appropriately to people, things and events is the basis of empathy. Furthermore, the quality of your engagement and the appropriateness of your response determine your level of empathy. Empathy allows human beings to not only interact with each other effectively, but also to predict the actions, intentions, and feelings of others. A useful trait indeed for a happy life.
Where is empathy in the brain?
The recent discovery of mirror neurons – a cluster of neurons that help connect us emotionally to other people, respond sympathetically towards others and allow us to anticipate others intentions is believed to be the basis of human empathy
Empathy – you either use it or lose it.
How can we learn to better engage and respond? The recent discovery that the practice of meditation changes the shape of those brain areas involved in empathy – allowing those discrete areas in the brain to grow or change – by adding a tiny fraction of the brain’s neural circuitry and eliminating old ones. This finding has established a new field of contemplative neuroscience – the brain science of meditation – and it helps to explain how meditation acts to improve mental health by cultivating the empathy needed to lead a more compassionate and loving outlook in life.
Happiness or heartbreak.
I do think that Professor Dawkins’s statement might be of some benefit if it opens up a debate on how we deal with what life serves up to each of us. At various times we may experience a great deal of stress in our lives and in this we are not alone. The question is – as events and worries beset us, are we going to turn more and more to quick fixes to handle our dis-stress?
Probably the most important lesson to be taken from Richard Dawkins/ Down’s syndrome controversy is the realization that the stresses of life and how we manage them IS the difference between happiness and heartbreak.
I look forward to developing this theme in greater detail including drug-free tips on how the avoid worry and stress in future posts.
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