The Neurobiology of Kindness #WorldKindnessDay

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Today is World Kindness Day. Kindness is a fundamental part of the human condition and bridges the divides of culture, religion, politics, gender, and social class.

Why does Kindness Exist?

Until recently, the task of applying what we know about the brain to the bigger question of personal human experience has been avoided by scientists. However the emergence of the new discipline of neuroscience – the scientific study of the nervous system – is helping us to bridge this gap by providing new ways to answer such age-old questions as why does kindness exist, and why is it important? To answer these questions we first need to consider an important property of nerve cells (neurons) in the human brain.

The Neurobiology of Kindness

The discovery of mirror neurons, a cluster of neurons in the brain that help connect us emotionally to other people, respond sympathetically towards others and allow us to anticipate others intentions is now believed to be the basis of human empathy. Mirror neurons were first discovered by neuroscientists in the 1990s while recording the activity of neurons in the brain where it was noticed that certain populations of neurons remain silent (observation) and active (imitation) when we watch others perform the same action, hence the name mirror neurons [1,2]. Scientists have extended this finding in the human brain to show that nerve activity in mirror neurons also behaves in the same way when we see another person expressing an emotion, and this nerve activity is not observed in disorders of empathy [3].

Kindness is the Engine for Personal Growth

Each person is a mirror of their environment which is then in turn mirrored by their own behaviour. This underlies the powerful phenomenon of social contagion – that information, ideas, and behaviors including kindness can spread through networks of people the way that infectious diseases do. For this reason, giving and receiving kindness can have a contagious effect.  Research also shows that optimal learning takes place in an environment that is creative, inclusive, rewarding and bolstered by firm, healthy boundaries, in an environment that is kind.  Even those in deep distress due to imprisonment, addiction, financial worries, and high anxiety also benefit greatly from an environment that is creative, inclusive and boundaried.

What to do when we encounter unkindness? Behaviours including anxiety, anger and rudeness can also spread through networks of people in the same way that infectious diseases do. The antidote to becoming infected with these miserable states is to be aware that every action must be consciously chosen, and not an emotional response. Another tip is to always give the benefit of the doubt when dealing with other human beings. More often than not you will be proven right.

Survival of the Kindest

Why is kindness so important? This question can be answered in the context that every single human being is unique because we each poses a uniquely complex brain, so complex that in all of human history no two human brains can be identical. This is because the unique combination of about 100 trillion tiny brain connections (synapses) that grow and change throughout life is an ongoing work in progress from conception to death. In this way we each one of us ‘evolve’ as true individuals as we each make our journey through life. Kindness is the green light to keep going. If you are not open to giving and receiving kindness then you may not be growing. In the same way, humankind will only evolve by making room for each and every individual to express their intellectual and spiritual evolution to the full.  In this way, the evolution of the human race has everything to do with being open to giving and receiving kindness.

 


References

  1. Mirror Neurons. Society for Neuroscience (2013) http://www.brainfacts.org/brain-basics/neuroanatomy/articles/2008/mirror-neurons/
  2. Kraskov A, Dancause N, Quallo MM, Shepherd S and Lemon RN. (2009) Corticospinal neurons in macaque ventral premotor cortex with mirror properties: A potential mechanism for action suppression? Neuron 64, 922-930.
  3. Corradini A, Antonietti A. (2013) Mirror neurons and their function in cognitively understood empathy. Consciousness and Cognition. 22, 1152–1161.

 

 

 

Inside The Neocortex

The neocortex (Latin for “new bark” or “new rind”) is part of the cerebral cortex of the mammalian brain.  In humans, it is involved in “higher functions” such as sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and language.

In an overview of the structure of the mammalian neocortex, Professor of Neurobiology, Clay Reid explains how the mammalian cortex is organized in a hierarchy, describing the columnar principle and canonical microcircuits.

This full-length, undergraduate-level lecture is the third of a 12-part series entitled Coding & Vision 101, produced by the Allen Institute for Brain Science as an educational resource for the community.

Weekly Round-Up

Researchers believe they found a link between the volume of one’s cerebellum and general intelligence. The cerebellum is involved in the coordination of voluntary motor movement, balance and equilibrium and muscle tone. It is located just above the brain stem and toward the back of the brain.

A small but promising study suggests that magnetic stimulation of the brain could aid the recovery of some stroke patients.

Treatment that increases brain levels of an important regulatory enzyme may slow the loss of brain cells that characterizes Huntington’s disease (HD) and other neurodegenerative disorders.

How much do babies remember about the world around them? New research reveals that even though infants can’t remember the details of an object that has been hidden from view, their brains have built-in “pointers” that help them retain the idea that the object still exists even though they can’t see it anymore.

Neuroscience research involving epileptic patients with brain electrodes surgically implanted in their medial temporal lobes shows that patients learned to consciously control individual neurons deep in the brain with thoughts.

Loyola University Medical Center researchers are reporting what could become the first reliable method to predict whether an antidepressant will work on a depressed patient.

How we perceive motion is a significantly more complex process than previously thought, researchers at New York University’s Center for Neural Science, Stanford University and the University of Washington have found. Their results, which appear in the journalCurrent Biology, show that the relationship between the brain and visual perception varies, depending on the type of motion we are viewing.

After birth, the developing brain is largely shaped by experiences in the environment. However, neurobiologists at Yale and elsewhere have also shown that for many functions the successful wiring of neural circuits depends upon spontaneous activity in the brain that arises before birth independent of external influences.

Important role of mother’s voice in activating newborn’s brain

brain activity in baby

Exciting  new research has proved for the first time that a newborn baby’s brain responds strongly to its mother’s voice.*

A research team from the University of Montreal and the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Centre conducted experiments  on newborn infants by performing electrical recordings within the 24 hours following their birth. Brain exploration has never before been undertaken on such young participants. 

When the baby’s mother spoke, the scans very clearly show reactions in the left-hemisphere of the brain, and in particular the language processing and motor skills circuit.

It was already well known that babies have some innate language capacities, but researchers are only just beginning to understand what these capacities are and how they work.

“This research confirms that the mother is the primary initiator of language and suggests that there is a neurobiological link between prenatal language acquisition and motor skills involved in speech,” said lead researcher Dr. Maryse Lassonde.

*Université de Montréal (2010, December 17). Mom’s voice plays special role in activating newborn’s brain. ScienceDaily.