If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change. – The Buddha (c. 563 BCE)
Look deeply into nature to understand the secrets of the Universe.
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.
What actually is emotion?
Emotion feels so natural and seems so normal, but what if emotion is not there? What if emotion is an emergent phenomenon and only something we experience as macroscopic beings? This might sound strange, but we know that we are sandwiched within the Universe. For example, we do not feel the cosmological expansion that dominates the large scale of the Universe nor do we feel the very small scale where individual atoms inside us collide with our skin. Instead, we have a collective term – temperature – to describe what is happening. Perhaps emotion is the same. This may feel uncomfortable when you ask just where is the ‘you’ and how you feel in all of this.
Perhaps it is best to think of it like this – most of us have come to terms with the fact that we are physically a collection of atoms. We, and our consciousness somehow emerge and we seem to be able to live with this illusion of our being. Maybe all we need to do is the same for how we feel, as we play out our short existence.
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 .
Our behaviour mirrors our environment
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 behaviours 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 the 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.
Kindness is the key to our survival
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.
 Mirror Neurons. Society for Neuroscience (2013)
 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.
 Corradini A, Antonietti A. (2013) Mirror neurons and their function in cognitively understood empathy. Consciousness and Cognition. 22, 1152–1161.