Incivility and Short-Circuited Mirror Neurons

Everybody needs to be a little selfish, of course. In the vast scheme of Nature we’re all competing with one another for various things. Food. Clothing. Shelter. Love. Safety. There’s nothing wrong with that since living things have evolved that way, from we humans down to the tiniest of viruses. And yet in modern human societies burdened by unprecedented crowding, incivility, a form of selfishness, is a complicated Gordian Knot, and when incivility ends up getting in the way of our obtaining food, clothing, shelter, love and safety, the behavior loses its luster. Every time I get in my car, I’m trusting other people to be civil while they’re driving theirs. Please don’t lose control of your vehicle and hit me. Please remain in your lane over there beyond the median. Please don’t pass me at high speed and immediately slow down in my lane so I have to hit the brakes. That drives me nuts. A truly uncivil driver is eventually taken off the road in one way or another. And unless you’re part of a gang, an uncivil child is pretty quickly a lonely one, too, which leads to all manner of social difficulties later in life. Empathy, the opposite of incivility, works better.


“Mirror neurons” in monkeys are neurons that fire when the monkey “acts” and also when it sees the same action in another monkey. We’re still on the way to proving that we have them, but the chances are good. When I tell stories and make ridiculous faces, half the kids in my audience make them, too. Laughter is contagious as well, of course. Neuroscientists are discovering that these behaviors are rooted in a kind of built-in empathy.


“…neuroscientific evidence suggests that merely observing another individual in a painful situation yields responses in the neural network associated with the coding of the motivational affective dimension of pain in oneself.” (you can read University of Chicago researchers Jean Decety’s and Claus Lamm’s paper about empathy here.)


According to empathy studies, when someone else is in pain and we see it firsthand, most people’s “mirroring systems” light up with a similar feeling. How many of us groan when we see a particularly tough hit during a football game? We don’t experience the player’s actual pain, but we groan anyway.


Many parents and educators––and someone like me who reads the “comments” section of just about any online publication these days––have been scratching their heads at why the level of incivility is so very high and the language is so coarse, offered by people of all ages, but lots by young people. Even threats of violence are fairly routine if you express opinions publicly on the web. Especially, and most sadly, if you’re a woman.


So here’s a theory about why that’s going on. If while we’re online and we read people’s opinions with which we vehemently disagree, then we increasingly feel comfortable with hyper-aggression because we can no longer see the reactions on their faces when they see our comments. In other words, Nature’s old way of keeping us civil is no longer there.


Our mirror neurons have been short-circuited by our own technology.