Mark Matousek is a Tricycle contributing editor. His new book, Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good, is now available in bookstores.

Your new book, Ethical Wisdom, is about maybe the most important subject in the world: human goodness. People have been thinking and writing about ethics for a long time, what’s interesting about this field today? What made you want to take this project on?
Science is finally catching up to what Buddhism has been telling us for millennia: namely, that the human brain is hard-wired to be good. We are born with what moral psychologists are now calling a “moral organ” that enables us to make ethical choices. This ethical faculty is not unlike our inherited aptitude for things like language and mathematics. Just as in learning language, we are born with a “feel” for parts of speech, we come into the world already sensitized to five primary areas of ethical concern: harm and care; justice and fairness; loyalty toward the in-group; authority and respect; and sacredness and purity. These are the chords of our moral organ, and learning to “play” them—becoming sensitive to how our “ear” for these chords affects the ethical choices we make—can transform how we behave in the world and the quality of our lived wisdom.

This is fascinating, vital information at a time when it’s easy to look at mounting violence, destruction, and greed in the world, and feel discouraged about our future as a species. I wanted to bring together this new research, as well as perennial truth from the wisdom traditions, to create a more realistic view of human nature based on the facts—as opposed to our miserable, inherited Western view of man as a fallen, original sinner—in order to give people hope and to demonstrate just how much power each of has to utilize, and cultivate, the gifts of this evolved moral organ.  What we now know about the role of mirror neurons in the learning empathy is enough, alone, to revolutionize how we think about our human potential for goodness.

Will meditating make a person ethical? No, but it will give the meditator a clearer, more expansive awareness of the feelings, responses, conditioning, and intentions that determine his or her behavior. This is huge. Since most of us move through our lives in a trance of self-delusion—even on a good day—becoming aware of how our minds work is fundamental to sharpening our ethical tools and increasing sensitivity of the harm we do to others, as well as to ourselves. Learning to be with ourselves in the intimate way that meditation requires demands also an increase of compassion. Mindfulness forces us not to turn away from the effects of our actions. Suddenly, we’re in the building. We can’t pretend not to see, or not to care, or not to be affected by our choices and their impact on others. This awareness can be painful, of course, but it’s a pain worth feeling.

One of the most interesting things that I learned in my research is that, contrary to what we’re taught in a left-brained, reason-obsessed culture, it is emotions—not the rational mind—that is the foundation of moral life. Without emotional intelligence, the most rational people in world cannot make sound ethical choices. We need to feel in order to care, and we need to care if we hope to make ethical choices. Empathy is the prime inhibitor of human cruelty, as Daniel Goleman told me when we spoke. Our deepest moral reflexes occur at the gut level; in fact, all of human morality arises from the moral emotion of disgust—this is what steered us toward goodness in the first place. We feel that things are right and wrong even before we think they are, but the rational mind tells us otherwise. It’s fascinating to learn how this process works. Jonathan Haidt, the psychologist, calls this “moral dumbfounding.” First, you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, or disgusting, then your mind creates a rational story to justify your visceral response. This is happening all the time but we are unaware of it. Instead, we believe our stories—it’s wrong to burn the flag, wrong to sleep with your sister, wrong to eat a pet—without realizing that they are just stories, and utterly immune to logic. When we look inside our minds for reasons to justify our moral responses, we find only feelings posing as facts.

Meditation enables us to observe this moral dumbfounding in action and not be fooled by our minds into believing that reason is running the show. Which it’s not.

I know you’re a Tricycle contributing editor, but are you a Buddhist? I’m not a card carrying anything. Early on, a teacher of mine suggested that the Buddha himself was not a Buddhist, and that stuck with me. I’m not interested in labels, factions, cliques, or clubs. I’m interested in practicing to be an awake human being. I’m dedicated to learning and deepening from all aspects of my experience, including the dharma. Wisdom, to my mind, is inclusive, expansive, and non-sectarian by definition. Any teaching that doesn’t meet those criteria cannot be, to my mind, the highest teaching. That’s why I steer away from labels and have never been much of a joiner, spiritually or otherwise.

Having said that, I hasten to add that the Buddhist teachings are more precious to me, as a whole, than any other body of perennial wisdom. Some of my most memorable “spiritual” experiences—another word I try to steer away from—have been on Buddhist retreats and learning from extraordinary teachers such as Pema Chödrön, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, and Pat Enkyo O’Hara. I love the purity and rigor of Buddhist study, and have been part of a meditation group in New York since 1999.

What discovery surprised you the most when you were researching Ethical Wisdom? I became fascinated by the concept of “the mother’s gaze,” and how our earliest relationship with the primary caregiver—who may, of course, be a father—lays the foundation for all future emotional, and ethical, bonding. It turns out that we learn the world from our mother’s face. The mother’s eyes, especially, are a child’s refuge, the mirror where children confirm their existence. From the doting reflection of its mother’s eyes, a baby draws its earliest, wordless lessons about connection, care, and love, and about how being ignored—which every child is sooner or later—makes the good feeling disappear. “The meeting eyes of love,” novelist George Eliot called this all-important connection. According to Dan Siegel, a psychologist who specializes in early parental bonding, every child yearns for, and must have, this eye contact for healthy emotional development to occur. Siegel, who founded a new field of research known as interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB), has proved that the mother’s gaze plays a critical role in how we develop empathy.

“Repeated tens of thousands of times in the child’s life, these small moments of mutual rapport [serve to] transmit the best part of our humanity—our capacity for love—from one generation to the next,” Siegel has written. We learn to care, quite literally, by observing the caring behavior of our parents toward us.” Having found a secure base in the world, the child learns emotional resilience. If the caregiver is responsive to the child’s signals and interacts with sensitivity, a secure attachment will be formed, reinforcing the child’s own positive emotional states and teaching him or her to modulate negative states. Deprived of the mother’s gaze, the area of the brain that coordinates social communication, empathic attunement, emotional regulation, and stimulus appraisal—the establishment of value and meaning—will be faulty. Such children are likely to develop “insecure attachment” along with all sorts of subsequent losses in self-esteem and feelings of belonging.

Our earliest bonding patterns are formed in the complex relationship between parents and children. Our first glimmers of being loved by our mother, thereby feeling ourselves to be lovable, are indissolubly linked to our ability to care for others in our maturity. As anyone who’s been a parent can attest, this love requires levels of patience, stamina, and selflessness beyond anything demanded by any other relationship. Luckily, the rewards can be equally epic. Through the mirrored love in our parents’ eyes, we learn surrender, devotion, and trust.

Tell me about mirror neurons. Why do they matter when we’re talking about ethics? Most of us know from experience that children learn through imitation. It was not until fifteen years ago, however, that science began to understand exactly how this imitation happens and its effect on ethical learning.

It’s an amazing story, actually. One summer day in 1995, an Italian neurologist named Iaccomo Rizzolatti was conducting an experiment on monkeys when something extraordinary happened. Rizzolatti and his team were studying the region of the monkey’s brain involved in planning and carrying out movements. Each time the monkey took hold of an object, cells corresponding with that region in the brain would activate and cause the monitor to beep. Then came the eureka moment. A student of Rizzolatti’s entered the lab holding an ice cream cone. When he lifted the ice cream to his mouth, the monitor started to beep, even though the monkey hadn’t moved at all but was merely watching the student enjoy his afternoon gelato.

The neurologist and his team had accidentally discovered a special class of cells called mirror neurons that had fired in the monkey’s brain simply because he had observed an action. The human brain has mirror neurons that are far smarter, more flexible, and more highly evolved than those in monkeys, Rizzolatti later deduced, and with this revelation we entered a brave new world of moral understanding. Mirror neurons are so important, in fact, that V. Ramachandran, a maverick leader in brain science, has suggested that the discovery of mirror neurons will provide a “unifying framework” for explaining everything from how empathy, language and culture work to why some people are autistic. Ramachandran claims that this could turn out to herald “the fifth revolution in human history”—“the ‘neuroscience revolution’”—following the paradigm-shifting breakthroughs of Copernicus (the earth’s not the center of the universe), Darwin (natural selection), Freud (the existence of the subconscious), and Crick (the discovery of DNA).

Mirror neurons are the brain’s hardware for harmonizing individuals to their environment. The sole purpose of these neurons is to reflect inside ourselves actions we observe in others. Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation—“By feeling, not by thinking,” as Rizzolatti puts it. It is because of mirror neurons that you blush when you see someone else humiliated, flinch when someone else is struck, and can’t resist the urge to laugh when seeing a group struck with the giggles. Indeed, people who test for “contagious yawning” tend to be more empathic. Mirror neurons are the reason why emotions—both negative and positive—are so inexplicably contagious. They enable us to experience others as if from inside their own skin. In order to understand other people, we actually become them—a little bit—and bring the outside world inside by way of our own nervous systems.

By mimicking what another person does or feels, mirror neurons create a shared sensibility, imprinting our neural pathways with imitated emotions, as Dan Goleman told me. Seeing another’s pain or disgust is almost exactly like being disgusted or in pain oneself. This maps the identical information from what we are seeing onto our own motor neurons, allowing us to participate in the other person’s actions as if we ourselves were executing that action. Moreover, when we witness another being rejected, our brains “actually register the pain of social rejection,” which is “mapped in the brain by the same mechanism that encodes physical real pain.” Social emotions like guilt, shame, pride, embarrassment, disgust, and lust are learned in precisely the same way, from observing the responses of others, beginning with our parents.

As babies gaze out at the world, reading the faces and gestures of their caretakers, they are literally etching in their own brains a repertoire for emotion, behavior, and how the world works. A newborn baby, barely able to see, can imitate the facial expressions of adults within one hour of delivery. This motor imitation feeds the emotional system. Merely seeing a picture of a happy face elicits fleeting activity in the muscles that pull a child’s mouth up into a smile. When a child unconsciously mimics the delight or sadness of a caretaker, this automatically creates a coupling between the baby’s expressions and its emotions—this is also why physical behaviors such as smiling actually make us feel better, whether we’re having a good day or not. 

What’s the connection between laughter and wisdom? Actually, it starts with smiling. Anthropologists tell us that the human smile is among biology’s greatest triumphs. In our emotional toolbox of adaptations promoting cooperation, smiling is indispensable. Psychologists have called this the “happy face advantage;” we recognize happy faces more easily and readily, which is how nature fosters positive relationships among those who smile. Smiling is also good for your health. We know this from a famous long-term study that compared high school graduation photographs of a group of Mills College alumnae. It was found that those graduates with the warmest smiles reported less anxiety, fear, and sadness than their insincere sock hop sisters, and went on to happier lives. When smiles turn to laughter, cooperation levels soar. Laughter preceded language in human evolution, after all, and can help bond even the snarliest of enemies. In a deadlocked negotiation between Palestinians and Israelis in the 1970s, talks between historical enemies are said to have taken a “dramatic turn after they had laughed together.” In divorce studies, not laughing with our spouses has been shown to be more predictive of splitting up than not having sex.

So laughter and morality are intimately joined. There’s a reason why the Buddha is smiling. That smile is the key to everything.

Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good is available in bookstores now.
You can find Mark Matousek on his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

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