In his latest book, Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, author of the best-seller Emotional Intelligence, illustrates how new clinical results in the fields of neuroscience and biology show that humans are in fact wired for empathy—that without any conscious effort, we feel the joy, pain, anger, and other emotions of the people around us. Sharon Salzberg, co-founder and teacher at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, spoke to Goleman this summer about the emerging field of social neuroscience and its implications for the principles and practices of Buddhism.


In your book you talk about Freud’s theory that a psychoanalyst attuned to his own feelings has a window into his client’s emotional world. Is that a clue for the rest of us that our own inner experience can be an accurate reflection of what other people around us are going through?  Yes. In fact, there’s a class of brain cells called “mirror neurons,” which act as a neural Wi-Fi, attuning to the other person’s internal state moment to moment and recreating that state in our own brain—their emotions, their movements, their intentions. This means empathy is not just based on reading the external signs of someone else’s feeling, like the hint of a frown, or the irritation in their voice. Because of mirror neurons, we feel with the other. Empathy, then, includes attuning to our own feelings in order to better sense what’s going on with the other person.

So it’s like another whole take on interconnectedness? That’s why I was so fascinated by this new field of social neuroscience. In the last few years researchers have discovered the social brain, the circuitry that connects us intimately in every human encounter we have. This can be for better or for worse, of course. For instance, we can pick up toxic emotions by witnessing violence, something like the emotional equivalent of secondhand smoke. Or we can radiate peacefulness to the people we meet. We’re all part of an invisible emotional economy, a give-and-take of feelings that transpires no matter what else we do in an encounter. The question is, at the end of an encounter, which emotions have been transferred—do people feel better, or worse?

What about delusion? How do we know we’re not just seeing the world through our own habitual reaction? Because of mirror neurons, tuning into our internal feelings gives us a mix of our own responses and what we pick up from the other. So the challenge is to distinguish between what comes from our own reactions and what comes from the other person. Say you’re at a party and you notice the person you’re talking to is not really listening to what you’re saying, but is scanning the room behind you. It’s a common moment that can be interpreted in many ways, depending on our own emotional habits. If you are prone to an abandonment pattern, at that instant you might assume she’s rejected you and is going to leave. Unlovability would trigger the thought “She doesn’t like me.” If you have fears of social exclusion, you might start feeling you’re an outsider in this group. If you’re a narcissist, you might have the thought “This person isn’t worth my spending time on.” Those are all projections. None of them would allow you to sense, for example, that the other person is looking for someone they think you might like to meet.

Or even maybe just to see that that is an interpretation and you don’t know if it’s true or not. Exactly—that’s a mindful response.

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