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  • Jeff Eaker

Macaque Monkeys. Slasher films. Porn and much more.




Some people say that the discovery of mirror neurons in macaque monkeys is among the most important biological discoveries of the last decade. Unfortunately, the macaque monkey has yet to be properly thanked. Which is bad manners and possibly bad science. A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another animal. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior. It’s why we wince when we see someone else get hurt. And it’s why horror movies are so much fun to watch. These little guys make it possible for us to literally feel someone else’s pain. It is the biological equivalent of walking in someone else’s shoes. And it’s for this reason that in some circles mirror neurons have come to be referred to as empathy neurons.

In addition to these empathy neurons, the existence of an entire empathetic neuron system in humans is the subject of much speculation in the cognitive neuroscience community. But the cognitive neuroscience community has always been an extremely cliquey and speculative group. So, take it with a grain of salt. The only animal in which mirror neurons have been studied individually is the macaque monkey. We can’t be entirely sure but it’s possible to speculate that this is a source of great pride for the entire species. It is not normally possible to study single neurons in the human brain, so scientists cannot be certain that humans have mirror neurons. However, the results of brain imaging experiments have shown that the human inferior frontal cortex and superior parietal lobe are highly active when performing an action or seeing another individual performing it. Which could go a long way towards explaining mankind’s nearly universal enthusiasm for porn. Some scientists argue that the mirror neuron system is the result of evolution. There came a time in our development as a species when we had to stop bashing each other’s brains out and work together to survive. That’s some heavy shit to lay on a caveman. So, our brains developed a coping mechanism. It learned how to empathize. Mirror neurons are where we got our ability to care about each other. Or at least where macaque monkeys got their ability to care about each other.


It’s also been hypothesized that people who do really super bad things to other people do them because they lack a sufficient number of mirror neurons. These poor souls have little or no empathy. And because of that they tend to be filled with hate. Which is quite sad really and has led to some of the most horrible things on earth. Like, Billy Joel. The converse argument to all of this has yet to be made. That argument being– if the lack of mirror neurons makes people do bad things, then what would an overabundance of mirror neurons do? Could this be the explanation of Keanu Reeves? It would certainly be a most interesting question to ask a macaque monkey. In advertising we talk a lot about empathizing with consumers. We do a lot of research. Get handed a bunch of data. And spend hours sitting in dark rooms, listening to focus groups.


In this way, we are able to create a sense of empathy. But is it real empathy or is it just some kind of corporate, manufactured empathy? Does it matter? Is one empathy any better than another? Are we in danger of commoditizing empathy? And if so, how is its value diminished?


I’m no macaque monkey but I believe that the science will one day show that mirror neurons, or empathy neurons, or whatever you want to call them are indeed a part of our make-up. And I think it will also be proved that some people have more of them than others. But I also think, like other brain functions, improvements can be made.


These days, it seems like empathy is optional. Or maybe it’s just become more localized. It’s easy not to give a shit about some poor soul living halfway across the world, but I want to believe that most people tend to at least care how their neighbors are doing.


In advertising we like to try to make brands express empathy. We do it around phrases like “now more than ever”, “in times like these” and my personal favorite “we know how hard you work”. These phrases are usually followed up by other phrases like “that’s why we’re doing everything we can to help”, “we’re here for you” and the always popular “which is why we’re proud to offer 0% financing for up to 72 months”.


Unfortunately, this isn’t empathy. It’s nice. But it isn’t going to score any points with a macaque monkey. And frankly, it shouldn’t. We don’t need that kind of empathy from brands. We need quality products, fantastic service and fair prices. Don’t tell me you understand me. Show it to me by giving me those three basic things. Talk to me like a person I’d enjoy talking to about more than just your product. And rather than tell me you’re empathetic, show it to me by understanding me well enough to give me something that actually makes my life better.


Anything less, and you’re really just monkeying around.



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