Bill Clinton famously told Americans, "I feel your pain." Was the prez speaking truthfully or was he, as his detractors claimed, just an oily politician currying favor from suffering citizens?
In the past few years, neuroscientists have discovered that individuals may indeed feel the pain of someone else. This conclusion is based on the discovery of "mirror neurons" in the brain, which fire both when a person engages in an activity or merely witnesses someone else who is engaged in the same action.
Researchers suggest that when we see a homeless person begging on the street or an emaciated child in Darfur, we feel emotionally moved because we are hardwired to directly share their experience. Thus many experts contend that mirror neurons form the physical basis for altruism, empathy and compassion. Vilayanur Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at University of California-San Diego, says, "Mirror neurons dissolve the barrier between you and someone else." Ramachandran therefore calls them "Gandhi neurons."
Others disagree. Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at University of California-Berkeley's Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences, considers mirror neurons a myth. She thinks their significance "is blown way out of proportion." Huge ensembles of different kinds of neurons are involved in any cognition, she says. "The idea that a kind of neuron alone could explain empathy or behavior or self-consciousness simply makes no sense. It's just as likely that those neurons are mirroring because people a re imitating each other and feeling empathy, not the other way around." Let's look further.
Experts say that in order for mirror neurons to fire and trigger empathy and compassion, an individual must see the suffering person. But this is a shortsighted view (no pun intended), because it cannot account for instances of profound empathy and compassion in which vision or any other physical sense plays no role.
Consider the experience of Larry Kincheloe, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Oklahoma City. I received a remarkable letter from him, in which he described how premonitions and bodily sensations sometimes set the stage for compassionate, empathic patient care. His experiences have led him to propose a new field he calls "intuitive obstetrics."
After completing his training in obstetrics and gynecology, Kincheloe joined a very traditional medical group and practiced for about four years without any unusual events. Then one Saturday afternoon he received a call from the hospital that a patient of his was in early labor. He gave routine orders, and since this was her first baby he assumed that delivery would be hours away. While raking leaves, he experienced an overwhelming feeling that he had to go to the hospital. He immediately called labor and delivery and was told by the nurse that everything was going fine; his patient was only five centimeters dilated and delivery was not expected for several more hours.
Even with this reassurance, the feeling got stronger and Kincheloe began to feel an aching pain in the center of his chest. He described it as similar to the feeling one has at sixteen years old and loses their first love -- an achingly sad, melancholy sense. The more he tried to ignore the sensation the stronger it grew, until it reached the point where he felt he was drowning. By this time he was desperate to get to the hospital. He jumped into his car and sped away. As he neared the hospital he began to feel better. When he walked onto the labor unit, there was an overwhelming sense of relief.
When he reached the labor and delivery area, the nurse was just walking out of his patient's labor room. When she asked why he was there, Kincheloe honestly admitted that he did not know, only that he felt he was needed and that his place was with his patient. She gave him a strange look and told him that she had just checked the woman and that she was only seven centimeters dilated. At that moment a cry came from the labor room. He rushed to the room just in time to deliver a healthy infant. Afterward, when the nurse asked how he had known to come to the hospital after being told that delivery was hours away, he had no answer.
After that day, Kincheloe started paying attention to his feelings. He's learned to trust them. Having experienced these intuitive sensations hundreds of times, he routinely acts on them. Usually by the time he gets a call from labor and delivery, he is already getting dressed or is in his car on the way to the hospital. He often answers the phone by saying, "I know. I am on my way," knowing that it is labor and delivery calling him to come in. This is now such a common occurrence among the labor and delivery staff that they use his chest sensations as a clinical tool in predicting when his patients will deliver.
Dr. Kincheloe's experiences suggest that physical sensations can mediate empathic connections with others, beyond the range of the physical senses. These physical symptoms are like psychic cell phones uniting a distant individual who is in need with someone else.
A classic example, reported by the English social critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), involved Arthur Severn, the well-known landscape painter. Severn awoke early one morning and went to the nearby lake for a sail. His wife Joan, who remained in bed, was suddenly awakened by the feeling of a severe, painful blow to the mouth, of no apparent cause. Shortly thereafter her husband Arthur returned, holding a cloth to his bleeding mouth. He reported that the wind had freshened abruptly and caused the tiller to hit him in the mouth, almost knocking him from the boat at the estimated time his wife felt the blow.
Mathematician-statistician Douglas Stokes reported a similar instance in 2002. When he was teaching a course on parapsychology at the University of Michigan, one of his students reported that his father was knocked off a bench one day by an "invisible blow to the jaw." Five minutes later his dad received a call from a local gymnasium where his wife was exercising, informing him that she had broken her jaw on a piece of fitness equipment.
The late psychiatrist lan Stevenson, of the University of Virginia, has investigated scores of comparable instances in which distant, emotionally close individuals experienced similar physical symptoms. Most involved parents and children, spouses, siblings, twins, lovers, and very close friends. Again, the common thread seems to be the emotional bondedness and empathy experienced by the separated persons.
In a typical example, a mother was writing a letter to her daughter, who had recently gone away to college. For no obvious reason her right hand began to burn so severely she had to put down her pen. She received a phone call less than an hour later informing her that her daughter's right hand had been severely burned by acid in a laboratory accident, at the same time that she, the mother, had felt the burning pain.
In another case, a woman suddenly doubled over, clutching her chest in severe pain, saying, "Something has happened to Nell, she has been hurt." Two hours later the sheriff arrived to inform her that Nell, her daughter, had been involved in an auto accident, and that a piece of the steering wheel had penetrated her chest.
These events occur in the context of emotional closeness, empathy, compassion, and love. They do not depend on physically seeing another individual, as the mirror neuron hypothesis requires.
This kind of remote, empathic knowing is the sort of ability that a survival-oriented organism might develop, because this ability favors the physical survival of the person in need, and therefore procreation. This trait might eventually be incorporated as part of our genetic endowment and passed down through succeeding generations. How might it actually work?
A host of hypotheses have been advanced to explain these happenings, all proposing, in one way or another, new images of the nature of consciousness, the nature of time, or extensions of the unity that are possibly foreshadowed in concept of nonlocality in quantum mechanics. As I discuss in my recent book The Power of Premonitions, these views have been proposed by eminent scientists, including Nobelists. No one knows which, if any, of these hypotheses may eventually be validated. But what is certain is that we have vastly underestimated the extent of "the ties that bind" us together through empathy, altruism, and compassion, and which make us uniquely human.
Dr. Larry Dossey is the author of eleven books about the nature of consciousness and the role of spirituality in healthcare, most recently The Power of Premonitions (Dutton/Penguin, 2009).