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21 May, 2021 07:00

We’re wired to care for others – neurophilosopher

Conscience is our inner compass, helping us navigate between right and wrong. But is it hardwired into our brain? We talked to a celebrated neuroscientist, Patricia Churchland, MacArthur fellow and professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Patricia Churchland, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and MacArthur fellow. That’s really great to have you with us on our show today. Welcome.

Patricia Churchland: Thank you so much, it's a pleasure to be here.

SS: All alright. So, let's start from the beginning. You describe yourself as a neurophilosopher. Your work lies at the intersection of neuroscience and philosophy, but how do actually these two come together because neuroscience is an applied field of studies which looks into how the brain works, very concrete, while philosophy is all about interpretations and rhetoric?

PC: Well, maybe it is. But philosophers for a long, long time and starting with Confucius and with the Greeks, Aristotle and so forth, have wanted to understand how we make decisions, how it is that we see and think and figure things out, and I think that that usually goes under the general rubric of philosophy of mind, and it's only been very recently that we have learned enough about the brain to see where the discoveries about the brain actually tell us things that we didn't know about the nature of learning and memory, about how we make decisions and even about the nature of consciousness. So, I was lucky, I think, to be born at a time when neuroscience had the tools and the techniques to begin to address those questions about the nature of the mind but to do so via the brain.

SS: So you say conscience is a brain construct, right? At the same time, you say that there are precursors of morality in all mammals and the reason for that is probably rooted in our common ancestors. So, let's get it straight, are we wired to be conscientious species by evolution or have conscience and morality being imposed on us by social institutions?

PC: Well, it's a really wonderful question and it is actually the question that Darwin asked in his great book The Descent of Man and his question was where does our moral sense or conscience come from. And he proposed at the time that there were three components and I think neuroscience is really bearing this out that there is an innate component, our sort of moral instinct, our instinct to be social and that secondly, once we are born we learn the customs and ways and conventions of the group, the social group into which we're born. And finally, of course, we also, especially as we mature, begin to reflect on those conventions and those customs and sometimes the ecology changes. For example, when there's a lack of food or resources are scarce, or when we're attacked, where we rethink some of those conventions. So there are really these three components and I think what we know most about in terms of the mechanism of the brain are the first two that is what makes us social at all and secondly, how we learn the customs and the norms of the group.

SS: What's the evolutionary goal of having conscience and morality?

PC: Yeah, very, very interesting question, especially because we know that there are social insects like bees and termites and there are social fish like discus fish, but by and large reptiles appear not to be very social, they don't really care about each other. So, for example, if we think about a turtle, the mother turtle will lay her eggs and then off she goes, the babies later will be born, they'll come out of their eggs and scramble down to the water. Now mammals turn out to be very different in one crucial respect that really modified our brain structure. And that is, we are warm-blooded. This is also true, of course, of birds. Well, being warm-blooded seems a long way from having a conscience or being moral. But there is a connection. And here's the connection: if you're going to be warm-blooded, you have to eat 10 times as much gram for gram as your cold-blooded cousins. And that is a huge ecological pressure. And one way to deal with this calorie demand is to be smart. Now, it turns out that to be smart mammals grew this structure called cortex, the top part of our brains. But if you're going to be smart, you got to learn about your physical environment. So that entails a very, very critical thing, namely, the babies have to be born very immature, so that their brains can come to reflect their environment. Now, if you're born very immature, you're not like that turtle baby, you are helpless, and mammalian babies, by and large, are all born very helpless. Now, that means that unless somebody takes care of those babies, they're going to be dinner for one of the cold-blooded guys. So basically, what evolution did was, in the conceptual level, it expanded the mother's care for herself to include care for the baby, it's as though our very powerful instincts to take care of our own food and warmth and safety sort of expanded to include the baby. And so all mammalian mothers are tightly bonded to their babies to take care of their food and warmth and safety. Now, I never really thought much about this in the past, until I realised that this fundamental, deep and powerful circuitry for caring for others can also be changed a little bit here and a little bit there and expanded over here until we get highly social animals, like apes, like humans, monkeys, rats, beavers. And the care of them is what kind of depends on the same structure as mother-infant care, but expands to kin, sometimes to mates, sometimes to friends. And in addition then, what we do is this thing that you mentioned earlier, we learn about how to get on in our social group. So, it's kind of one of those wonderful, funny biological stories where it turns out that a phenomenon like caring for others and treating them well depends on something that seems a long way away, namely, being warm-blooded. That's kind of the heart of the story.

SS: Alright, so is being kind to others deep down a mechanism of one's own survival? I mean, does our biology only encourage moral acts because it knows they will be rewarded with, you know, increased chance of survival through other people's gratitude, returned favours, maybe?

PC: There's probably a little bit of that. But basically, the wiring for caring for others, especially our children and our family, that wiring is there because in the long run, it serves the passing on of the genes of those individuals. But that isn't something that by and large, you consciously concern yourself with. So, for example, when I had my babies, I was totally bonded to them, I would do anything to protect them. I didn't think about it in terms of passing on my genes. I didn't sort of wake up in the morning and say, ‘Well, I better take care of this squalling dirty little baby because I’ve got to pass on my genes.’ It never crossed my mind. And it does not cross the mind of any monkey, it is just wired to do that. And by and large, we're deeply wired to be social. We need social connection. We need social interaction and the chemical that's involved in all of them is oxytocin. Now, there are many other chemicals that play a role, too. But oxytocin is kind of at the heart. And when oxytocin is released in your brain, it's released into the reward system as well as many other places. Why do I mention the reward system? Because when oxytocin is released in the reward system it makes you feel good. And when you feel good about something, you want to repeat it or do it again. So, it is in a sort of way back here kind of perspective. Yes, all of this sociality helps us pass on our genes. But in an immediate sort of ‘why am I doing this’ kind of perspective it has nothing to do with that.

SS: How does our brain distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong? What's the process? I mean, biology doesn't really operate in those categories, does it?

PC: Well, it sort of does, I think so. And I think that was kind of a Darwinian insight. But let me just stress that it does so in a very general way. So, that, for example, when the baby is born, there's a flood of oxytocin released in the brain of the mother and as the mother cuddles the baby, and nurses the baby, and so forth, oxytocin is released in the brain of the baby, this binds them strongly to each other. So, if you like, you can put it this way, if I'm a mother rat, and a dog comes and tries to take my baby, I will regard that as evil or at least my wiring says, you know, ‘I gotta protect this baby.’ And so, the mother rat will defend ferociously against the dog taking her babies. And those involve very strong feelings, feelings of aggression, feelings of fear, feelings of love for the baby. And those are really very, very deep. But they also come to be shaped as we learn. And as we know, children learn from their brothers and sisters, they learn from their parents, their friends, from stories, from songs, and this is very deep, they don't know they're learning about right and wrong. But that's what the brain does with these kinds of interactions. So, I think, value is a very, very deep part of mammalian brains.

SS: When we say that there's a biological basis to something and it seems like it's set in stone, like our, you know, biological ability and urge to mate and procreate, morality, on the other hand, seems to be very stretchy concept, constantly evolving over time. I mean, even the value of human life wasn't always as self-evident as to our moral norms as it is today, right? So, does that mean that morality is malleable, largely depending on the cultural and historical context rather than the inner workings of our brain?

PC: Well, as long as we remember that the motivation for learning customs and conventions and rules, and modifying those, depends on having social urges at all. So, we can't sort of separate nature and nurture here. They're tightly bound in mammals. But mammals, because we have this great big brain, also have the capacity for flexibility. So, if you're a termite, then your genes tightly control your behaviour. If you're a mammal, they control your motivation but then the motivation can be shaped into this style or that style or some other style. It is certainly true that over the past 10,000 years, human styles of getting along and living in groups have changed, but almost certainly for most of our evolutionary history, for 90% of it, we lived in small groups, much like, for example, the Inuits in the Arctic have had until very recently, we live in small groups, we have very fundamental and basic ways of getting along and dealing with our environment. But how the Inuit dealt with certain kinds of crises were very different from how, for example, people who lived in Tahiti dealt with them, because their ecology was very different. Now everything, of course, changed about 10,000 years ago with the invention of agriculture. And suddenly, instead of everyone living in a small group, they can have larger groups with herding and agriculture. And with the advent of large groups, many of the fundamental ways that hunter-gatherers had of living and getting along probably changed, and they continue to change.

SS: So, you mentioned, Pat, that our moral behaviour is rewarded by oxytocin and dopamine surges. But most people we know, including ourselves, are really far from the embodiment of the moral ideal. 

PC: Yes. 

SS: Don’t all these jerks around the world want some dopamine?

PC: Yeah, well, it's a very interesting, very interesting question. And here, we really know much less. What we do know, of course, is that in all animals, there's great variability in the degree of sociality. Although, in the case of wolves, for example, if a wolf is born and grows up, and turns out to be rather anti-social, or can't seem to acquire the appropriate levels of conformity for hunting and getting along, he's run out of the pack. So, in the case of wolves, the behaviour is very similar from one wolf to another within the pack. But in the case of humans living in these very large groups, we do see a lot of variability. But we see a lot of variability in the degree of being social in monkeys as well. And I remember as a kid growing up in the farm in the wilds of British Columbia, that there were these prospectors hunting for, I don't know, gold, I guess, in the mountains. And they would be on their own, basically most of their lives. And it didn't seem to trouble them whereas there are other people who want family, they want friends, they want to be part of a group, they like to sing together and dance together, not these old prospectors. So, we know there's variability. And what we don't understand is the biological basis of variability. And in particular, of course, what you mentioned is we want to understand the biological basis of variability such that some people are what we call psychopaths, they do not feel bad when they see something dreadful happen to a baby, they don't care, they don't have long term relationships, they exploit people, they don't interact with people in a normal way. Now, there's many kinds of social disabilities, shall we say, but that's one of the most dramatic, and certainly, neuroscientists want to understand what the basis for that is.

SS: So, morality and conscience, as I get it, are closely tied to empathy, right? 

PC: Absolutely. 

SS: People who are for whatever reasons born without those very important mirror neurons don't have empathy, and it's impossible to train it. Does that mean that morality and conscience cannot be fostered in them? Is this how our society's worst elements emerge basically?

PC: Well, it's not well-understood and it's difficult to study because it's very difficult to study humans. You certainly can't dissect their brains until they have passed away and donated their brains. But genetic studies are, of course, possible. And there is some significant evidence, but I would call this all very preliminary at this stage, there is evidence, first of all, this has been known for a long time that psychopaths run in families, that it seems to be significantly heritable. And that the severity, the really severe cases are the ones that are very highly heritable. So, then the question is, if it's heritable, what are the genes? And there are, of course, geneticists who are looking into that. It's unlikely that there is a single gene. For most things there aren’t. There isn't a single gene that produces the phenotype but it's very important to know. Now, at the psychological level many people have asked your question, can we perhaps take this child who at a very young age could be seen to do terrible things to pets, terrible things to their siblings and doesn't respond to reward, doesn't respond to punishment, can we find a way to retrain that brain so that they care, so they have these feelings of empathy, of caring for others? And to the best of my knowledge, the work on that is rather negative. That is that there aren't discoveries saying, yes, this is a tool you can use and you can help this child become normally social. So, it's a tough problem and it is an especially tough problem because psychopaths can do absolutely terrible things, and it has been claimed, for example, that our former president is a delusional psychopath, he really does not care, he cares about himself, he does not care, so it is said, about what happens to other people, whether they're suffering, whether they're in pain, whether they're miserable, he just doesn't care, it's not there.

SS: So, is it as simple as ‘it's just not there’, or are there more complicated mechanisms? What happens in our brain when we decide to, so to speak, let our conscience take a break?

PC: Well, that's probably a very complicated story about when we let our conscience take a break, but, you know, one thing to remember too is that children who were abused when they're very young often have great difficulty developing sort of normal social interactions. They aren't psychopaths and their behaviour is different in really important ways, for example, under the right conditions they may indeed be able to feel empathy and care. And one of the things we know biologically, this is from studies on mice, is the following: we know oxytocin is very important for social behaviour but equally important are the receptors in the brain where the oxytocin binds and changes the activity of the neurons. So, here's the experiment: they took mice and the baby mice were warm and fed but they got very little contact with their mother, and then what they found was that in the genome the receptors for oxytocin were basically shut down, the gene was shut down so it didn't make many receptors for oxytocin which meant that the baby's brain did not have receptors for oxytocin and indeed their social behaviour was very different, they were not normal social animals, and when the females grew up and had their own babies they did not bond to their babies, they didn't care for their babies and so forth. Now this is a story not about the genes the mice were born with, they were born with normal genes, it's a story about how certain genes were shut down during development because they didn't get normal cuddling, normal licking and grooming by the mother. And that, I think, is a super important story: early nurturing, early love is important for normal social brain development.

SS: So, which stimulus for moral behaviour is stronger and more efficient from nature's point of view, by the way – the positive one when we get happy hormones for doing something socially friendly, or the negative guilt trip which we go on after doing something bad?

PC: Well, I think that both are really significant, we don't like the bad feelings of disapproval. I mean, you know how sensitive a dog is or a child is or even a grown-up human can be to disapproval. You feel it. And we also know how rewarding approval is – dogs respond to it like crazy, you know, ‘good dog’ and tail goes and starts wagging, they feel great. So, both are very important. I think one of the things that has changed about child-rearing is that people realise that disapproval doesn't have to involve beating and hitting the child, that disapproval often can be very subtle, a timeout or just a separation is often enough to bring the child around, unless, of course, the child has these very deep difficulties that we associate with psychopaths.

SS: Pat, it's been so interesting.

PC: Good. I think, this is the most fascinating thing in neuroscience to me right now.

SS: Absolutely, I couldn't agree with you more. I’ve found out so many interesting insights from this conversation right now and I hope we get to do this again and elaborate on whatever it is that we're discussing right now. Thank you very much for this wonderful interview.

PC: So welcome, it's wonderful to be interviewed by you, I love it. Thank you. 

SS: Thank you, have a great day and stay safe. 

PC: Yes, you too.

SS: Thank you, Pat.

PC: Thank you.