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160 chapter six Are Humans Inherently Good? We are all born free of religion, but none of us are born free of the need for compassion. the dalai lama While we have this body, and especially this amazing human brain, I think every minute is something precious. the dalai lama hether one is a monk or not, the idea that humans are electrical beings gives pause. There are these billions of cells inside you, scientists tell us. They produce electricity spontaneously or upon receiving signals from other such cells. And guess what? We can measure the electrical activity of these cells and relate it to specific movements, thoughts, ideas, and even feelings such as empathy. We can even measure such activity, at least in monkeys, who share much of human brain anatomy, from a single one of these electrical cells. Westerners take such claims in stride nowadays. But even jaded neuroscientists sat up and took notice in the early 1990s when a group of Italian scientists serendipitously found individual electrical cells​ — neurons​ —in macaques that produce electrical activity both when the monkeys pick up a piece of fruit and when they watch another monkey perform the same action.1 The so-called mirror neurons are not only a striking scientific finding ​—after all, if empathy is “a complex process that involves sharing an emotional state with another organism,”2 it is difficult to imagine a better potential mechanism for it than through such cells​ —but their disW are humans inherently good? 161 covery resonated broadly within the Western science narrative. Now empathy, a previously relatively vague and undefined emotion from the neuroscientific angle, could potentially be analyzed, explained, and measured. Soon mirror neurons, although to this day not yet specifically identified in humans at the cellular level, were proposed as key players in, among other complex processes, imitation, compassion, language, and diseases such as autism​ —and that is just in the peer-reviewed scientific articles (more than fifteen hundred of them as of this writing). By 2000 the respected neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran was predicting that “mirror neurons will do for psychology what dna did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments.”3 What is the evidence for mirror neurons? If they do indeed exist in humans, would they contribute to an understanding of empathy and compassion, and if so, do they provide a way into a joint science/Buddhism exploration of such capacities? Why did these little electrical cells get so famous so quickly, and what does this say about science in a cultural context? These are the questions that drive this chapter. I learned that the human body is like a complex machine, an electrical being, and that we are made of many little parts like cells that communicate or work by themselves or with others via electrical or chemical signals to keep us alive and regulate motion, thought, and many other things. I also learned about neurotransmitters, which help transmit nerve impulses from one nerve cell to the other. Neurotransmitters are tremendously vital to us because we could not function without them. We would die without them. To me this was not surprising. Neurotransmitters are like rlung (vital energy ) in Tibetan medicine. Rlung [pronounced “loong”] is the wind or breath that helps to regulate the human body, to create motion and thought. Without rlung we would not move, and we would die. There are many types of neurotransmitters, and actually the functions of the body depend on those neurotransmitters. Likewise, Tibetan texts mention that there are five types of wind​ —life-sustaining wind, ascending wind, pervading wind, firelike wind, and descending wind​ —and all the 162 the enlightened gene functions of the body depend on these winds. For example, life-sustaining wind resides at the center of the body and affects mind/body interactions, and ascending wind affects speech, awareness, and memory. These five winds work together just like the different combinations of neurotransmitters ​ —serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate​ —work in balance to affect different mental and physical actions and states. And disease results from an imbalance of the winds or neurotransmitters.4 Back in Atlanta, my family has a tradition just before digging into our Thanksgiving feast. Each person around the table says something he or she is especially thankful for that year. One year the table extended to fill every inch of the dining room​ —the air thick...


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