Saffron-clad lama: “Make me one with everything!”

Street vendor: “Coming right up, one red hot dog with onions, chili, and cheese!” 

Some years ago some Italian neurophysiologists discovered “mirror neurons”. These are fascinating neural circuits in our brains that “mirror” the activities we see. They link our visual system to our motor system. They are the basis for “Monkey see, monkey do.” When a baby sees his mother stick out her tongue, the baby responds by sticking out his own tongue. Mirror neurons form a direct link between our vision and our motor control systems.

So far, mirror neurons have been investigated at only the most primitive level. However, it is easy to imagine important high-level mental systems based on extensive use of mirror neurons. A simple example would be watching a friend hammering a nail and accidentally hitting his thumb. We immediately cringe — seeing the painful event evokes “mirror pain”. It doesn’t actually hurt, but we feel an echo of the pain. 

At an even higher level, mirror neurons form the basis for human empathy. We feel what we see. When a player on “our” team scores a goal or hits a home run, we jump up in triumph. We feel the exhilaration that the player feels. But the experience is not derived solely from witnessing the event. When a player on the other team makes a goal or scores a home run, we do not feel exhilaration. It is our personal attachment to the player, our identification with him, that allows us to vicariously — empathetically — feel what that player feels.

We revel in this kind of empathetic emotional experiences. Our own lives are drab, meaningless, and boring (and remember, do have a nice day!) — but we watch sports to inject some emotion into our lives. Or we watch cinema. When the protagonist dies oh so nobly, we feel genuine grief. When the protagonist triumphs, we are elated. When the two lovers have an argument, we feel their pain and frustration. When they overcome their differences and get married, we feel their personal triumph. How much of the emotion in our lives is obtained through empathy? 

These empathetic experiences constitute the bulk of our emotional lives. We adults spend most of our lives cleaning the house, buying groceries, paying bills, earning a living, taking care of things. There isn’t a lot of time left over for anything exciting, and besides, we’re too tired after all that other stuff. 

There’s something immensely important implicit in this realization. When I am petting my pussycat sitting on my lap, and the cat purrs happily, I feel happy, too. My empathy with the cat is a source of joy; I feel its pleasure. The other day my wife was happily talking to her ducks, and I felt joy from that, too: her joy is mirrored in me. She’s not sharing her joy; I am creating new joy that reflects her joy. 

In other words, I derive joy from empathizing with others. Think about what this means at the other extreme. A psychopath must lead a joyless life, for he cannot feel anybody else’s joy. Do you think that jealousy plays a role in the crimes of psychopaths? 

Have you ever noticed the Mr. Trump always looks so dour? He smiles on cue as part of the social protocols, but his natural state appears to be unhappiness. Could it be because Mr. Trump cannot empathize with others? That would certainly explain many of his other behaviors.

Empathy can extend beyond humans. We all feel empathy with dogs, and most of us feel empathy with cats, but we also empathize with other creatures, largely to the degree that they look similar to us. It’s really hard to feel empathy with a slug. 

I have discovered, however, that there is a different way of empathizing: understanding the universe. Now, I do not claim to understand the universe in its entirety, but just in the last five years I have reached a level of understanding that allows me a glimpse of the big picture. I can vaguely make out how everything is connected. I can “see” the photosynthesis taking place inside a  leaf. I can “feel” the material that spewed out from a volcano, was subducted by a tectonic trench, metamorphized under tremendous heat and pressure, and then returned to the surface as the rocks over it were slowly eroded away over millions of years. I can pick up that rock and sense its life story. I can “hear” the crashes of air molecules as they collide off each other. Everything in the universe interacts, more or less intensely, with everything else. And I am part of that as well. I still don’t truly grasp it, but I now know — no, I feel — that I am one with the universe. And that is the source of great joy. I have never been happier than I am now.

Jesus Christ hit the nail on the head when he said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” One loves the world NOT in order to get into heaven; that’s what we tell stupid people who are too dumb to realize the truth. Heaven and hell are conditions we experience in our daily lives. The selfish person who cannot love others — who cannot empathize with them — lives a joyless life, because he cannot feel their joy. The person who loves everybody partakes of all their joy, and is truly full of joy. I know two such people, and they are the happiest people I know. 

The more cynical (or perhaps the more selfish) people among us dismiss this talk as “bleeding heart nonsense”, ridiculing it because they think that it is naive. However, I did not reach my conclusions through wishful thinking. What joyful people know by instinct, I know by cold deliberation. By understanding the science deeply enough, I am able to see that mirror neurons, at the highest level, are the source of our happiness. The value of love is not soft-headed wishful thinking. It’s neurophysiology.