Aggression and empathy — a destructive mix | Jerzy Vetulani | TEDxKrakow


Translator: Krystian Aparta
Reviewer: Anna Obarzanowska (Applause) Good morning.
Aggression and empathy are a destructive mix. And these two behaviors
seem like polar opposites. But I would like to show
that is not the case. Aggression and empathy
control us, control the world, and I want to talk about how they
also control similar parts of the brain, and also dictate our behavior and shape our legal systems. Aggression is a type of
purposeful behavior intended to harm
what it is directed towards. Empathy would be the opposite. It is our inborn inclination to help another being in trouble, be it a member
of our own species, or another. So, these two behaviors really seem
like total opposites. But let’s look
at what happens in the brain. As it turns out, the same parts
of the brain are activated when we are experiencing
aggression and empathy. They both stimulate the prefrontal cortex, our first warning bell, and the part that allows us
to experience the world. They also activate the amygdala, which processes our emotions, both the good and bad ones. They both act on
the frontal cingulate cortex, which holds many of our cognitive functions and allows us to get our bearings
on the situation at hand. And finally, they activate
the mysterious insular cortex, which enables us to distinguish
between what’s pleasant and unpleasant. So, they activate
similar parts of the brain. I will first talk about aggression, which serves a very important
biological role. It enables the survival
of the individual, but is equally essential
to the survival of the species, simply because, in order to survive, the species’ genes
must go into the next generation, and aggression
is very important in this regard. So first of all, we all need to eat, and we have predatory aggression for that. But the prey must often
defend itself in turn, and aggressively fight back. A horse can kill a wolf with a kick. That would be defensive aggression. Territorial aggression is another matter. Animals fight for their territory. Even the butterfly
featured in one of the talks fights for its territory.
People do it. Our country has often seen
ethnic cleansing, but it’s not really that common here. This took place at the border
of Kosovo and Macedonia. It’s a fairly recent event. Obviously, one important type
of aggressive behavior is the competition for mates. It’s a struggle for reproductive success. Why is it that important? Thanks to the competition,
only the best males will breed and pass on the best of genes. This type of aggression
shapes the future of our species, and every other species. Our species also competes
for social position. This is about finding the best leader. In primitive societies, it will be
the strongest and most cunning. And we fight for it. We often fight in a ritual way. It’s not about killing the opponent, but just overpowering
or humiliating them. But let’s look at the modern,
totalitarian states. There, it’s much worse.
The terror eats its prey. This charming shot was taken on the 20th anniversary
of the October Revolution. Just a year later, two of these guys,
Shvernik and Chubar, were dead. All the others were
assassinated too, apart from Mikoyan,
Molotov and Stalin. But this aggression improves
our chances of survival. And since it helps us survive, it is considered a good thing,
and we reward it. What follows is that
we like to be aggressive. Aggressive behavior
is a source of pleasure, as long as we don’t cross the line and get beaten by somebody stronger. Aggression is normally released
in wars, in battle. There are many examples. What do we do in a time of peace? We do sports. And I don’t mean chess,
but things that happen on a mat. (Laughter) In truth, chess players
can also be pretty aggressive. But I mean brutal sports. But is it only the athletes
that get their release? No, many other people act out
the aggression using sports. (Laughter) Sports fans like that. Here, the aggression is built up
quite intentionally. But we don’t only see
aggressive behavior in sports. This is a protest in Gdansk. The unioners versus the police. And we know what is happening in Greece. There are many forms
of aggressive behavior, different degrees of aggression. They are all useful in some way. It’s important to point out
that aggression can be aroused, and that we can cultivate it
and breed for it. For example, there are many breeds
of attack dogs, which we train to be violent. So it’s not only a matter of genetics. It’s also about
the upbringing and culture. Children can be raised to be aggressive. There have been many groups,
like the Hitler Youth, or Młodzież Wszechpolska,
that train kids to be violent. Aggression is also what we use
to reach our goals. It is interesting that while everybody
is aggressive in some way, aggression is expressed
in different ways across cultures. Some cultures are extremely violent. The Yanomami are an example of that. It’s much worse than with
the Polish Mountain People, who believe a wedding is a flop
without a dead body. (Laughter) The Yanomami youth’s standing is based on how many enemies he killed. It’s like pilots marking their planes
with the number of enemies they shot down. The Yanomami are like that. Their average lifespan is 22-23. They are constantly waging war, fighting for practically no reason, just to kill one another off. The other extreme would be
the Semang of the Malay Peninsula. They are an incredibly gentle society, who even used to lack
a word for “murder.” The most benign people. But somebody managed to
stir up aggression in them, too. During the Japanese invasion, British military training instructors
taught the Semang how to murder, and the Semang turned out to be
bloodthirsty soldiers. Once the political correctness was gone, they became the most ruthless fighters. They would not stop and loot the bodies,
just went on slaughtering. The terms “aggression” and “violence”
cover many different phenomena and can be categorized in various ways. We can distinguish between intra-species
and inter-species aggression. When we punch a guy,
that’s intra-species. When we slaughter
a pig or calf for burgers, that’s inter-species violence. But we also have defensive
and offensive aggression. The defensive kind
is considered more moral, and for that reason,
even if we intend to attack, we always explain it away
as defending ourselves. “It’s the bunny’s fault,
scrunching his face like that!” (Laughter) “The dog had no choice but to off it.” (Laughter) But what I wanted to talk about
a little more is the difference between predatory
and emotional aggression. Two types of aggression. One is when we calmly work
towards our goal, emotionally disconnected,
but eventually kill someone, for example. The other kind is about rage,
yelling, losing control, and being less efficient. In some studies, they tried to find
different areas in the brain that control these two different types
of aggressive behavior. And they did. Allan Siegel put electrodes
into cats’ brains, and found that if you stimulate
the lateral hypothalamus, then the cat exhibited
this predatory aggressive behavior. For example, a rat would calmly
approach the cat, the cat would seize it by the neck
without so much as a meow, shake it, throw it around, kill it,
and act calm all the way. However, if you insert the electrodes
into the amygdala, or the medial hypothalamus, or the periaqueductal gray, the cat enters into a defensive rage,
behaving violently, hissing, and mangling its prey
instead of killing it immediately. A totally different kind of emotion. And like before, the cool reaction
is helpful in reaching an objective, and then, there is rage, which serves to give us
an emotional release. I do not want to give you
a detailed description of how the complex system
of neurotransmitters works, but I do wish to point out one thing. These two systems, in the lateral
and medial hypothalamus, inhibit each other. So if you are a sniper,
you have predatory aggression. You can’t be emotional. You don’t want to kill the enemy
in a fit of rage, but you want to accomplish a task,
stay cool, and hit the target. Emotional aggression
rules out predatory aggression. It can be dangerous
when one transforms into the other. Like when the police
assigned to calmly disperse a crowd loses control and succumbs to rage. This is what happened
in the Tiananmen Square massacre. Now, let’s talk about empathy. Empathy is the propensity
to help another being. It’s a very beneficial thing, and it is not unique to humans. It provides a survival advantage
to other social species as well. Monkeys and apes are one example, and they don’t only empathize
with other apes. This story was photographed
by onlookers, and it took place at a Chicago zoo. When the little boy fell
into the gorilla enclosure, a female gorilla named Binti Jua
ran to the child, gently picked him up, dipped him into a little stream
of water they had there, as if trying to wake the unconscious boy, and then left him by the door. She did all she could, and all that a human female
could do in those circumstances. (Laughter) (Applause) Not to say that men can’t be emphatic. (Laughter) There are two types of empathy. Cognitive empathy is where we help
out of a rational decision, and there is emotional empathy,
which some would call true empathy. When we employ cognitive empathy, we try to understand
the other person’s thinking, and use that to help them. But when emotional
or affective empathy is at work, we try to feel
what the other person feels. Our brains have specialized systems, called mirror neurons, which produce a sort of
motor resonance. They make us imitate the way others move,
including their facial expressions. When you smile, I will smile back. And when I smile, I will feel happier. We can tell what other people are feeling
just by looking in their faces. Even with these very simple images, we easily tell what the feelings are,
thanks to our mirror neurons. And the mirror neurons
also make behavior propagate. If everybody’s laughing,
you start laughing too. Yawning is also contagious,
but unwelcome for the speaker. (Laughter) Sadly, mirror neurons also react
to aggressive behavior, and may make it spread through a crowd,
which can be dangerous. Now, let’s come back
to cognitive empathy. It’s based on a theory of mind,
understanding another perspective. And emotional empathy is about
understanding feelings. And we can test for these faculties. This is a theory-of-mind test. The question is:
“What will he use the umbrella for?” Of course, being a short fellow,
he’ll use it to open the door. And this is an emotional empathy test. How would you interact
with a grieving person? Should you come closer? And we can monitor
what parts of the brain flare up. And based on this research, we know that with the theory of mind,
or cognitive empathy, specific regions of the brain
will fire when we use it. Look at the blue area. This is the connection between
the temporal and parietal cortices. If that is damaged,
we can’t understand others, we can’t form moral judgments. And a completely different area
is activated in emotional empathy. Finally, let’s talk about
empathy and aggression. We generally think
that empathy inhibits aggression. We’re not aggressive when we empathize. And indeed, some positions
of the human body signify vulnerability, humility,
and impede aggressive behavior. You usually don’t shoot people
who surrendered. We see that in animals as well. This dog is expressing submission
towards another dog. He’s exposing his belly
and the carotid artery, making himself easy to kill. And this works to impede an attack. Now, although they may seem
total opposites, empathy and aggression often mix. And their coming together results from the most beautiful feeling,
motherly love. Because a mother’s love
and empathy towards her young creates aggression against
any threat to the offspring. As anybody whose dog had puppies knows, putting your hand into the whelping box
will get you bitten. Here, a duck is fighting away a swan. Birds and mammals protect their young, and to protect the young,
you need to be aggressive. We also use aggression
as a means of education. Agata didn’t talk about that,
but many educators would agree: spare the rod, spoil the child. And it works wonderfully,
although we may not like it. [Castrate pedophiles | Test the Prime Minister] (Laughter) Due to our empathy towards the victim, we want to punish the criminal harshly. And everybody joins in:
“Castrate the pedophiles!” No matter the political divide. And 80% of Poles agree with that. This is because we feel
so sorry for these children that we want to punish the pedophiles
as hard as we can. And this is why
capital punishment is accepted. We use capital punishment
to get our revenge, acting out of pity for the victim. One experiment used
a simple computer game, where you were supposed to
treat the wounded and shoot the aliens. So this is the normal response. But in our excitement,
we can have an abnormal response: we shoot the wounded,
and bandage the alien. (Laughter) (Applause) But it turned out that in both cases, the same parts of the brain
would flare up. And recently, we saw what the mixture
of empathy and aggression can do to a crowd. What happened in the protests against removing the cross
in front of the Presidential Palace was that most of the people
actually felt compassion for the dead president, his wife,
and all the victims. But aggression was high,
they were looking for a perpetrator. “It was no accident!”
I would show you the banner, but TED did not buy the other photo. The demonstrations were so terrible because empathy and aggression
are a volatile mixture. So to sum up, I would just like to say that when we intend to do good,
we must always be careful not to do something bad. And what’s important
is that all legal systems are based on this mixture,
on exacting punishment, on revenge,
and that is a dangerous thing. Our justice system
either tries to be too harsh or to have too much empathy
for the prisoners. And from a neuroscientific perspective,
a good legal system should achieve a balance
between punishment and aggression, and our compassion for the victims. And here, I would like to
quote Adam Smith, who said that we can only achieve
social progress if our future society
should have a fair and just legal system. Thank you. (Applause)