Adult humans have 2 main parts to their brain, the limbic system and the neocortex. The limbic system is the same brain structure found in animals. It is near identical. As we develop, our brain gets bigger, developing a large spongy part of the brain called the neocortex. This neocrotex can take untill our mid-20s to fully develop. This large part of our brain allows humans to experience humor, self-consciousness, appreciate beauty, understand literature, and gain a sense of morality, wisdom and character.
Animals do not have this large part of the brain. But animals still appear to express emotions, such as empathy, and engage in altruistic acts. Why is this so? This isn’t because they consciously understand “what’s right,” but because “what is right” is hard wired within their brain to help them survive as a species.
Animals separated by bars shared food with each other. Rats will empathetically help each other out when they see one is trapped and in distress.1 Apes defeated in fights will be hugged and embraced by a friend or others in the group.2
Scientist, Jane Goodall, observed the behavior of chimpanzees that were on man-made islands surrounded by water-filled moats. One day she observed, “one adult male lost his life as he tried to rescue a small infant whose incompetent mother allowed him to fall into the water.”3
Animals automatically adopt the emotional state of others because it is deeply rooted in their brain as part of the survival process. However, when it comes to an adult human, he has a greater reasoning power. He philosophizes, he analyzes and he contemplates. We have more conscious control over our behaviors.
Mirror neurons are neurons that light up when one sees another in pain or in emotional distress. These neurons are found in animals and humans alike. Evolution has shaped animals to employ sight, sound and smell to detect distress in others through expression, vocalizations or the smell of pheromones.
You may have seen how birds reactively fly in flocks because one of them triggered a response in the group. Or you may have witnessed when a newborn starts to cry and other babies join in, there is a spread of automatic distress among all of them.”4
This is called emotional contagion.
Animal brains, and infant human brains automatically adopt the emotional state of others. Scientists call infant human brains “reptilian” because they are nearly identical to an animal’s brain. They automatically adopt emotions of others.5 However, as a human gets older he starts to develop the larger part of the brain that allows him to analyze situations and contemplate at remarkable levels. Our large brain is a blessing, but in some cases, it can be a curse.
In 1964, A New York woman was stabbed, raped and eventually killed right by her apartment in front of many witnesses. This incident, as well as other reported incidents, led researchers to conduct experiments to understand why no witnesses helped this poor woman. Research led to the concept known as “bystander effect.”
The bystander effect is when the presence of others affects how we act and may limit our sense of obligation to help. For humans, not only are social pressures and social expectations a factor in “not helping,” but can also contribute to “hurting.”
The famous Milgram experiment demonstrated this point. Conducted by psychologist, Stanly Milgram, he tried to measure a participant’s willingness to obey authority figures. It was hoped this experiment would explain why the millions of Adolf Eichmann’s accomplices in the Holocost followed orders and engaged in such inhumane acts.6
The experiment began in 1961. An authority figure asked participants to inflict another human being with an electronic shock by using a mock “shock generator.” Participants believed they delivered incredible amounts of voltage to victims, even when the victims described signs of pain, complained of heart trouble and went into seizures.
The participants still continued.
The participants consciously knew what they were doing, but failed to give much resistance because they were told to do it. Afterwards, most subjects explained they felt uncomfortable doing it, but all participants still inflicted up to 300 volts. 25 out of the 40 subjects gave the maximum 450 volts.
Social pressures and expectations can alter the behavior of adult humans, even when it may contradict their moral beliefs.
In another study, “nice” people were actually more likely to hurt others. Why? Because agreeable and conscientious people care so much about what others think of them that they often conform to social expectations, fail to act, and may actually participate in destructive behaviors.7
Pilot seemed “nice” and merciful – until the crowd revolted (Matthew 27:21-24).
Animals lack the part of the brain that would make them consciously aware of their behaviors, social expectations, and moral obligations, yet they continue to do the “right thing” because it helps them to survive. If we are to survive, we should learn from our animal friends.
Dolphins are documented to save others by ripping them out of fishers’ nets, support other sick dolphins by staying with them near the top of the water to keep them from drowning, and whales will even put themselves between a hunter’s boat and an injured companion in effort to protect them.8 Elephants lift and support others that are too weak to stand.9 Mice, when seeing other mice in pain, vicariously have an intensified pain response as well, which impels them to act.10
Animals “do the right thing” because it is deeply rooted within them as a survival process.
Adult humans consciously fold under pressure, over complicate and contemplate, analyze and philosophize – when it is deeply rooted within us to act for the survival of the species. The limbic system, which is the pre-rational survival part of the brain is largely unconscious and automatically tells a species to “do something” when activated. However, in adult human brains, when we get a signal of a “threat,” the signal is sent to the large frontal cortex of our brain for us to analyze and contemplate on a profound level, and from there, we decide what to do as we weight the options.
“As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.”
― Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man