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Covetousness • Posted: Jun 24, 2012 19:55:22Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

A recent study published in the May 23 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience and reported by Laura Sanders in the June 20, 2012 issue of Science News lends some scientific credence to a philosophical theory of human motivation first proposed by French philosopher René Girard during the 1980's. His concept "mimetic desire" roughly corresponds to what most of us refer to as envy, covetousness, or perhaps ambition. That is, desire for what another has. Per reporter Laura Sanders, Girard asserted "envy can spread among people like a disease", a dismaying thought that perhaps the Taliban share. For they chop off arms, sequester women, and annihilate flaunters with bombs and bullets in efforts to stop covetousness from spreading. In the meantime, advertisers everywhere exploit that same disease in any manner they can to help sell product. In fact, competitive capitalism itself seems founded upon and driven by people's desire to have at least as good as if not better than what others have.

But what is the physiological basis for this strange human affliction? Is covetousness wired into our brains? Is it our unavoidable fate, our inescapable Achilles heel? Or, perhaps our ultimate strength? And what if we could modify it, dampen or enhance it, say with a pill or rigorous re-socialization? What would that mean for the future of our species?

What Mathias Pessiglione of INSERM in Paris and his team studied were parts of the human brain activated during performance of an action or while watching someone else perform an action. Those brain parts have been labeled the "mirror neuron system" and, in effect, model behavior rather like putting together and running a movie of it. People use that neurological system to learn about their world by watching others do things within it. But, when desired items seem in short supply, Pessiglione and his researchers found a second neurological system also activates, a system involved in deciding the worth of things.

(Per reporter Laura Sanders, the mirror neuron system involves the parietal lobe and the premotor cortex while the neurological valuing system involves the ventral striatum and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.)

In their study, Pessiglione and his team scanned the brains of subjects who were shone videos of, first, candy sitting by itself on a surface and, second, of candy with a person's hand reaching for it. As Girard's mimetic desire theory predicts, subjects found the candy being reached for to be far more desirable. That effect also held for clothes, tools, and toys. But interesting, the stronger the observed link between the mirror neuron system and the valuing system, as revealed in brain scans, the stronger the mimetic desire felt and reported by subjects. In other words, the more covetousness they experienced, the stronger the observed link between the two neurologic systems. However, not all subjects reacted with equal covetousness to the same stimuli and no single subject reacted with equal covetousness toward all stimuli. In other words, not everyone desires the same things and not all things are desired equally.

Pessiglione's research suggests it might someday be possible to modify the degree of covetousness people experience through disruption or enhancement of links between the mirror neuron system and the neural valuing system. But, would we actually want to do that? What would our world be like if we were all so jealous of each other that we couldn't keep from warring with one another over possessions? Or, what would our world be like if none of us had any desire whatsoever to have what others have, or be just like or significantly better than those around us? All interesting questions.

I couldn't help thinking of some of those questions while wandering the picturesque streets of Saugatuck Michigan recently. Certainly some beautiful and elaborate residences on display. But, would I actually want to live in them, live life the way their owners do, be responsible for all the mayhem caused trying to maintain income adequate to that kind of lifestyle? I don't think so. You, however, might.

And so, our world, our economies, spin up a bit. Hopefully, such emotional churnings will not leave us all dizzily dissatisfied with riches we do have while hungrily aching for things we don't or can't have. That would be a discomforting unstable state of affairs, to be sure. Or, is that exactly what we have right now?

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012