This is going to circumnavigate a bit.
I disambiguate between despair and depression thus: despair is a Frame which sees the future as hopeless because no possible actions appear to lead to good ends, whereas depression is a pessimistic emotional state adapted for high-risk, low-reward environments that is miserly about spending energy. Despair is a natural Frame for old-timey pagans and intellectually honest atheists/agnostics (because happiness is fleeting, and all actions end in darkness and death), and a sinful state for Christians, whereas depression is caused by anger leading to many frustrations over time (like all emotions, it’s just something that happens to you).
Most mirror neurons fire in three cases:
1) When we perform the neuron’s action
2) When we perform “preparatory” actions that anticipates the neuron’s action
3) Empathizing when we watch someone else perform the neuron’s action (also when we anticipate someone else performing the action)
For example, when I pick up an apple many of the neurons in area F5 fire. When I pick up a paper towel with the intention of polishing an apple, many of the same neurons in F5 fire in anticipation. When I watch someone else pick up an apple, the same neurons fire in conceptual understanding of what I’m seeing.
Recently I learned about a type of mirror neuron called a canonical neuron that also fires under a fourth condition.
A class of neurons—called canonical neurons—fires when we reach for an apple. Canonical neurons also fire at the mere sight of an apple. In other words, our brains respond identically to reaching for an apple and just seeing the apple.
There’s more. Neurons will also respond to hearing “apple,” or seeing the word on paper. In short, whether it’s by sight or sound or written symbol, our brains recognize the main idea of an object—and resonate with it.
The main idea of an apple? You eat it.
The main idea of a spear? You throw it.
As neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni says, “the [actions] necessary to obtain and eat a piece of fruit are inherently linked to our very understanding of the fruit.” French scientist Dan Sperber has suggested the term “concept neuron” for this mechanism.
If our brains can recognize the main idea of an apple of spear (and resonate accordingly—and automatically) why not also with bigger ideas like capitalism, socialism, Sunday brunch—or jihad?
Canonical Neurons: The Main Idea
So canonical neurons fire during pickup, during anticipation, during cognitive empathy, and also simply by recognizing the possibility of performing the action.
This leads me to a weird personal anecdote. Back in the day I worked at a strip club with a lowish-functioning psychopath. One time he explained to me that he perceived most people as having “handles” that he could use to easily manipulate them as easily as arranging furniture, whereas I was conspicuously lacking in these handles because I was so caught up in my own head. In contrast, I perceive other people as hopelessly automatic and, even in the cases that I realize I can manipulate them to get what I want, I find it morally repulsive to do so.
Bringing this back around, the primary cause of despair is a perceived lack of power over one’s environment to achieve desirable outcomes. Because homo sapiens are sociopolitical competitors, the most important form of power in one’s environment is manipulation of other people’s perceptions. Thus, we’d expect that a perceived lack of handles in other people is the primary cause of despair in homo sapiens.
I believe my biological ethic in this case is flawed. Like Game or rhetoric, the use of Frame is not evil per se. It’s the use of Game for personal gratification, squandering the common trust, and moral perversion that is evil. Furthermore, just as despair is a sin, it is wrong not to use the tools we are given to serve God, self, church, kin, kith, and so on. That said I still have the feeling that advertising is still illicit in this framework somehow, so I feel I haven’t completely figured this out.
As an example of good manipulation, I recently called my dad a racist for complaining about the antics of two all-black football teams. His reply was “So what?” It seems you can teach an old dog new tricks :-). Now I just need to break him of his Churchian conviction that “almost all people are basically good at heart”.