Salon offers up an interesting article this morning questioning the way Madoff’s mind works.
I suspect we all wonder what, if anything, Madoff feels when directly confronted by those he has utterly destroyed. He cooked the books and perpetually lied to his investors. He pulled off the ongoing deception with an utter insensitivity to others. If shown videos of interviews of his victims, would he wince, laugh or simply shrug dismissively and say, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
I’ve wondered about this myself. Aside from “what was he thinking?” I’ve been equally interested in “how was he thinking?”
If there’s any single attribute that separates Madoff from the average Wall Street thief, I’d suggest that it’s his extraordinary ability to read what others think and desire, and especially to know what will give them the greatest satisfaction.
From a neurological perspective, a prime candidate for how we learn how others think is the mirror neuron system. In turn, it’s been proposed that this ability to read the mind of another makes it possible for us to experience empathy toward others. We know what they’re thinking and feeling and this triggers a similar response in us.
So where is the Buddhist flavor in any of this?
Behavioral neurologist V.S. Ramachandran has referred to mirror neurons as “empathy neurons” or “Dalai Lama neurons.” He believes this system, by allowing us to understand the intentions and desires of others, is the principal driving force behind “the great leap forward” in human evolution. As a result of such claims, the mirror neuron system has risen to the level of accepted folk psychology. According to U.C. Berkeley psychologist Alison Gopnik, “Mirror neurons have become the ‘left brain/right brain’ of the 21st century.”