Empathy Also Rises

The flames lick the edge of my skull as knives of searing heat wound the blackness draped over my eyes. The fire’s message singes my serenity, but I cannot pull back, or my kingdom will fall. Its crackling scampers across the air in a poignant dance loaded with meaning, while the incense blows a kiss sweetened with subtext. The trail of fires was lit with urgency; the spies have returned to Amygdala. Many more fiery trails spread dendritically from the other realms, but all their sparks end in the multifarious flickers of my personal light as it swings at the tip of our castle in the Cortex. The Lamp of Calcium was entrusted to me by my mother during the ritual of her passing. I will not fail her teachings; I read its fire, the subtlety of its movement, the scrawl of its warmth on my skin, as its burning colours warp silhouettes on the ancient stone of my columned chamber. Its smell shifts—sweet caving to salty. Only I can piece together these ciphers. Our Kingdom of Braintannia relies on the Cortex for wisdom, and the Cortex relies on my lineage. On me. They’re waiting. A prickling passes through my body; the intuitive wisdom of my lineage shudders with epiphany. Beyond my balcony, the trails of fire extinguish. It’s fine. I have the message. I run.

“The SOM has arrived. It is pertinent for the Mother of the great Order of Somatostatin to arrive on time.” Wide Spike, the Mother of the Pyramidal Order, incredulity snaking her eyes as my robes catch on the door’s heavy ironwork. “We all saw the fires quite some time ago.”

“And I bring wisdom.” I plead, taking the last seat at our oversized round table.

“PV was getting antsy for word.” Wide Spike flaps at PV’s perfunctory posture and twitching shoulders.

“I don’t care what the fires say,” shouts PV, the Mother of the Parvalbumin Order and third member of our Council of Matriarchs. “We need to send out our Limbic Warriors—now. They’re itchin’ for action, all of them! Spread the love, ya feel me? Get these kingdoms acquainted with the magnanimity of Braintannia and its Cortex.”

“Mobilization of that many warriors could be perceived as preparation for war against one or both kingdoms. We must send one Limbic. Only one,” I insist. “An emissary.”

“Okay, my dear SOM, but to where?” PV’s eyelids flick quickly, lending extra joviality to her expansive smile, but my throat still seizes. “You okay there, SOM?” 

“Yes. The South Kingdom has finished their annual Festival of Lights; things appear returning to normal. However, the North Kingdom is recovering from famine.”

“This comes from Amygdala spies?” Wide Spike’s words cut through my soft voice like a hawk’s talons into a furry, fretting mouse.

“Trained in the Bulb but reporting to Amygdala.”

“Olfactory spies? Not sure we can trust those.” Torches hanging off the Great Pyramid, the grand residence of her Order, shine through the dark window, casting Wide Spike’s insolent wrinkles into a mask of banded light and shadow.

For a moment, I’m distracted. A whispering psh-psh ridesthe torches’ eerie glow. I can’t make out the meaning. “Look, if we send our support, open our library, share our own knowledge of famines, they may be amenable to an alliance and trade-”

“No. That is misguided. At best they will throw us out as stuck-up castle-dwellers. Even if they accept our friendship—we make alliances with the North Kingdom, we risk making enemies of their enemies. I am not interested in war with the South, thank you. It is better to stay quiet rather than risk opening our gates and endangering our people’s safety for hungry mongrels.”

Indignation bursts from me like an arrow from a bow stretched taut to near snapping. “That’s wrong.”

“Why?”

“I–I–“ My arrow falls flaccid as my throat seizes again.

“Do you carry the inherited wisdom of the SOM?! All I hear are squawks! Squawk squawk squawk! This castle is in the middle of the Cortical Mountains, at the frontlines to the other kingdoms. That puts our whole kingdom at risk! Every realm! Our people here in the Cortex will be the first to suffer from invasion and war. We should not waste resources on anything but defenses. The North is recovering; how soon before they turn their desires outward? Defenses are what the Cortex needs!”

“We are uniquely placed, yes—to be ambassadors for Braintannia. We need to, because…” My doughy lips—poor whetstones for my thoughts—dull my wisdom’s distinctive mental knell. My intuition is clear, but my confidence is not.   

“I agree. We must do something,” PV chimes, outvoting the Pyramid and releasing a sigh from my tight chest. “Send a Limbic Rider to the North Kingdom.” My first official decision as SOM has passed.

Wide Spike scowls. “All right. Let it be done.” She pulls her cloak tight; her swishing hips are soundless as she strides back to her Pyramid.

I watch from my tower in the House of the SOM. The galloping of the Limbic Rider echoes off the mountains, beckoning my calm to return. The night is deep. Only embers smolder in my Lamp of Calcium, yet I feel warmth, like a dying breath against my nape.

The Pyramid. I hear it as I race down the stairs.

A malicious crackling.

Flaming beacons writhe along the Pyramid’s jagged slopes. I was never taught Pyramidal code, but the fires speak. She believes me naïve; that I will fail to see the message. But I never miss expressions in flame. I will not fail my mother. I can be the SOM.

NO!    

The torches burst green. She knows my tower is too far for a fledgling SOM to confer with fire. My cloak whirls away from me as I charge over battlements connecting the House of the SOM to the Great Pyramid. Whispers turn to screams. Anxious crackling warns me of terror. From the foothills, a cloud of arrows twinkles in the starlight. Archers heeding the orders of their leader.

She has signaled death.

I lunge into the parapets; sweat swamps my brow as the heat of panic blazes off torches nestled in the Pyramid’s slanted stone. I force a maddening parade of palaverous commands through my trembling arms. Please please please work. I must soothe the terror of their licking tendrils. I feel their sway changing as the green diminishes and their rage shrinks to embers, extinguished. I’m doing it. The fire bends to my will. I am the—

Slashed. My shoulder bleeds.

I swing my sword to block the next swipe, and so must part with the flames; they relapse into savagery. Wide Spike grins as her sword again clatters against mine. I grunt, gurgling anxiety; the force of my panic stiffens my wrists but will not parry my blade. It stays across my face as Wide Spike slashes. My sword arm aches. Her next move will shove my blade, gnash my head. I must attack. Attack. An easy flick of the wrist. Damn it, attack! Instead, my rage numbs my fingers. Maybe Wide Spike is right.

A yell cracks the mountains with the violence of its echoes. The Limbic is dead.  

NO! My throat seizes but tears freely wash my cheeks.

Wide Spike tosses her blade in fury. “Your lineage is weak. I’m through listening to the SOM. Your mother was a hag, and so are you.” Her hand opens, fingers curled like eagle talons; her shoulders swing back, and from her palm flashes a white light. A spell.

Mother is there, shaking her head, sobbing. “Can it be our wisdom, the ancient song of the SOM, dies with mine own daughter? I trained you, and you lied to me! You said you had the gift! You said you understood the fires! An imposter this whole time! I should have taught someone with talent. Maybe you are not my real daughter.

The light intensifies, like I am staring at the sun, and blows the image of my mother into me. I fail to counter the magic. Not quick enough, I tell myself. My world goes blind.

When I wake, I am in my tower chambers, which gleam like moonlight on snow. Bouncing beams of light burn my retinas. I cannot remember what happened, so I stumble to the balcony overlooking the mountains and blink and blink and blink, hoping there is something to see. The trails are lit; the Lamp of Calcium is lit; my face tingles. Messages and pleas. What are they saying? Every fire hollers among a thousand voices in my mind. The sun is up and screams at me also.

What is the message? Save us. Kill them all. Be beautiful. Die. You are useless. The fire dances.

One voice breaks out. “SOM?”

My head feels light. PV stands in my door.

“We are waiting. You have read the fires? Does Amygdala have news?”

“Yes.”

PV takes me down to the Council Chambers. I think. I don’t know how else I get here. Wide Spike leans back in her chair. She angers me, but…why?

“Well? What do they say?” PV abhors silence.

My throat is too limber. Too many stray thoughts; I clench my teeth, but they fight to break the barricade.

“Did the Rider make it?”

Rider? What happened to the Rider…?

“Did we mess up? Should we send out another Limbic?”

“Yes,” I mutter. Why?

“Yes! Good! Where? Back to the North? Did talks go well? I haven’t heard a seagull squawk since sunrise about annnnyyyything.”

PV shut up! “I—I—” My pressed palms swamp the map on the table with my sweat. “How about—um—the—” I shut my eyes, hunting for the singular ting of my intuitive wisdom. Instead a myriad voices shout “South!” and a thousand more scream “North!” Other disheveled syllables snicker of other places I don’t know. Thousands of sinister voices break free from crevices created in the wobbling rubble of my jumbled mind, where they have always been hiding: SOM? Hahaha! What are you good for?

What?!” I yell at my head.

My outburst freezes their glances. “Chill there SOM. I’ll listen to what you got. Just, what’s your wisdom say? Your momma did dish out her wisdom, ya?”

“I—I—” am the SOM?

Cackles. Why is my head cackling?

“Okay, you know what, if neither of you are saying a damn thing, I’ll just send Limbic Warriors to both.” PV claps her hands.

“I still insist that is a grave error.” Wide Spike’s statuesque posture chills.

“Ah now the pretty one speaks. Look, you scared the girl here. I mean, yeah, she’s supposed to be the SOM, but still, you are a spooky lady. I’m not sure your advice is best. I’m just gonna say it. No. Someone’s gotta woman up here. Yesterday’s plan did not work so I’m doing something about it. That’s the word.” PV stamps her feet. Her excitement falls dull on my ears. The whole room is muted; sounds are muffled like I’m buried underneath a massive pile of cloth.

Wide Spike nods. I shiver. But why? My memory plays hide-and-seek.

I stumble into stone walls to return to the disquiet of my tower, away from PV’s demands snapping like a dog at my cloak, and away from her, and her immense Pyramidal gown, which seemed to crowd out my soul from the room. Lights blare from torches, lamps, the mountainside—from my own mind. I have no drapes to shut them out.

Words continue shooting through my head. Screeches. Demands. Lullabies. All too loud. Too bright.

I need darkness.

The Lamp of Calcium mocks me—its fiery tendrils are grinning. It barks: Help us! Fail! We need you! Run! Laughs flick off the Lamp as wayward sparks. Thousands of voices. Stop.

STOP! 

Mother trained my magic to control the fire. Powerful breaths, hum deep in your throat, tug the air with your fingers. Shut the flames down.

The fires whimper and die.

The Lamp of Calcium is out.

Quiet.

The floor is colder than the heart of a corpse when I collapse to it.

I’m sorry my fires, but I need a break.

The sun sets and I grope for the couch; my head still pounds against its cushions, but at least it’s soft. I manage some sleep, until frantic banging returns me to the gloom of my tower. It’s PV.

“I–I–” PV is stiff. “I need to hear the flames! We need your wisdom–wait, why is the Lamp of Calcium out?” She pulls; my limp arms offer little resistance. “SOM, this is urgent! You need to get up. Look out the window!”

I do. Campfires litter the foothills to the North.

“The North is raising its army. I don’t know why—they must have taken our Warriors as an act of aggression. Maybe we shouldn’t have sent so many, and not to the South too.”

Screams curdle the air, which even from here reeks of blood. Clashes of swords and the swish of arrows adds music to the dance of battle unfolding in silvery glimmer of the moonlight. “War?” I cough.

“No. The Pyramid.”

I nod.

“What should we do?” she pleads.

“I have no wisdom to give.” I return to my couch; my head aches again. So many thoughts; I cannot pick. My intuition cannot decide what to hear. “Leave me.”

“I think I messed up. I need you! SOM!”

“I have nothing to say. There is nothing in the flames, can’t you see? The SOM are dead.” I fling my hand toward the empty Lamp. “Leave me. Now. Please.”

“You know what—Wide Spike wanted to prevent this. She was right.” Before slamming my door, PV asks me one last thing: “I just—what would your mother do?”

I wish I knew.

The voices soften. One rises.

It does not matter what I would do. I am not the SOM.

She’s there. In the dark, I can dream: of her dirty silk gown, of how I rubbed its mud stains worried they spoilt her shine, of the creases in her cheek as she told me “When acting for the good, our wisdom often gets messy, but never believe it is not beautiful.” We were standing by this couch. She was getting older; I was trembling. “If you get messy, it means things are working. When I pass, you must remember, your wisdom will come not from the fires, not even from me, but from your own heart. Sometimes it is okay to shut the light out to let your heart speak.” Memories of warm hugs entomb me as Wide Spike’s spell slinks off, a snake slithering back to its hibernaculum. I remember everything.

The Lamp swings ablaze. The trail of fires from Amygdala has once again burst alight. I hear its stories. I shut my eyes; feel its dance on my skin. I breath. My intuition is crisp. I will be heard this time.

The rubble of my mind erects a mountain. Unshakeable.

PV grabs me in the hall. “Where are you going?”

“The North has long-standing tensions with the South, whose theft and raids brought them to famine. So say the messages in the flames. You were right, they saw our Limbic Warriors as aggression against them, but as our Warriors managed to reach the South sooner, without as much violence, they also their mobilization as military support for the South. The Amygdala spies found the North is gathering all the able fighters of their Warrior classes. My wisdom speaks. It’s war.”

“Yes, so Wide Spike was right.” PV rubs her head, her fingers snagged her frizzled curls.

 “No. We could have avoided all this with our emissary. If we had sent one earlier, if the one we did send had made it….

“Well, I’m sorry!”

“It is not your fault. I was…not myself. But I’m back. We must reach the North.”

“All our Limbics are either scattered and afraid, or dead by Pyramidal order. We have no more left in the Castle that are trained.” PV is cracking. Her body slouches and her skin slumps like mud in a landslide. I pat her shoulder.

“I’m going myself. Perhaps we can quell their anxieties if they speak to a Matriarch directly.” I stride to the cloakroom, grabbing my riding robes. PV is still clutching my arm, desperate.

“No, she’ll order the archers to kill you, and you will be too far for your magic to alter the fires. You’re not a good enough rider to dodge their arrows! On top of all that, you don’t have any emissary training.”

“Do we have a location on any of our Limbics?”

“Last I heard, there is one on the trail to the North, but you’d have to get him the message.”

“I’ll find him, and we will go together into the North.”

“No! It’s chaos out there! She’ll shoot you!”

“She will try.”

The fields between the Cortex and the other kingdoms are rotten, and the horse’s hooves squelch blood-softened mud. The Pyramidal torches burn green. My shoulder sags with the weight of my pouch, forced on me by PV to ensure I had supplies should I fall. My horse zaps to the left as an arrow swishes my frizzled hair. I stayed off the main road, but I’ve been seen. Another arrow glints above the trees. I crack the reins so it falls behind me, and I charge up the foothills—right into the fury. As I crest the hill, mud and earth explode with the impact of arrows. One impales my leg. I tumble off my horse, which, spooked, disappears into the forest flanking the hills. I scream as I yank out the arrow. It grazed muscle. It hurts. The Pyramid’s green roars. I know more arrows are coming, maybe even Pyramidal Warriors.

Well, I can fight too.

You are the SOM of the Cortex. Feel the fire. My mother’s voice reminds me of who I can be. I raise my hand. I demand the flames change their message. I demand they rise.

The Pyramid is far. An arrow grazes my cheek, but I cannot shift my focus. Heavy grunts erupt from the woods. Her soldiers are coming. I can see the flames, hear the whispers of their tendrils; I can change what they say. It’s so far. But if I can hear them, I can change them. I clench every muscle. My inner voice bellows with the hurricane of my determination.

RISE.

A red inferno engulfs the Pyramid. The cloud of arrows shifts as if blown on the wind. I’ve altered the message. Now they think the Pyramid is under siege. The grunts rise to panic. The Pyramid’s arrows rain down on its own slanted sides. The Warriors run back to their home.  

I stand.  

“You are burning the Cortex! Your own home!” Wide Spike scolds in the flames. I hear her voice, or perhaps it is the flames themselves.

My tears blur the light, but the heat of the bonfire I made singes my cheeks. This is not the way of the SOM. Not wise. Every muscle on my head strains as my mind reaches back out to the inferno.

STOP.

I collapse to the mud, heaving.

The heat is gone; the Pyramid silent and dark but alive.

“Miss, are you okay?” A Northern girl stands over me.

My leg flushes with pain as I rise again. I wipe the mud from my eyes. Banners flap in the North. “Yes. I’m here to help.”

“I’m scared.”

I smile, hand her an apple from my pouch. She smiles too. My mind tumults with anguish, but my wisdom, my intuition, still floats. I will appease them. I’m the representative of the Somatostatin on the Cortex’s Council of Matriarchs. I am the SOM.

“Don’t worry; I’m here now.” I step forward. “Let’s talk.”

Behind the Science

Many mammals are social creatures, and successful socializing relies on accurately reading the message in other’s emotions and responding appropriately. That’s why empathy has been one of the most critical traits in the evolution of human societies. Humans, like many social mammals, have evolved to find emotion compelling, and we are naturally drawn to those of us displaying emotion, whether its bliss or distress. Social interactions can flourish only if we correctly distinguish the emotions of others, so empathy must have a strong basis in the brain. The amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of neurons in our brain’s limbic system, is responsible for registering and processing emotional information while coordinating responses to emotional stimuli. In general, the limbic system regulates many behavioural, hormonal, and nervous system responses to emotion. However, the neural mechanisms responsible for this remarkable ability to detect and discriminate the emotions of others remained a mystery—until now.

Credit: National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health [Public domain]

Scheggia and colleagues in Italy used an ingenious combination of techniques to pinpoint where in the mammalian brain emotional discrimination occurs, and it’s in a region called the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) that receives emotional information processed in the amygdala. Specifically, they found narrow-spiking cells—neurons with a faster frequency of firing—called somatostatin-expressing cells (SOM+) play a critical role in reading emotion, at least in mice. In a series of trials, they presented a mouse with two other mice: one either emotionally stressed or relieved and a second emotionally neutral (a control). Mice spent more time exploring the emotionally affected mice, especially if they were already familiar with each other. Mice responded even if presented with only scents on cotton-balls, suggesting—unlike humans—mice use olfaction to sense emotional states. The mPFC lit up during these tasks due to the activity of two different cell types: narrow-spiking neurons and wide-spiking pyramidal neurons. The researchers studied the specific role of each neuron using a technique called photoinhibition, where certain neurons shut down when an implant shines light on them since they are genetically modified to express light-sensitive ion channels. Most narrow-spiking cells use a chemical called parvalbumin (PV+) to help send their signals; photoinhibition of these cells had no affect on emotional discrimination but did reduce overall sociability—suggesting these PV+ neurons motivate mice to socialize. In contrast, when the SOM+ neurons were photoinhibited, mice socialized equally with both emotionally affected and neutral mice. Since total time spent socializing was not affected by SOM+ inhibition, these neurons must function to discriminate emotions but do not affect general sociability. Imaging the flow of calcium ions, which move across cell membranes as neurons communicate via neurotransmitters, showed calcium was more active in SOM+ neurons during visits to emotional mice. Calcium imaging also discovered the wide-spiking pyramidal cells were less active during the time spent investigating stressed mice. Overall, Scheggia and colleagues suggest pyramidal neurons likely inhibit sociability unless inhibited themselves by PV+ or SOM+ neurons. While PV+ cells enhance sociability in general, the SOM+ neurons are needed, however, to engage the recognition and reaction to emotions of others. Although only solving a bit of the mystery of mammalian emotion, somatostatin-expressing cells likely play important roles helping us overcome inhibitions set by pyramidal cells to socialize with others displaying emotion.

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