You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘empathy’ tag.

I was once criticized when I was much younger for being “too sensitive.”  The criticism made me wonder: Can you be too sensitive? I decided that you can be too sensitive about certain topics. I know people who seem to me to be too sensitive about politics, for example. But can you be too sensitive about the abuse of children, women or people in general?

What is the difference between highly sensitive people and people known as empaths? An article that popped up in my reading feed was by  Judith Orloff who has also written The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People.

“Empath” comes from empathy which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I don’t think anyone considers empathy to be a bad thing. But some people say that highly sensitive people can cause problems for themselves and others.

These people have a lower threshold for stimulation than most people. They have a need for alone time and an aversion to large groups. They can be physically more sensitivity to light, sound, and smell. Their ability to quickly make a transition from high stimulation to being quiet is slower. It will take them longer to unwind from work or stressful situations.

“Empath”is a term I actually associate more with science-fiction as a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual. You’ll find them in some of the writing and film versions of Philip K. Dick’s future worlds, such as Minority Report (with its “precogs”) and Blade Runner.

The two Blade Runner films ask us to empathize with artificial intelligence. That is a strange thing to ask in a time when we might question the lack of empathy many people seem to have for other people.

In HBO’s series Westworld, the ask is something very different. Set in an AI  amusement park for adults, the new series is quite different from the Michael Crichton original novel. In that book and film, the robots are clearly the bad guys and they take control of their intelligence and begin killing guests. The new version focuses much more on the growing sentience of the androids. The humans are the bad guys who wildly and gleefully mistreat the robots sexually and in the many violent scenarios.

The newest Blade Runner 2049 also brings the story into our time by making the protagonist, K (Ryan Gosling), be a replicant himself, but one charged with hunting down his own kind who break the laws that control them.

Steven Spielberg took on some of these issues in his film AI Artificial Intelligence. In this future, there are already robots called Mecha that are very advanced humanoids that are capable of thoughts and emotions. One Mecha, David, is like a human child and is programmed to love his owners, a couple who want a replacement for their real son who is in suspended animation waiting for a cure for his rare disease. What happens when human treat a robot as if it is real?

The TV series HUM∀NS also explores the psychological impact of  anthropomorphic robots (called “synths”) on their human owners, and the growing sentience of the robots.

This is not to say that we should connect sensitive people to AI robots. These questions go back to Enlightenment philosophers. The point is to examine how empathy may have changed in society.

Highly sensitive people and empaths are not mutually exclusive; you can be both. There is a kind of spectrum with empaths on the far end and highly sensitive people further down, and at the other end of the spectrum are narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths who have “empath-deficient disorders.”

In researching this area, I found books on a range of related topics, including dealing with being highly sensitive, as well as enhancing these qualities and making it part of your life’s work (counseling, teaching, mental health and healing).

I would never have guessed that a query on YouTube for “empaths” would turn up 179,000 results.

Take all this another step into New Age territory and you’ll find a kind of energy (called shakti or prana in Eastern healing traditions) that empaths can actually absorb from other people and from environments. This is far from just being highly sensitive and enters into spiritual and intuitive experiences .

Sensitivity and empathy are qualities we should respect and encourage, but we should be aware of what areas of relationships and society can be embraced and which ones can harm us.

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island-pixa

This past week I saw on the local TV news the story of a 29-year-old New Jersey woman, Tirri, who is getting rid of all her high-tech gadgets for a year. She says it is so that she gets to spend more time with her children. Her Aha! moment came when she missed one of her 18-month-old twins’ first steps while she was checking on her phone.

Oddly, she says that she feels that she is part of “the last generation to have a childhood without technology.” I have two sons about her age and they hardly grew up without technology. It is probably more accurate to say that her parents in the mid-1980s did not have as many tech distractions while parenting her.

So, what do you mean by technology when you take a holiday from it?

Tirri is leaving behind her smartphone and computer and the email, Facebook, Instagram, videos and all that comes with the Net. But she will still use a touchtone landline phone, a record player, maybe the television too. Isn’t that technology? What about her microwave and her car, the home heating and cooling systems, her banking and bill paying and… Well, you get the point.

Plus, her husband will still have his smartphone. Did he miss those first steps too? Possibly, but he might have been in another room or at work or talking outside to a neighbor or…  We are distracted by more than just technology.

She grew up with technology. She even grew up in her teen years with the Internet. My grandfather had technology – a different kind, but technology nonetheless.

People have been fascinated with and frightened by technology since probably Socrates feared that the written word would destroy our ability to think and remember. Movies, radio, comic books, television, video games and plenty of other technologies old and new were seen as dangerous distractions. “Go outside and get some fresh air and just play” has been in the parenting script for centuries.

I could go tech-free, if you put me on a deserted island without any devices.  I’m all for “tech holidays.” Take a night, a day, a weekend, an actual vacation week away from your devices. See if you feel happier, or feel punished.

More importantly, take notice of how all this digital technology changes us.

There are pro and cons to many of the changes that have been documented concerning media and new technology. Devices encourage us to multi-task. Being able to do more than one thing at a time (the classic walk and chew gum joke) is essential. Tech makes it easy to switch between tasks. But research also shows that when we do two things at once, like listen to a podcast and read a book, both suffer in understanding and retention. On a single task, the new information goes into the hippocampus, home of long-term knowledge. When multitasking, the information can go to the striatum. That is the area that stores new procedures and skills, but not facts and ideas. This means a kind of shallow storage that is less likely to be easily found in the future.

You might have read or heard of Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain.  The book’s title foreshadows Carr’s general feelings about the Net.

“It becomes much harder to sustain attention, to think about one thing for a long period of time, and to think deeply when new stimuli are pouring at you all day long. I argue that the price we pay for being constantly inundated with information is a loss of our ability to be contemplative and to engage in the kind of deep thinking that requires you to concentrate on one thing.”

Can you filter the important from the unimportant?

Carr included a study showing that the more distracted you are, the less able you are to experience empathy. Those kinds of deep emotions and thoughts are connected to the attentiveness that also forms deep connections with other people.

We also know that the digital world affects memory in good and bad ways. I am very happy to not memorize phone numbers, addresses, birthdays, shopping lists and other minutiae. But researchers tell me that cognitive offloading, that tendency to rely on digital memory rather than brain cells actually increases each time we use the digital alternative.

Does tech support and extend our memory, or does it decrease it?  We are deep into, and probably beyond, the Information Age, and information overload is a given.

It is still not clear that all this tech “hurts” our brains, even if it changes them.

Like older technologies, the general feeling is that the tech is also changing us in bigger and broader ways, like the way we think and our social and emotional cues.

One study I saw looked at reading on digital platforms and concluded that it seems to make us “more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly.” Not a conclusive finding.

The idea that heavy digital media use leads to a loss of cognitive control (our ability to control our mind and what we think about) is much more frightening. Are our brains becoming more attracted to what’s new rather than what’s important?

Do you get a nice rush of reward chemicals in your brain when you empty your inbox?  That is the “dumb, novelty-seeking portion of your brain feeling pleased, according to Daniel J. Levitin, author of The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. So, keep clicking the Like button on Facebook and favoriting tweets and Instagram photos to give your online “friends” some happy juice.

I have read that too much time in front of screens (a nice way to encapsulate net, social and media time) increases depression, anxiety and aggression and a distancing from reality. This past summer, I was amused by the delight people found in people actually going outside to use Pokémon Go.

 

But I could also cite a Pew study that found that Facebook users have more  “close friends, more trust in people, feel more supported, and are more politically involved compared to non-social media users” or one that found that social media helps them to deepen their relationships with others.

 

I wish Tirri luck with her tech-free experiment, and I hope she has lots of good times with her kids. She says she will chronicle her days in a paper journal rather than online, and if she makes it for a year, she’ll write a book. Put me on that deserted island for a few months and I might get a book done too.

Darwin

Darwin

I heard a story on the radio last week that mentioned that Charles Darwin had been a divinity student when he was asked to join the voyage in 1831 to the Galapagos that would lead to his fame.

I’m not sure that I remembered that. I know that he was reluctant to publish The Origin Of Species because he knew it would have ramifications on religion and belief, and he was (despite the image he has today) a religious person.

Darwin finally published the book in 1859,  pushed by discovering that Alfred Wallace was going to publish a very similar study. Darwin received a letter from Wallace asking if Darwin’s book would examine human origins. Charles responded that he would avoid that subject because it was, “so surrounded with prejudices.”

Actually, Darwin’s only reference to human evolution was that his theory would mean “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”.  He did believe that humans had a “common descent” but avoided the existing and controversial term “evolution.”

The end of The Origin of Species says:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

So, last night I paged back through a book I have on Darwin’s life, and was a little surprised to come across something on his view of compassion. I know that the “survival of the fittest” line that is so often attached to him seems to say that nature is cruel. But Darwin actually held the belief that altruism is an important part of human and even animal life.

In some of his other books like The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals or other lesser known books like The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, that idea comes out. The latter book was published in 1871, eleven years before he died.

Darwin thought about the the origin of what he called “sympathy.”  Today we might be more likely to use the words empathy, altruism, or compassion. He was pondering how humans and some other animals will come to the aid of others when they are in distress.

He observed that sympathy was most likely to occur within family groups. But he also wrote that what he considered to be the highest moral achievement of man was concern for the welfare of all living beings, both human and nonhuman.

I think that idea can be seen in his life too. Darwin almost lost his position on that voyage because he was critical of slavery which was widely accepted amongst his shipmates. He wrote in a letter while on the voyage about “how steadily the general feeling, as shown at elections, has been rising against Slavery. What a proud thing for England if she is the first European nation which utterly abolishes it!”

I like to think that this particular belief in the sympathy of our species is more of what really separates us from the other animals.

Not a bad idea to ponder while we are still in the Thanksgiving mode.

The Origin Of Species: 150th Anniversary Edition

From So Simple a Beginning – a collection of Darwin’s Four Great Books: Voyage of the Beagle, The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals

On the Origin of Species –  in a very nice illustrated edition

René Magritte, "The False Mirror "1928

You see someone get hurt and think “That had to painful.” Have you ever seen someone hurt and actually felt their pain?

There are people who have mirror-touch synesthesia. It’s a condition that causes them to feel what others feel. That can range from feeling someone else having their hair gently stroked to feeling the pain of someone across the room getting an injection, to a character in a horror film being slashed. “I feel your pain” – absolutely.

The mirror effect means also that a mirror-touch synesthete is standing opposite someone, so the injection in someone’s right arm will be felt in their own left arm.

That’s not the only type of synesthesia, which is defined as a mixing of the senses. It comes from the Greek “syn” (together) and “aesthesia” (sensation).

There are four main types of synesthesia:
Color-grapheme synesthesia – colors are associated with numbers, words or letters
Sound-color synesthesia – sounds are associated with colors
Word-taste synesthesia – words are associated with tastes
Taste-touch synesthesia – tastes are associated with physical sensations

There are lots of famous synesthetes including Duke Ellington (jazz musician), Richard Feynman (physicist), David Hockney (painter), Wassily Kandinsky (painter), Franz Liszt (composer), Vladimir Nabokov (writer), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (composer).  Synesthesia can be useful when it boosts memory abilities and creativity.

The cause(s) of synesthesia are still unknown, though it’s believed to have a hereditary association. Researchers believe that it’s found in 1 of every 200 people and is more common in women and left-handed people.

What got me checking into this area was reading The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans De Waal, a primatologist, who challenges the primacy of human logic and puts animals on a closer behavioral footing with humans. He also proposes that empathy is an instinctual behavior exhibited by both lab rats and elephants.

In the 1980s and 90s in Italy, neurophysiologists experimenting with macaque monkeys to study neurons specialized for the control of hand and mouth actions. They recorded from a single neuron in the monkey’s brain while the monkey was allowed to reach for pieces of food, so the researchers could measure the neuron’s response to certain movements. But, they also found, unintentionally, that some of the neurons they recorded from would respond when the monkey just saw a person pick up a piece of food.

Further experiments showed some similar results in humans. Mirror neurons are involved in mirror-touch synesthesia which produces an extremely developed sense of emotional empathy. Those mirror neurons activate when an individual is performing an activity and, to a lesser extent, when an individual is watching someone perform an activity. People who have mirror-touch synesthesia have very active mirror neurons, meaning that the effect is greatly enhanced. They empathize with the pain of others, as most of us do, but for them it might feels as if the pain is also being applied to them as well.

The research us still controversial, but perhaps further research can help us understand people with empathy-related conditions such as schizophrenia, Asperger’s syndrome and autism.

I also came across a film that is online about how synesthesia affects some people – Exactly Like Breathing is a film by Andres Cota Hiriart and Alessandra Moretti that gives you another perspective on the condition.

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