The NY Times today is interesting. Nicholas Kristof has an op-ed entitled “How do we increase empathy?” in which he looks at various studies regarding empathy. In reading this I again realized how divergent my view of empathy is. I wrote about this early on in the development of this blog but not so much recently. In short, I see empathy as a basic biological function in which animals sense their own and others’ interiority and then communicate social information about identity, intents, feelings , etc. Others view it either more restrictively, constrained by a particular discipline’s perspective or research protocol, or more expansively as empathy helps us imagine or identify far afield from our person and current situation. I have no general argument with these views, just that empathy is at its inception how one MEMBRAIN communicates with another MEMBRAIN about the interiority that cannot be perceived objectively but that both know is there and filled with important information, and further that this culminates, i.e., reaches its highest expression, in intimacy, a necessary precursor for intellectual development. Now the details, because of course the devil lies in the details (or is it god? I forget which).
Kristoff cites research showing a rat will help another escape a trap before eating as proof that it is hard-wired. The sin here is not that rats show empathy because they do, but that he uses the phrase hard wired. As I have said before, the machine metaphor of hard wiring is very limited in capturing biological phenomena. Yes, certain neurological substrates serve empathic functioning but neurological substrates have no wires (it is a metaphor, I know) but neurons awash in a flow of chemicals, neurotransmitters and hormones. For example, oxytocin is important in increasing empathy and animals have varying amounts across species and varying levels in any one individual. So one answer to the title question about how to increase empathy is to promote oxytocin levels (or reduce its antagonists like adrenalin–I’m looking at you gamers and other adrenalin junkies). This is complicated. As Kristoff correctly states, meditation promotes empathy in part, I say now, presumably, through reduction of stress hormones like adrenalin, but also in part through its value and promotion of peaceful living and the quest for harmony.
Kristoff discusses some research showing the effects of wealth on empathy, mainly as an inhibitor. Here we begin to leave my view behind in a cloud of dust because of the great complexity of such culturally biased research. I am not in the mood to address the particulars here, and instead I encourage you to look through the comments about this op-ed until you come to one by a person raised in India who now resides in the USA. He points out in a non-judgmental fashion a difference in the two cultures, and I think an important consideration in looking at how empathy operates in a broader social-symbolic context. He says here in the USA our emphasis on individualism (achievements, success, wealth, bootstraps, etc.) elevates self-importance as a virtue, as a sign of how good we are. In India (and many eastern cultures) the emphasis is on interdependence and that elevates self-relevance as a virtue as a sign of how our actions effect others. This is, in a word, brilliant, and in a few more words, profoundly true.
Kristoff also mentions research showing that reading the classics, e.g., Dickens, enhances empathy, though lesser reads do not. This is another important point because art of all sorts promotes empathy and intellect; some art is better than other (I’m just saying pay attention to what you value and take in as art). I will remember this conceptualization of self-relevance; I think it would be a powerful meme if we would adopt it as such and would counter-balance our culture’s esteem of self-importance. Take care of your self-relevance and your self-esteem, your self-concept, will already be positive, grounded and not inflated by material grandiosity.