First, so we are starting from a common understanding of the concept, I would like to define the word. I often hear or see it misused.
“1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
This is not to be confused with “Sympathy” which is “Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” Empathy is synthesized sympathy. That is why the two are often confused.
Empathy, therefore, is the ability to project yourself, having never had an identical (or sometimes even close) occurrence of the same experiences. It is the foundation upon which “love” is built. Systematically speaking it is the ability to feel pleasurable chemical releases associated with interhuman connections without actually having duplicate stimuli experiences recorded in memory to relate the response to. Without identical events to compare, we must “reason” to an emotional conclusion. For example, If you have ever had a shot, or tasted something unpleasant, or hitting your finger with a hammer, we can observe somebody doing the same activity and we can experience sympathy. We know how that feels, there is no need for computing or applying reasoning. However, many of us have never experienced somebody close to us dying, never experienced being blind, never experienced being destitute, then we have to reason it out using what we do know and behave accordingly. We have to think about the time we missed somebody we loved, and then synthesize sympathy via those memories and imagining that it never ended, they we knew they were never coming back. Computing how that feels and coming up with how to behave towards the person feeling that. We have never been blind, but we may be able to think about how bad we are without our corrective lenses and then how much we use our eyes, and synthesize that sympathy by reasoning that being completely unable to use our eyes would be worse. We have observed and projected that, from our perspective; empathy does exist in some animals at a lower level. (Get to “levels” in a moment.) But for the most part, this adaptation is what makes us the Superior race and species. Empathy is what makes up human. When we see human characters in an animal, we are Empathizing with them.
PFC, The Human CPU.
So what was systematically so important about empathy that the human race felt the need to really embellish, improve, and even grow the capacity for empathy? In fact, we developed a specialized tool for formulating and processing Empathy. Dan Gilbert put it best in a TED lecture I saw recently. He describe the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) as a “flight simulator” capable running scenarios without actually having to experience them. We don’t need to slam our thumb with a hammer to know that it hurts. We can take in the stimulus of the behavior, the look on people’s eyes who have recently don it, the look of the thumb days later, and the curse words coming out of their mouths and run the scenario in our heads and think, “ I sure as hell don’t want to do that!” or “If I had done that, I would want somebody to get me some ice, show me some attention.” I was yet a virgin when seeing porn and experiencing the stimuli of the sounds and looks on the people bodies and faces, added that to what I had learned while exploring my own body, and “reason” (The act of computing things that are known against things that are unknown and resulting in conclusions.) “That looks pleasurable. I must do that.” Even the most inexperienced can use empathy to learn and react. Children can use the unpleasing look in your eyes and on your face, the body motions, and the angry tone to determine that touching a hot stove will not be pleasurable. They saw you act that way when they did something dangerous or harmful before. They know how they felt when you were scolding them. Watching you suffer alone, in most cases, would be enough. They don’t need to have Pavlovian type training to draw that conclusion. (Though some people feel the need to anyway. That is called “overkill” and popular amongst helicopter parents.) That is the power of our advance PFC. It is the processor of our brains.
Empathy, A Product of Evolution.
So again, I wonder, “why evolve this mechanism to synthesize empathy?” Well you have to go back to the fact that we are social, tribal, and group animals. We are not the biggest animals. For our size, we are not even the strongest animals. Alone, we are not even the smartest animals. If we were like fish born into our environment without parental intervention, we would all die. But what we learned was that in a group, we were smarter, faster, stronger than any animal or group we encountered. Remember the Aesop’s fable about the “bundle of sticks” where the father has sons put sticks together to demonstrate their strength? (look it up if not.) Humans learned that lesson at some point. Evolutionary function systematically adapted our bodies to build that understanding. But to move, gather, hunt, protect, build, and learn more efficiently, to retain the lessons already learned and move on, Neanderthals had to develop a way to pass that information from human to human and have them retain it. It was equally important to get each other to want to stay connected. In order to do this, our brain needed a way to see other humans and feel emotional (and sometimes manifest into physical) stress and pain in order to provide the proper care. Sympathy already existed. When it was applied to the current message in the PFC and empathy was that way. With the knowledge that losing a member would make the group weaker and less smart, each member was protected out of self-preservation. Being able to predict and stop or remove one from danger as well as a desire to do so were all the outcome of the PFC and empathy.
Empathy Is “The Golden Rule”
“Do onto other as you would have done onto you” is the essence of the “golden rule”. The title of the article reflects how important it is to empathize. So in order to understand that, beyond a basic and identical capacity, how to respond when somebody else is hurt, happy, sad, fearful, lost, and 20,000 other emotions, we need empathy. We know that being called “fat”, “stupid”, “rude”, and “lazy” (aka “American”) is offensive. It is a child’s lesson to say, “You don’t call people those names. It hurts their feelings. You wouldn’t want somebody to call you those names!” It seems to be a far more difficult lesson to understand the hypocrisy when one calls somebody a “drug addict” while slurping down a caffeine filled coffee, a sugar coated doughnut, and smoking a cigarette. Even though your need to consume caffeine, nicotine, food, and booze are identical to other addictions. It is certainly next to impossible to apply empathy for the family of an enemy soldier. We see a beggar on the street begging for some change, and, not knowing a single thing about his plight, we have no means to feel empathy for those cold, hungry, and depressed. Because it is necessary to teach it, the golden rule has been a foundation of every peaceful philosophy ever contrived. It is based upon just this depth of empathy. To look beyond your eyes, ears, and nose when judging somebody and “feel” their pain, and accept that you know nothing of their experiences.
Levels of Empathy
AS promised, a addressing of levels of empathy. Because the goal of evolution and the product of “The Human System” is to create a human that is more equipped to take on changing environmental threats and continue its genetics into the future, an order was the natural result of this need. The order of preservation goes like this. The self, the family, people of the same physical characteristics (race), People of the same geographical location (country), then people with the same philosophy or religion, and lastly people of the same species as yourself. There are some cultures that order things slightly differently, but this is generally it. The magnitude in which you are able to apply empathy is dependent upon where the person you are viewing ranks in your scheme of preservation. The more readily you have access to sympathy, the more intensely you can experience empathy. Empathy is the priming mechanism used to get the connection moving and it is rooted in self-preservation. Without empathy, we would stop at self-preservation. As people become more aware and more enlightened, if you will, they begin to notice the value in preserving themselves by preserving those outside of them. No dog or fish understands the need to share empathy with people half way around the globe. But humans do. But they don’t feel as much “connection” as they do to people in their family. That is exemplified by a trip to Wal-Mart where we see endless rows of toys and electronics made under conditions that we would never stand for here in our own country. Empathy’s equalizer is “cognitive dissonance”.
The Dangers Of The Loss Of Empathy And The Rise Ff Individualism
We have seen empathy diminish over the generation. This is especially true in western cultures and cultures touched by western influence. There is a divergence in growing communities between perception and reality. Many cultures, like those of the United States, the citizens believe they are free to make choices free from influence upon the tribe and/ or by the tribe. They are unable to see how the choices and behaviors of others affect and influence their own. They BELIEVE they are individuals and self-sustaining. That is the perception. Many times Empathy is painful. In a country where there is a lot of pain, this is especially true. It is allowed because a diminishing of empathy has allowed for them to disconnect, to not feel that pain, from the other tribe members. We don’t even see a need to protect our children beyond physical harm. We often pawn the education and development of the empathetic system of our offspring on to the government via the public school system. That often covers very little of the needed education leaving the children to form little sub tribes and randomly through experimentation and chance, develop a moral and ethical system to base their empathy on. Capitalism drives individualism. This causes empathy to be seen as a weakness. Bullying, reclusiveness, and irrational and boisterous behavior is the result of pushing out empathy. The whole time these members of the tribe believing they are individuals, even though the reality is very few of them could supply their own food, shelter, and clothing without the contributions of a governing body to help. This self-preservation is not being coupled with self-sustainability. They have become too specialized to operate as separate family units, let alone separate beings. However, family units have become so disconnected that they are not even able to associate functionally with their own family members. So the populations waxes and wanes between the dysfunctional belief that they can exist on their own and calls for more support from the government. These types of societies are like teenagers screaming they “can’t wait till they grow up!!” and “Can I borrow the car Please?”.
Antidepressants and Antianxiety Medicine and Empathy.
Here is my “overall understanding” of how AD’s work. With this grasp on how empathy works and its importance in continuing Human civilization, It can be applied in this way. This is what I have “reasoned” using my person experience with them and empathizing with others. Much of the things we do are because we understand how those decisions will affect the people we care about (empathy). Why is it wrong to have an affair, steal what you want, lie to people, kill people, get drunk/ high/ or addicted, rape, spend money without reserve, lash out at people you who piss you off, commit suicide, or sit around the house and do nothing? Because you have people in your life that you care about, right? Remembering that Freud projected that most decision (including the ones you never make) occur on the subconscious level, long before they become conscious consideration. Most of us like at least one of the the ideas of sex, drugs, lashing out, taking what we want, spending like we are on vacation, making out pain go away, and/ or sleeping the day away. But we don’t because we know that our actions will cause somebody else emotional pain. If it is somebody we care about, then we are driven to do something against our immediate gratification. Depression and anxiety occurs the level of empathy is nearly equal to the level of personal desire. For example, as a high school kid we really want to stay in our bed and sleep, but that will make our mom very angry. So our choice becomes staying in bed (at which point other negative stimulus will be applied until the pleasure to get out exceeds the pleasure of staying in bed by our parents) which will lead somebody we care about being angry and sad and thus to unhappiness. The other choice is to get out of bed, which is also not going to lead more directly to our happiness. When the only two options that we view leads to discomfort, anxiety ensues as we first search for another option. If we don’t find another option, then depression results.
Suicide is one of the most selfish acts a human can ever take. It is an assault against the whole tribe. IT pleases only the person who took their life and absolves them of any consequences for their action. However, nearly all Antidepressants have black box warning about suicide. Even stranger they require a doctor to keep in contact with the patients care takers to watch for “abnormal behavior”. So an analytical mind wants to know, “Why don’t they ask the patient” and “Why is a drug used to treat depression being held responsible for suicide?” The reason is that the patient isn’t aware of anything different. They have always had these thoughts. But in the past, empathy, concern for how others would feel, stopped them from doing something so selfish. But that lead to further discomfort and unhappiness. They have always wanted to kill themselves but empathy stopped them. Proponents of these dangerous pills will say things like, “They are most dangerous because when you take them, people get the energy to kill themselves.” They are not energy pills. Many would tell you they are quite the opposite. What they do is remove your inhibitions, your empathy. The following are symptoms of “mania” brought on by the use of antidepressants.
Excessive happiness, hopefulness, and excitement,
Sudden changes from being joyful to being irritable, angry, and hostile
Restlessness, increased energy, and less need for sleep
Rapid talk, talkativeness
High sex drive
Tendency to make grand and unattainable plans
Tendency to show poor judgment, such as impulsively deciding to quit a job
Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity — unrealistic beliefs in one’s ability, intelligence, and powers; may be delusional
Increased reckless behaviors (such as lavish spending sprees, impulsive sexual indiscretions, abuse of alcohol or drugs, or ill-advised business decisions)
Many on Antidepressant experience low levels of this disconnection. They find they are no longer in love with their spouse, happy with their job, connected to work. They don’t feel the anxoiety associated with not having enough money, food, or other resources to provide for anything other than their self and the immediate needs. They don’t feel obligated to make their parents or children happy, even if they have valid concerns. Many find that lying to them is acceptable in order to avoid uncomfortable thoughts that wouldn’t make them feel good. Because if you can’t think, “How would I feel if my loved one lied to me”. That would require empathy. They can feel that ideas such as not using drugs or alcohol, spending, or stealing had “trapped” them before. They may not want to get up and go to work, but they have function enough to know they have to if they want to support themselves. At the extreme, mania can absolve all empathy. This is where personalities like that of the black widow, rapist, serial killer, suicidal, or shooters come to life. In this state their empathy system is disconnected, but they are still able to plan and very good at manipulating others. They can be in this state for months, because they are being held there by an upset in their chemical system and the way the PFC is functioning. Manic behavior is also identified with brain damage to the PFC and previously with lobotomies. These people lacking all empathy and what they desire they can plan for. Immediate and unrestrained self-gratification is the only drive.
While it may not be possible to “over emphasize”, it is quite possible to “over empathize”. Since providing empathy often results in another person paying attention, seemingly being “fixed” emotionally speaking, and building some loyalty, it is possible for people to apply too much empathy to a person or a behavioral trait. Psychologist call this state of “over empathizing” enabling. When the behavior is one that is destructive to the community this is not healthy as a form of connection. Parents need to be able to reject empathy in order to deliver negative reinforcement sometimes. In western culture we have seen over the years a rash of social acceptance of dysfunctional behaviors. Some deserved acceptance but came without understanding of a need to make up consequences. Slavery ending was a good thing for example. However, there was no consideration as to what plan should be instated to deal with the new role as members of the culture. But that is an issues for a different post all together. But generally the course that is leading to out devaluing of the tribe goes like this. First there is a dysfunctional behavior. The person(s) conducting that behavior is ostracized and criticized by the tribe. A few members unable to control their own empathy rush to the aid of the people acting dysfunctionally. The culturally damaging behavior then finds “reward” and the people who are doing the “Rewarding” also get pleasure. Now those onlookers that are weaker in character also seek comfort of having people be attentive to them. So they either assume the bad behavior in order to first draw social ire and then the relief of the attention that comes with it. The other option is to be one of those who “enable” the bad behavior. Less reward, but less risk. The poorly behaved and the enable then form a group. The group forms a cause. The cause forms a movement. The movement then calls the dysfunctional behavior a “right”. The “right” is then forced into public consideration. Where empathy for those we care about is juxtaposed opposed to what we know is bad behavior. That paralyzes those that care the most. That leaves only the extremes to battle it out. Think of enabling an alcoholic instead of forcing them to deal with their alcoholism. (This is a truly grey and fluid area. The need for occasional emotional medication has been part of human culture since the dawn of humanity. ) Next thing you know, drinking too much alcohol becomes a right. The society becomes infested with alcoholism. More deaths and dysfunctional members are produced as a result of what has become a right. Much of that “production” isn’t caused genetically, but rather a result of other members, especially younger and more impressionable, seeing the alcoholics having fun and getting attention. They seek that self-gratification. In the end not all things should be “conserved” but that is a far cry from “every behavior should be liberated”.
The Need to Reintroduce Empathy.
This is a long post I know. I thank those who read through it. But we need to go a little further to complete the circle of this idea. Our culture, and really our world, has lost this sense of tribalism. For generations now we have hardened our receptors to the feeling of empathy. Part of that is because there are so many of us. In the frontier towns where there was 1 miller, 1 doctor, 1 blacksmith, and a community of people to raise crops, any one of them missing was felt as a loss. In a tribe, everybody was trained to do everything the tribe needed. But everybody was needed to do the chores. A loss of one meant a reduction of access to basic needs. In those communities the strength of the people was greater than sum of the individuals. They were made strong, like bundles of sticks. Today, there are so many of us, we take life for granted. Not just in living it and ending it, but in creating it in the first place. If we cannot grasp what our ancestors knew all those thousands of years ago, that we are on this ship together and survival depends on us all understanding that, we will continue down this path of self-destruction. We will continue to deny the reality of science, deny that systems have actions and reactions. We will continue to pollute, make wars, and over populate. In the end, it will be to our ultimate demise. To think all you have to do is look at an addicted bum on a curb and instead of thinking, “what disgusting vile creature” you instead think “wow, I wonder how he got there. That is unfortunate. I wonder if I could help.”, is a big change. Compassion and empathy will go farther to promoting human rights, ending hunger, disease, wars, and providing peace on Earth than any act self-preservation. Until we come to understand that the human race is an organism, and we are simple cells of that organism, the lack of empathy will continue to destroy our chances at a future, the ultimate goal of any species.