Last week, I wrote about empathy – its definition and what researchers have found about why we may be more empathetic in certain situations and/or given our personalities. The blog concluded with the notion that empathy can be learned; it is our choice whether we wish to be more empathetic.
The question I did not answer was “how do we learn empathy?” The answer appears to be quite simple: through storytelling. In an Op-Ed & Insights article appearing on LiveScience, P. J. Manney wonders if our digital revolution is destroying our ability to be empathetic. (“Op-Ed Article“) Defining “empathy” as “-the ability to share someone else’s feelings-”, the author notes that this trait appears in all species- even rodents. Drawing from a paper she wrote in 2008, Ms. Manney points out that “[e]mpathy works on a neurological system …involving a ‘theory of mind network’ that includes emulation and learning. But at the center of empathy creation is communication.” (Id.) Empathy is created through mirror neurons which are:
…a set of neurons in the premotor area of the brain that are activated not only when performing an action oneself, but also while observing someone else perform that action. It is believed mirror neurons increase an individual’s ability to understand the behaviors of others, an important skill in social species such as humans.(Iacoboni et. al. 2005) (“Empathy in the Time of Technology: How Storytelling is the Key to Empathy”, Journal ofEvolution and Technology, vol 19, Issue 1 – September 2008, pp. 51-61 at 2*) (“Paper”)
In her Op- Ed Article, Ms. Manney further explains:
We learn to be in the shoes of another person through real-life observation or storytelling. Communications technologies have evolved — from the beginning of language, to writing, to telecommunications, to information technologies, and soon to telepathic technologies with brain-computer interfaces. Regardless of the medium, repeated stories of the “other” have motivated the expansion of social inclusion and the liberalization of civilization for millennia. (Id.)
Thus, when we read a novel, we let our imaginations take over so that we visualize what the characters are going through- what they see, and feel. We create the scene in our minds. We relate to the protagonist with an understanding of her unmet needs and goals and hope that she wins in the end. (Why do we skip prematurely to the last few pages to see how it turns out?). At the same time, we view the antagonist as one who is “not like us” and so hope that she gets her due! That good does win over evil. (Paper at 2*). A perfect example – recently in the press- is To Kill a Mockingbird; for over 50 years, we have all empathized with Tom Robinson hoping he would be found not guilty. We have also emphasized with Atticus Finch (Esq.!). Now, all of a sudden with the publication of Go Set a Watchman in which we learn that Atticus is not quite the liberal portrayed in Ms. Lee’s first novel, we are having difficulty with our feelings of empathy. We do not know how to adjust to this radical change in Atticus’ character.
The digital age changes all of this; our mirror neurons no longer fire. When we watch T.V. or play a video, or even a movie, we do not always get involved the way we do when reading a novel. We do not have the “vicarious simulation of storytelling and unfamiliar role models” as we do with reading and thus, our brain is not motivated “to reach out and feel ‘the other’” (Id. at Paper at 3*). Rather than learning empathy, we learn narcissism. Perhaps this is why the Millennials are the “me” generation.
In our use of personal media, we gravitate to websites, blogs, articles et cetera that are “like us”, that share our point of view. We look for stuff that reinforces our view of the world rather than challenges it. Ms. Manney notes the existence of a study that finds “…that there is almost no overlap between the blogs read by liberals and conservatives.” (Id. at 4*).
More to the point,
Young people in this first decade of the 21st Century have only known a world dominated by personal media. They already use multi-media technology extensively for connection, living on My Space or the Facebook, IMing and texting, and by and large, they don’t encounter “the other.” They usually encounter more of themselves, looking for people with similar points of view and taste: “OMG, does anybody else out there think will.i.am is HOT?” Worse, many use it as a venue to commodify their narcissism with self-advertisements. Each screen asks the viewer to not only “Look at me. Want me. Love me,” but to, “Buy me,” by making them an official “Friend.” Emotional prostitution does not increase empathy. If anything, it increases their reliance on their peer group values and not on alternative values that might challenge their belief systems and open them up to a world they have yet to experience. The more they connect, the less they learn and their blogs and chatrooms demonstrate an increased narcissism beyond the normally high level associated with their age group in their search for individuation. They search for validation in self-reflection, and, in the hall of mirrors that can be the Internet, only their mirrored peers reflect back at them.
As this behavior is habitualized and institutionalized, the narcissism will grow, because, unless one is secure with one’s self and situation to be forced into discomfort, forced into a strange new world where one must make peace with differences and learn to empathize with “the other,” why would anyone? This is why we need storytelling. You don’t need to come into physical or electronic contact outside your ideological comfort zone. The book, stage or screen keeps the characters at a distance, allowing the reader/audience/viewer to relax into the experience and open their mind. No real person is waiting on the other side of the digital connection to flame them, cyber-stalk them or humiliate them. With storytelling, we can experience the thrill of “the other,” yet remain safe. (Id. at Paper at 5*.)
In short, our digital age is advancing narcissism. (Query: Can anyone really convey “empathy” in a 140 character tweet?)
A further example is the violent video games and virtual reality that tend to desensitize the player to the violence and pain occurring within the game. Rather, both create the mentality of kill or be killed. But, Ms. Manney notes that more recently, video game makers are using this medium to create interactive games that do deal with real world problems. One example is “Peacemaker” in which the players assume the role either of the Israeli Prime Minister or of the Palestinian President and deal with the real life problems of the Middle East. Just imagine, a Palestinian teenager taking on the role of the Israeli Prime minister or an Israeli teenager playing the role of the Palestinian president! (Paper at 5*.). Similarly, Virtual Reality is being used “… to create empathetic scenarios by reproducing perceptions of other people…” such as with illnesses, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder so that the user can “see” what the other is going through and thus learn empathy. (Id. at 6*).
In the end, the best way to learn empathy is to read novels and to tell stories, lots of them and often. Both fiction and non-fiction. Both our own stories and those of others. The more we work on our empathy, the stronger it will get!
By Phyllis G. Pollack