Sunday, 27 March 2011

Empathy

There has been a recent surge of interest in empathy if my reading habits are anything to go by. I was struck by a link between two articles in this weeks observer magazine. This in itself is quite unusual as it is rare that I find one article that sets my synapses firing. The first of the two was about a man who lived as a hermit in a stone cottage without facilities on the Welsh hills miles from the nearest town. In this articles he describes how rather than become introspective as one might expect under these circumstances, he found his sense of self disolving into the nature he inhabited and eventually documented. This reminded me very strongly of Iain McGilchrist's description of the expansion of human awareness in greek culture. In the Master and His Emissary he describes how the narratives from the earlier part of this awakening make little use of the first person - there is no depiction of a seperate individual self. I would say that this is the goal of the reflective process, at least for me personally. This leads me onto my some might call gooey notion that our over reliance on a left brain hemisphere view of the world has led to a somewhat unempathetic approach to life hence the need for scientists to  enlighten us statistically  to the process of empathy. This would appear to echo the trajectory of Classical Greek culture which initially expanded in terms of both hemispheres but eventually an over reliance on rationalism meant that they could no longer express intuition and were thus forced to proceed down an ever increasingly rationalistic line of inquiry. Plato did revert to metaphor with his cave but this is done so in an objective or "knowing" manner.
The next article in the Observer is directly about empathy and the conditions that can lead to its erosion. The article takes as its starting point the removal of superstitious ideas of evil and replacing them with zero empathy. One paragraph begins with the words "As a scientist" which set me thinking about objectivity and empathy. Simon Baron-Cohen could have said that he wanted to explore what brings about the erosion of empathy using his scientific framework. A bit clunky but I hope you see my point that by putting science first the dialogue is automatically skewed. At the end of the article is a multiple choice that reveals your empathy quotient. these tests are always hard to do honestly because you can quickly see which answers give the highest rating but I recommend having a go giving your first most natural response. the relationship between data and realism (in its medieval sense) is very important but increasingly life in the west is compartmentalised and tdied up into smaller and smaller categories. You only need to look at the place you work to see this happening or the way public services are "organised". this all leads to a dehumanising view of the problems in hand. There seems to be cause for optimism in that increasingly we hear people talking about local initiatives and creating stronger inter-related links in communities. If a child does not receive good empathy and communication interaction then quite possibly they will grow up to be un-empathetic. This is why it is so important to do things that connect us to each other no matter how painful the thought of it might feel. Doing real things changes the environment we inhabit. And so I would totally agree with Simon Baron-Cohen that empathy is a vital tool for rebuilding from our crumbling left hemisphere centric culture.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting stuff. I too completed the questionnaire and was relieved to find that I was average (perhaps even caring what your score was should give you additional empathy points, or on second thoughts subtract them as you’d clearly only be thinking about yourself).
    Refreshing not to see Fr*ud mentioned in an article of this type, as he’s generally trotted out to explain how ‘borderline’ cases are as they are because they have fundamentally failed to develop through the ‘me me me’ of childhood to the ‘us us us’ of the well rounded adult (I’m paraphrasing).
    Thinking about this a bit, the application of empathy is clearly not a natural condition, but one you have to work at. Society seems hell bent on having people pick sides these days, be it politics, organised sports, or just on line voting for things (do you ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ – not possible to be neutral in these things). This is largely supported by a culture which is by its very nature anti empathetic, whether in its role models – an increasing ‘winners and losers’ mentality – or language – have you ‘manned up’ today? Add to this the inexorable arc of technology, making it easier and easier for people to operate in an anti-empathetic cut-off world, where even debate is often reduced to ‘I’m right, no I’m right’ conversations on chat for a. Have just realised this is also applying to me at the moment, so I’m off to make someone a cup of tea and have a good listen.

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  2. Ha good one Mr dent. Today ray Wilkins said the technology is amazing and the commentator said and the football's not bad either.

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