"There's a commercial on TV where a doll begins to cry. When Noah sees it, he gets upset and begins to cry as well. Is that empathy?? I'm actually glad this does upset him, though. Not that I like him to be upset but that it's proof that he feels and has a caring heart. If he didn't get upset, I would be afraid that he didn't care. That could be a sign of a psychopath. Someone who has no feelings and doesn't care about anyone else's feelings. So in a way this commercial has made me sigh with relief." (Andrea)
She sent me this in an email when she found out my writing this paper on empathy. I liked the email she sent me very much because it describes her awareness of how empathy is working for her child. She wrote that she was happy that her son reacted the way he did to the ad, by crying. This seems odd, of course, because her little boy was crying, but her understanding is sound: that her boy is very healthy. Her email is nice, also, because reveals her strong empathic connection with her boy, Noah. The description is scientific in its way, as it correctly describes empathy as we now know how empathy works the light of new discoveries in neurological science. What she describes in her son is the action of mirror cells, which help us connect directly with life around us in the way we think of as empathic. The following quote by one of the top scientists of our time, Francis Collins who is a leader in the development of our understanding of the human genome is, in my opinion, highly unscientific. In doubting the power of science to understand how we function, he also eliminates an entire area of understanding: the observation of events and the development of ideas based on those and many other observations to develop models of understanding.
“Science will certainly not shed any light on what it means to love someone, what it means to have a spiritual dimension to our existence, nor will it tell us much about the character of God.” (Collins, from Larson)
Science does describe for us the now the rudimentary mechanics of love, and gives us clues to understanding the spiritual dimension. The character of God is also becoming understood, not through neurology, which is helping us understand traits such as affection, but social science which can help understand the roots of our understanding of concepts like God. God is difficult to describe, but God's meaning for us is universal; we all have a personal link to creation. In a second email, Andrea provided me with more of her ideas, where she shows her critical inquiry of what she gets in church, strengthening her scientific approach, and also helping to define my thesis:
Empathy brings us together in communication
In nature we find ideal humans who live in a symbiotic balance with their natural surrounding systems. Tribal people cannot over extend their expectations of their surrounding environment; if they do they know they can destroy it, ending their own access to its resources. Nor do they want to, as humanity comes from nature so does the natural meaning of humanity. The human relationship with nature is the human relationship with humanity itself. Those relationships are what we have evolved to maintain, and it is in the ability to maintain those relationships that we maintain ourselves. Not just these relationships, but healthy beneficial relationships make us healthy and get us the best benefits from life; this is how we have evolved.
Schisms between humans, and failures both in our relationships with the natural environment and with ourselves, come as human social interaction and organizational efforts develop into a structure not defined by human morality as it has developed from our empathic nature. Today the schism seems beyond redemption as the structure consumes the environment and exploits human nature in ways, and at a rate, that cannot be recovered.
To Tribal culture, nature acts not only as a source of life, as it does for us all, but as a mediator for humanity; we all relate to nature, we keep it in our beings and we visit it to replenish our spirit. It is not so much nature itself, not in the literal sense, but our perception of nature as knowledge that we have brought with us into society.
This thesis is neither pessimistic nor cynical; within our human nature is the ability to reconnect with the nature that nurtures us every day and gives strength and health both biologically and psychologically: our selves and spirit. Because our basic nature is built from nature we can easily reconnect with nature and in so doing assure our survival and happiness in our environments. Because of empathy we have in us this choice.
History of empathy
The empathic research pathway has led me all the way back to Aristotle along multiple paths. Darwinism has its roots in Aristotle's approach, in which human nature very much comes from nature. Also, as I started reading about Buddhist psychology through the writings and speeches of the Dalai Lama, I found the term eudaimonia is used to describe leading a good, clean life: key to the Buddhist escape from suffering in life and the attainment of happiness. This term, eudaimonia, was linked to Aristotle for me by the transcript of a speech by Dr Timothy O'Leary. (Leary) Aristotle sees happiness as an end in of itself; that the things we do are not isolated but interrelated, that there is purpose to life. Happiness to Aristotle comes from good, moral living; happiness, purpose in life, and morality are interrelated.
From the Dalai Lama's perspective, eudaimonia implies a psychology that is about discovering the person and making positive changes as part of the discovery process. The opposite approach to life, and especially psychology --what the Dalai Lama might think of as a Western approach-- is cold and involves collecting facts from studies and applying them indirectly --often unsuccessfully-- to therapy. Studies on captive animals formed the basis of behavioral psychology and cognitive psychology studies certain aspects of learning and then therapists attempt to apply blanket meanings to the whole of the human experience.
As a direct approach to life, the
eudaimonic approach bypasses the complications and mistakes of the accepted
Western approach. It is a practical approach; as applied to psychology,
eudaimonia embraces the human spirit so that both spirituality and psychology
focus on the mind from different but perspectives but with the same goal:
creating happiness. Eudaimonia can bring science out of its abstracted
state and utilize its principles and knowledge to help people make the changes
they want to make so that they can get to where they need to be.
Linking all new the ideas of how humans think and feel helps us understand how communities are constructed. A revival of these and many other classical understandings combined with understandings supported by the recent neurological research is showing us that communities are rooted in their local environments and that they ideally find their identity with nature, and are nurtured by what nature has to offer. It is from the natural environment that we all come from, and according to classical evolutionary thought, all our thinking and feeling processes come from there as well. At the core of our human psychology is the psychology of our animal ancestors, according to Aristotle, Darwin, and many others.
I try to clarify this by narrating
examples from research with quotes from researchers, and other significant
writers. Classical thinking, be it the Dalai Lama's or Darwin's mixes
well with the new research. I very much want to connect eudaimonic
psychology with the recent research; I also want to show how human society can
succeed where it is now failing by applying both new and classical empathic
learning to an emotional approach to life. The extension of these ideas
into society and the surrounding environment brings not just health for
individual people but for all humanity and the entire planet. Empathy,
as a field of study, is the eudaimonic focus on the meanings of empathy in
such a way that knowledge as it is being developed can be directly applied to
improving what is actually being studied. This is sometimes thought of
as action research. With so many qualified people working together
through the Information Society of the Internet, the eudaimonic effect of
empathy research can never be wrong.
Other important citations include writings by and about tribal elders cited mostly from a very rich document by Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux and Magdalena Smoleski about the healing of cultural wounds in Aboriginal tribes persisting since colonialism. In it they define the losses of tribal Natives in terms of historical trauma. To these Natives and also therapists working with troubled Natives through the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, it is the separation of the Native peoples from nature that has hurt Native culture the most. This document shows how the reconnection with nature and the natural community of knowledge is the cure for the inherited trauma disorder that has been lingering since the genocides that Natives experienced at the hands of colonialists and immigrants through to the early 1900s.
In a sense this creates a tight loop against which I can compare cold science, such as the selfish gene, that have now become questionable under the light of new evidence about empathy from the neurological labs. I also have an example of a horrific animal torture test done, amazingly, to prove empathy. It shows how science can, at times, be the most extreme form of stupidity. Cold science affects us all because it provides much of the data from which didactic teaching is framed -- the cognitive approach -- which does not necessarily, by design, provide students with truthful concepts. It alters the perceptions of everyone in society has at its very basic learning point: childhood.
In studying Buddhism, I am finding a positive tool that seems like a form of selfishness. It creates an easy path for a Buddhist to take towards self-preservation, especially when protecting or creating the concepts of spirituality. Buddhist monks are often former family men-- who abandoned their families, along with their native community of knowledge, for the community of knowledge of spirituality and of the monks; the Buddha himself abandoned his family. This runs contrary to the concept of empathy and love benefiting the community especially in the evolutionary sense, yet Buddhism is greatest religion of empathy.
And Buddhism goes farther with this selfish concept; it allows for self-actualization in the extreme-- the preservation of the self and spirituality when threatened through self-defense with martial arts. Spiritual survival through self-defense was practiced aggressively by Natives throughout North America since the arrival of Europeans, and also by the Black rights movement as Blacks in the US approached full citizenship. Buddhism effectively teaches us how to protect the community, and the constructed knowledge of the community, through martial arts.
The Buddhists promote the concept of the protection of constructed knowledge; the evolutionary approach to nature shows us how constructed knowledge is part of our past and part of the environment; and the Native studies that I reflect reading show that humanity needs the environment to survive psychologically and socially. It is the basis of Native cultures everywhere that humanity needs an empathic relationship with the environment for the necessities of life.
A difficult relationship to prove is how empathy, which is at the core of the human relationship, is reflected in nature; that nature acts as an empathic switchboard for all of humanity. Tribal Natives who are seeking to restore their community of knowledge, which includes nature, accept this connection as a natural given. Shamans use symbolic representations of nature as empathic connectors. They connect themselves and their sick or troubled clients with the community, and the community of knowledge that includes the cosmos, to bring the client psychologically to a physiological state of healing.
A related and equally difficult
relationship to grasp is that of the evolution of empathy within nature with
the development of organization and morality in society. One source I
have found that provides an empathetic basis for morality in nature is a tribe
that is not made up of people, but of animals. It is a monkey colony on
an island off of the coast of Puerto Rico, whose members interrelate
synergistically; they maintain honesty in their community thereby benefiting
each other equally. A more widely discussed phenomena is the
transcontinental behaviors of wild elephant herds who appear to be rebelling
against the pains inflicted on them by humanity, either as large groups, or as
a complete species. Elephants seem to be actually delivering payback to
humanity; fighting back against repression in ways psychologists would
disapprove yet in keeping with principles of self-preservation.
There is increasing research and observational experience that the thinking abilities of animals, and how those abilities have evolved for humanity, exist to help us coexist. These abilities exist primarily for communication, and that this communication is more for the warmth of cooperation between beings, than it is for the cold of aggression and destruction. The cold approach --that the purpose of being is to exploit the environment for the benefit of genes-- has no monopoly, nor has it ever. The cold approach is widespread and dominates in our society because it supports structural arrangements, which themselves are exploitative. It stands to reason that society thinking purely along the lines of a destructive view of nature would suffer from collapses of its supporting environment; and a society that is global, as ours is increasingly becoming, may suffer a phenomenal collapse of environments and local society everywhere because of a negative, cold approach to life.
The cold approach of science, with its unemotional view of humanity and its negative view of the environment, is giving way. An example is in Canada where there are efforts under way to rehabilitate the Native cultures that have suffered by restoring their spirituality. Native leaders and mainstream therapists are seeking to treat the Native cultural losses as form of culture-wide trauma disorder called historical trauma. It is easy to prove the hereditary passage of failures and abuse from generation to generation in nearly every society. The leap that Native thinkers and therapists have made is in understanding how their society got ripped from its natural roots, and that they hereditary abuse they are experiencing directly relates to the spiritual disconnection with nature forced on them by European colonization and immigration. They seek the redemption of their culture by restoring the connection with nature and the environment. Through this connection, they also seek to halt the widely predicted phenomenal collapses of environments and cultures worldwide. With their efforts, they show that the Native tribal approach to spirituality and psychology, which is universal for all Native peoples, is the empathic approach to nature. For them, nature, with all its component animals, trees, and reforms, acts as a mediator for humanity. When Natives are spiritually balanced, they all relate their being and feelings through nature --but not so much nature itself, but our relationship with nature, and therefore our relationship with the world.
From the constructivist point of view, tribal people practice a perfected form of community construction; their community of knowledge is built upon the most ancient information, the mapping of nature as it has evolved and how it created us.
My personal experience in society, especially in modern alternative societies and youth cultures, has been that knowledge, and especially community knowledge, cannot be built --it can only be built upon. Community can only be built with deference for those who have gone before. When there is no community to build upon because it has been destroyed, what existed before the destruction, presumably community knowledge destroyed by bulldozers, has to be restored. Just as there is no such thing and a re-evolution of life itself, there no such thing as a new community of knowledge. If the community of knowledge has been destroyed, society becomes fractured. Instead of a life of constant refinement and improvement, there is decline and destruction. Scientists adhering to the cold approach see this form of decline from destruction as evolution; most people, fortunately, see it as unnecessary decay.
Responsibility forces us to universalize our approach to nature and society; to appreciate and build upon local communities of knowledge. A culture that has relocated to a new place will very likely not expect to have to respect any community other than their own, least of all the natural community of knowledge local to where they have transported to. This disrespect is wholly immoral, and it is the unfairness caused by it that has been at the heart of the suffering of Native cultures everywhere.
About this study
When I started this study, I wanted
to extend the contsructivist concept of community by showing that there is a
"community of knowledge" in nature, that nature is both a huge repository of
information, and that all the intelligent beings out there have at least some
of this knowledge.
Instead this is what happened: I found a document from the Canadian effort to rehabilitate Native culture in the therapeutic sense. The renewed culture then should undo all the psychological damage done by colonialism. This is relevant because most Whites cannot understand what is wrong w/ the Natives; they get all this economic support but nothing happens. At the core, from the therapeutic point of view, is cultural self esteem. But from the Native point of view, what is missing is the connection with nature-- the empathic connection with the animals, the Great Spirit (God), and everything in between.
I then discovered the Midewiwin medicine society, a Native American underground movement that was formed in the 1700s to preserve Native culture, fight small pox, and provide spiritual resistance in secret to colonialism. I have always felt that there is a "good, yet invisible force" out there, but I could never prove it. Well there is one: the Midewiwn. It has been subtly affecting us all from the background through the centuries. I believe that our local natural innovative spirit, such as our development of the Internet, comes from Native culture, as does our hard driving artistic sense: rock and roll, hip-hop, blues, Jackson Pollock, etc. I believe that this culture actually worked underground to feed the Native spirit into the US culture. This idea dovetails with every other idea I have ever had.
What is most fascinating now is that the Midewiwin and the Canadian government are working to provide for the Natives precisely what the UNESCO and the African therapist who is mentioned in the NY Times Elephant article are working towards. This, in my mind, links with the project and group learning techniques for science teaching. I mention science teaching because of the fruits of the new learning skills such as "learning to learn" and the more old-fashioned "critical thinking."
The critical point by the writers from the Native cultural rehabilitation project is the human connection with nature. Also, the key Midewiwn document, the Anishabe prophecy originally written on birch bark, states that key goal of Native culture is to show the Whites (now the whole planet) that we need to live in balance with nature-- we need to make the empathic connection with nature. I believe that this can be done by moderately quickly rolling the clock backwards, working our way to the original community of knowledge, the original forests. Through technology, we can live comfortably, and scientifically with out impacting nature; Buckminster Fuller proved this in the 1950s with his Dymaxion technology. Human nature is, in my experience, a laughing nature that dissolves unhappiness. Existing structures, especially those that are unhappy by design, such as factories, become good places as humanity works its natural and empathic magic of transformation.
Obviously control structures such as the military, for instance, cannot tolerate too much happiness. So they have to keep at the process of expanding, building more structure, and strengthening the existing structure, to prevent happiness from naturally dissolving the domination of the controllers who have been in my experience unusually devoid of empathy, sympathy, and compassion.
My professor, a highly esteemed sociologist, seemed upset about the physiological proof of empathy in the mirror and spindle cells as I presented it to him; he said he has always been taught that empathy can be taught. Empathy is clearly formed in the baby with the help of the parents and other nurturing influences. I think there is a difference between altruism and empathy. People who have had no nurturing as children from their parents invariably have serious problems in life; I believe that they suffer from a lack of empathy.
Empathy involves higher thinking, but is natural and based on experiences absorbed through the senses. There is a synthetic form of empathy; it is the one we provide for the unempathic: altruism. Because empathy is natural it is un-transmutable, but altruism as a product of millenia of thinking and can be redefined to meet specific societal needs, such as the firefighter's high risk behavior of rushing into burning buildings, or a soldier's suicidal behavior of jumping on a hand grenade to save his comrades during war; altruism can redefine family love, such as in the alienating idea of "tough love." It can also be redefined to take on very negative meanings, such as a soldier's duty to kill tribal villagers: the soldiers' duty to God and country. I think this is why the naturally empathic have to spend lots of time thinking about how to get control of the political environment to set it free. Dawkins, inventor of the meme, the emotional and technical transport tool of empathy, oddly and sarcastically calls this instinctive human effort for social empathy the "all-dove conspiracy."