Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Empathic Society

According to recent scientific research, human brains are wired for empathy. When humans, chimpanzees, and some other mammalian life watch another animal’s express emotion, the brains of both creatures exhibit the same neurological activity. This is called “neuron mirroring,” and it indicates that humans evolved to feel empathy for other creatures. It is for this reason that author Jeremy Rifkin states we are actually “softwired” not for aggression, violence, self-interest, utilitarianism, but for sociability, attachment, affection, companionship, and belonging – the empathic drive. He suggests that this drive “when repressed by our parents, education, business, and government” leads to the narcissism, materialism, violence, and aggression that we all know too well. [Entry continued below.]
[If you have ten minutes and forty seconds to spare, treat yourself to Jeremy Rifkin’s lecture and the wonderful animation that accompanies it.]

One of the most intriguing ideas presented in Rifkin’s work is the historical extension of family groups of blood ties to the theological and national level. Naturally, as someone working for the betterment of the world, he presents the possibility of the extension to all humans and to all life with the acknowledgment that Earth is our home. This is a wonderful idea, but how are we going to bring that about?

We must start by remembering that each of us is a biological species in a community of biological species. Humans (or at least civilized humans) have the tendency to think of themselves as above other species and above nature. We are and have always been a part of nature, the Earth, and the cosmos at large. Reject speciesism – “the widespread discrimination that is practiced by man against other species”. Instead, embrace the principle of Deep Ecology that every life-form has inherent value. Then work to shift the consciousness of every person you can to this new awareness by creating art, giving lectures, writing and blogging, writing on bathroom mirrors, biking across the country, pasting signs, spray painting walls, megaphoning in the street, and simply talking to everyone you can. I’m sure there are more –and better– ways to bring about this shift in awareness, but as always, it is up to each of us to do what we do best.
[What do you think are the most effective ways to bring about the empathic society? Please comment below.]


  1. Sabbā disā anuparigamma cetasā,
    Nevajjhagā piyataramattanā kvaci;
    Evaṃ piyo puthu attā paresaṃ,
    Tasmā na hiṃse paramattakāmoti.

    Going around all the directions in imagination
    [Something] more dear than one's self, is nowhere found
    The self of other individuals is similarly dear
    Therefore don't harm another self that is loved.

    (Rāja Sutta. Ud 5.1 (PTS: Ud 47); and SN 3.8 (PTS: i.75) - the two texts are identical. This is my translation, and my commentary is here: None Dearer Than Myself. Text also translated by Bhikkhu Thanissaro at Access to Insight; and Bhikkhu Bodhi. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. p.170-171.)

  2. Very interesting animation and message. The extension of empathy to all living things is something that resonates deeply with me. I find this explanation of how empathy, and specifically neuron mirroring, comes about as being rather materialist, but that is unimportant when taken in the context of the general message.

    Here is my take on empathic resonance -- I use that word resonance carefully. Consciousness exists in a state of constant entanglement. Subconsciously, our consciousness is cosmic in nature and entangled with all the other cosmic consciousnesses that we encounter. When we associate with another consciousness, for instance by observation, that degree of entanglement increases.

    When consciousnesses are highly entangled, they subconsciously share a thought stream. This causes thoughts to be represented physically in each consciousness.

    Feelings are thoughts. They are intuitive thoughts. Everything we experience evokes an intuitive feeling. Buddhism teaches that feelings are the root of thought. Furthermore, intuition is a product of the subconscious. Thus feelings, being intuitive thoughts, bubble up from the subconscious rather unabated.

    So what I'm saying is that it is not at all unusual to me that entangled consciousness produces mirrored feelings between individuals, and not at all unusual to me that these mirrored feelings -- being intuitive thoughts -- cause a similar physical representation in the brains of subjects.

  3. One meditation practice that I do every day is to willfully entangle, or resonate, or associate my consciousness with all other consciousnesses in the Universe. This has the very real effect of generating compassion, vis a vis empathy, for all living things. This can be done through concentration.

  4. It seems to me that just because they found the corresponding place in the brain to the feeling of empathy, it doesn't mean that we are "softwired" to empathy any more than to aggression. Especially seeing that there are different levels of operation in different individuals. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron#Empathy)

    Scientists have also found genes that are related to aggression, does that mean we are "softwired" in one direction or the other? Perhaps it is a personal thing, some people more disposed to aggression and some to empathy. Or perhaps we have "free will" (using term very freely) and can be moved towards empathy as well as aggression.

    btw, he misrepresents the whole Adam and Eve thing a little. For instance, he doesn't mention that the male lived between 50,000-80,000 years after the female.
    Read more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitochondrial_Eve

    But altogether, I guess his message is a positive one and worth embracing (though not a new one), but it definitely doesn't need all the "science" to push it forward.

  5. nice stuff. Thanks for posting

  6. i was moved by this.its rejuevanting to know there are openminded thinkers and dreamers still out there in this world today.i myself am one and i actually just finished writing a paper about a hope for humanity and how our society and technology has corrupted our minds into becomin spoiled,unappreciate people.but then when u mentioned the perks of technology of reading the levels of our empathetic consciousness overtime,drew me alot of interest.i dont think technology is bad if it used for good.anyway im a starving writer and thinker and i enjoyed your video.fb me!