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The resurgence of empathy

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Are we naturally empathetic? Recent history tells us that empathy has played a role, but that it has been clearly dominated by characteristics such as self- interest and utilitarianism. This due to the fact that some of the most powerful ideas, coming from great minds such as Smith, Hobbes and Freud, were founded on the belief that it is our nature to be self-interested. These ideas took flight and eventually helped to mould and shape the materialistic western culture that we see today. But what if they were wrong?

Neuroscience has advanced rapidly in the last few decades thanks to the growth and development of technology. It has helped us to construct exciting new theories as well as adjust and redefine old ones. One of the great neurological discoveries relating to empathy actually came by the way of serendipity. Here’s what happened.

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Scientists were doing MRI tests on a young monkey with the intention to find out which areas of the brain light up when the monkey cracks open a nut it wants to eat. Near the end of the testing, a co-worker walked into the lab and casually grabbed and opened one of the nutshells in front of the monkey’s eyes. The MRI scanner was fortunately still scanning and thus able to show that the same area of the brain lit up compared to when the monkey was physically opening the nutshells.

This lead to similar experiments on humans and other animals with the results all pointing to the same conclusion, that we are soft wired with mirror neurons that enable us to experience anothers plight as if we were experiencing it ourselves, thus when we see someone in pain we imagine their pain and so experience it to an extent.

It is therefore in our nature to be empathetic. It is the reason we were so successful as a species in our early years and thus why we are around to dominate today. As Roman Krznaric describes it, empathy is the invisible force that holds society together. We learnt very early on, the benefits of keeping each other around.

Yet for some unfortunate reason scientists, philosophers and psychologists had it in their heads that we are selfish, self-interested creatures, who naturally put themselves ahead of others. These ideas helped create the need for individual identity and an egotistic, materialistic lifestyle. We were taught that individual achievement is the way forward, and that one should aspire to be successful on their own accord. Yet you hear so many people say that it doesn’t work, that something is missing. It is because people put an aggressive, individualistic lifestyle filled with narcissism and materialism ahead of a more social lifestyle filled with empathy and compassion. We foolishly go against some of our most instinctual characteristics in order to fulfil preconceptions based on the ideas of thinkers who had but a fragment of the knowledge and understanding we have today.

We need to understand that our deepest drive is to belong, to be a part of the goings on within society. Empathy and compassion help to satisfy this drive well something like self-interest inhibits it.

Empathy is also incredibly beneficial in that it broadens your perspective and therefore your understanding of the culture that surrounds you, society and the world in general. Give it a try.

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