How do you feel, Homo Empathicus?

Jun 09 2010

An obscure laboratory experiment in 1958, set the scene for a new awakening in consciousness for mankind. Harry Harlow showed that infant monkeys preferred to nestle up to a soft cloth surrogate mother model, rather than a wire mesh lactating mode.  Certainly man cannot live by milk alone, he concluded.

Today, with modern child rearing emphasizing empathy and affection in the rearing of children, it’s easy to forget that things were not always like that.  Motherly love was strangely absent from Freud’s rather cold assessment of human nature. Society’s main purpose, in Freud’s view, was to restrain the sexual monster that resided with each of us.   Love was certainly a stranger to Oliver Twist in his Dickensian story of child labor (and the same is sadly still true in many of the less developed countries of the World).

In 1960, psychiatrist John Bowlby articulated his ground breaking Attachment theory. Perhaps intuitively obvious now, at the time it rattled the psychoanalytical community, and laid rest to some of Freud’s views on human nature.  Bowlby said “when born a baby can hardly tell one person from another. Yet by his first birthday he is becoming a connoisseur of people”. Increasingly psychologists awakened to the view of our species as an affectionate, highly social animal that craves companionship, and is biologically predisposed to express empathy to other human beings.

In the early 1990s, Giacomo Rizzolatti showed that the brains of macaque monkeys not only lit up when they grabbed a peanut, but the same areas lit up when they saw one of the researchers grab one. Soon neural imaging studies were showing up many more of these so called ‘mirror neurons’ in human brains. Mirror neurons were the direct biological evidence of our ability to absorb cultures, with each generation teaching the next by social sharing, imitation and observation.  Gordon Gecko type 80s financiers’ avocation of survival of the fittest and that “greed is good”, was thankfully on shaky biological ground.

Descartes with his famous quote, “I think therefore I am” originally ushered in the cold age of reason, steam engines and mastery over nature and emotion.  This century however it increasingly gave way to a reappraisal of this cold form of rationality. Philosopher in Mikhail Bakhtin, said instead, “To be means to communicate..to be means to be for another, and through the other, for oneself”.  Increasingly objective cold truth started to give way to a new view of reality. Understanding reality comes from not scientific detachment but experience, immersion, and deep empathy of others.

For most of human existence people lived as foragers, living off the land in small social communities. As we built civilizations our ability to domesticate plants, animals and ourselves grew.  We developed writing, and then printing. Religion from Moses to Luther benefited much from the power of the word in spreading religious consciousness.  But whilst God apparently wanted us to squash and tether our earthly desires, the onset of modernity and new thinking in science gave us a new appreciation of the self. Being of good character and stiff upper lip, gave way to a more subtle understanding of the individual in each of us. Psychological consciousness, which has given us self help groups and a burgeoning psychological literacy, and thankfully started to free our ‘selfs’ from the yoke of God. By the time 1960s had arrived we were learning to celebrate (perhaps too much in some cases) the diversity in mankind.

Finally we come to the modern era, where never before has the World been so connected. The Internet has become indispensable in the lives of many, especially the young.  In 1997, two and half billion people in 190 countries watched the funeral of Princess Diana. They identified with her, they had followed her life and they empathized for her two sons.  In 2007, there was a key tipping point in human history, for the first time, a majority of human beings lived in urban areas.  The tide of international migration continues to rise. In many more cosmopolitan countries and cities the proportion of interfaith or inter-race marriages has reached mainstream proportions. One quarter of the human race, 1.5 billion people, now speak a common language, English.  Increased connection is fostering increased self expression,  empathic bonds with and tolerance of others,  and even with our fellow species.

With the growth in social networks like MySpace the small word theory that only six degrees of separation exist between any two strangers on the planet is becoming almost evident to all of us. Education networks like Wikipedia and business networks like Linux are demonstrating very tangibly the value in collaboration over competition.  We are beginning to live in a World of peer to peer sharing and distributed knowledge. Hoarding information and knowledge looks like an increasingly old economic paradigm, as we start to appreciate more the ‘wisdom of crowds”.

Of course in many markets the scrabble for material wealth still exists among consumers, and who can blame them. But even in markets like China, the striving for status is becoming rapidly tempered by the need for balance and quality of life.  In our own companies the lack of empathy on occasions is still surprising.  Un-enlighted business leaders still fixate on command and conquer management models. And yet, it palpably doesn’t work.  We are consuming more energy in senseless unnecessary ways.  A new democratization of wealth and resource is long overdue.  Many are already striving for simplicity, urging restraint.  The age of empathy maybe our last chance to bring mankind together and manage the burgeoning energy bill we are leaving on this planet.

Reference: The Empathic Civilization – The Race to Global Consciousness in a World Crisis – Jeremy Rifkin

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