I remember my first trip outside of the United States when I was just 17 years old and the overwhelming excitement I felt about heading to Southeast Asia, which included a stop in Nepal. I spent countless hours reading about Nepal and its interesting yet confusing culture. But it was not until I set foot in the country that I felt the most intense and powerful emotions I had ever experienced. On literally my first day in the country, our small group set out to tour a Hindu temple near one of the most "sacred" rivers in Kathmandu.
As our group approached the temple, I remember seeing a woman out of the corner of my eye digging through garbage in the street. With one hand she desperately dug to salvage something to eat from the pile of trash in the street and with the other hand she held a young baby, probably not older than 14 months of age. Not only had I never seen such deplorable conditions, I had never been exposed to such desperate conditions in which a mother could not even feed herself, let alone her helpless baby. My heart flooded with guilt, sadness and rage all at the same time. I did not know what to think at that moment as my mind succumbed to the pangs emanating from the pit of my heart. That moment changed my life forever. I had never seen such poverty nor experienced such desperation.
I have learned a lot since my time in Nepal. I am no longer naive enough to think that the world is a fair place nor do I think that all people have a "fair" shot at life. If anything, I have become somewhat hardened by such experiences. Not only am I regularly inundated with horrible circumstances when I read the national news, but I have also seen so many unfortunate situations that it has almost become an expectation.
From stories about ISIS absolutely massacring people just because of their religious convictions to innocent Palestinians being killed in the crossfire between Israel and Hamas, I can't help but feel somewhat jaded. Murder is almost normal. Children dying is almost normal. War is certainly normal. Poverty and disease are normal. And, unfortunately, tragic situations have become the unwelcome norm. Its not that these events occur more often, we are just simply exposed to more. My heart can't help but become somewhat numb. I find myself often longing for the days of being a young, positive, naive person. It felt much better. My mind tells me its all normal and expected as my heart bleeds dry. Am I alone?
What is empathy?
Empathy is arguably one of the most important human emotions; it is pivotal to a healthy human experience. Empathy "is the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of others. It goes beyond sympathy, which is a feeling of care and understanding for the suffering of others. Both words have similar usage but differ in their emotional meaning."
Why is empathy important?
Research has shown empathy helps create the ability for human beings to connect with another in a way that is almost surreal. The development of empathy is very much tied to attachment and the role of Oxytocin, in creating that bond, is absolutely essential. Oxytocin helps the brain create neuronal connections that facilitate the bonding experience. What does this mean for the average person?
The ability to experience and appreciate empathy directly correlates with the "attachment" experience and allows one's Limbic System to not only think about situations that should invoke a sense of empathy, but allows one to FEEL such experiences. Logic is great but logic is even better when coupled with ability to experience the corresponding emotion. A healthy Limbic System, although more complicated that I am claiming, can enable one to vicariously experience someone else's circumstances.
The Limbic System is often viewed as the 'emotional processing center' in the brain. It can work very poorly without the executive functions of the cortex, but is essential to the human experience. The Limbic System without such executive functions can force one to become extremely impulsive and act upon any emotion experienced. The cortex allows human beings to process the emotion and override the initial impulses as more information is processed. The Limbic System allows us to love, to hate, to feel pleasure, to feel pain, and ultimately to feel life. But feelings can get old, really fast.
Are people less empathic today?
A study on empathy indicates college students may be less empathic today than they were twenty years go. A meta-analysis on empathy research reveals "the average level of "empathic concern," meaning people's feelings of sympathy for the misfortunes of others, declined by 48 percent between 1979 and 2009; the average level of "perspective taking," people's tendencies to imagine others' points of view, declined by 34 percent over the same period. There was a particularly steep decline between 2000 and 2009."
The research further indicates "today's students are generally less likely to describe themselves as "soft-hearted" or to have "tender, concerned feelings" for others. They are more likely, meanwhile, to admit that "other people's misfortunes" usually don't disturb them. In other words, they might be constantly aware of their friends' whereabouts, but all that connectedness doesn't seem to be translating to genuine concern for the world and one another."
It should be noted that some researchers have expressed some concern over the relatively small sample size (72 studies over three decades) but the information is concerning nonetheless and the sample size is adequate.
Why are people less empathic?
Sara Konrath, assistant professor at The Institute of Social Research at The University of Michigan, has conducted research that indicates narcissism has been increasing over the last 30 years in American culture. Narcissism is characterized, in the clinical sense of the term, by an inflated self image, egocentrism, a lack of empathy, and a blatant disregard for the feelings of others. Konrath claims the rise in narcissism may be due to the advent of technology in which people are constantly posting selfies, speaking their mind (unfiltered), and quick access to the digital world may lend to such narcissistic tendencies.
Although Konrath has conducted some great research on the topic and shares some cogent thoughts on the matter, I think the issues run far deeper. The information age is amazing in that it allows an unbelievable access to information instantly, but it is equally concerning in that it also allows for people to be constantly inundated with information they are unable to efficiently process. Constantly reading about horrible situations, murders, war, disease, and other misfortunes lends to information overload. And ultimately empathy or emotion overload. It is impossible for any human being to care about every situation they read about. And greater exposure to such misfortunes forces the brain to adapt and become "numb" in order to protect itself. Too much empathy can be debilitative and may actually cause mental health issues. I am sure you have heard of the phrase, "I care too much." We can only care about so much at any given time.
Do we have to be less empathic?
Although it is impossible to equally care and empathize with every situation, it does not mean we have to become jaded and narcissistic. It takes a great deal of effort, dedication, and commitment to avoid such a pitfall. Next time you stare at someone more unfortunate than you, don't try to rationalize the problem - let your heart empathize. Don't fight the urges of the limbic system. It is human to feel. It is right to feel. It is essential to the human experience to feel. We don't have to be less empathic today than people were twenty years ago. I am still learning a lot from that day I spent in Nepal. I have found I can still be that positive, young person I was. It just takes more effort and thought. Don't let your heart bleed dry, let your heart encourage you to action and take time to reflect on the wonderful things this world does offer.
Image credit: Kevin Carter