I hate conformists, and there are millions who think just like me. [Drum roll, cymbal crash] I’m considering becoming a mind reader. What do you think?
The ability to connect with and think like someone else appears to be a dying art. Maybe it’s down to the disconnect from the physical world demanded by our digital identities and social media which, lest we forget, was invented by geeks keen to answer the needs of their introverted, some might say slightly autistic, outlook on the world. Or possibly it is due to the increasingly infantilised kidult lifestyles of the economically successful, possibly decadent, developed nations – let’s face it, there’s barely a field in England which isn’t hosting a balloons and jelly style ‘Festival’ of some sort this summer. And I’m not decrying having fun in life but nowadays, to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ is more likely to be the result of a successful mugging than a profound understanding of how others feel and think.
For many scientists, the complex and deep insights that empathy can bring, or in the language of Facebook: “sharing ‘Likes’”, might just be one of the most important things that makes us human.
Autism expert Simon Baron Cohen found his work with those who struggled to empathise leading to the question of evil. In his The Science of Evil he argues that ‘evil’ is ‘empathy erosion’ and that, as empathy diminishes, we become monsters. His case in point being the emotional disconnect that happened in 1930s Germany. “When our empathy is switched off, we are solely in the ‘I’ mode.” He writes, “In such a state we relate only to things or to people as if they were just things.”
However, lacking empathy may also be a key to success. The Nazis, in Germany and Austria, were highly successful; feared and respected. It was only when they tried to take over other countries physically rather than politically or ideologically that they ran into trouble. Nice to see that they’re not making that mistake again.
In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell outlines the characteristics of outstandingly successful people including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Robert Oppenheimer, completely ignoring one key unifying factor, they were all utterly ruthless and lacked empathy in varying degrees.
So maybe empathy holds us back from success. Unlike the ‘outliers’, our in-built feeling for other people might be what makes us the drones in life rather than the queens.
But for most of us, the ability to understand who we’re talking to, to feel as they do, to reach out and take part, is what makes us human and, if it ‘erodes’, we feel less connected, less a part of the world, possibly more bitter and willing to strike out at it.
As a writer I try to think like my characters and, more importantly, my readers. What’s interesting, what’s funny, how does this feel? Big businesses, which have grown away from their customers, pour money into focus groups trying to understand them while their digital marketers ape chummy chat in their Twitter feeds. “Have you tried to reset the router ting fam, so mans can use the wifi and dat?” tweeted O2 in an attempt to be ‘down with the gang’ in a trend now known as ‘Wackaging’. It fools precisely no one.
Now a drug called Tolcapone, has been developed at the University of California which, apparently, creates compassion. Changing the chemical balance in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, it releases the pleasure chemical dopamine when you act compassionately. Tests on subjects asked to share money showed that those on Tolcapone were more likely to share out equally.
Scientist argue that prisoners could be given this in a Clockwork Orange style chemical reform. But what if empathy, this uniquely human aspect, is actually holding us back? Maybe our brave new world is one where the betas work together empathetically while the empathy free alphas control. It’s a terrible irony that, free from empathy, the monsters, dictators and caliphs, have shown to be able to be so very effective in human social groupings.
Is empathy good? Or the real opiate for the masses? I don’t think you know.
Next week I explore why www.bipolar.com has gone down. Oh hang on, it’s up again.
First published in