Empathy is the thing that connects us all — in some degree or another

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Photo courtesy of Mike Beiser, old friend and brother.

Everyone has heard the nostrum ‘we are all connected.’  And upon hearing such a statement, immediately gets ready for some level of spiritual statement describing that connection.  The description will likely be based on someone’s belief system — from ‘we are connected together with the spiritual energy of the universe’ to ‘the Force is with us’ to ‘we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.’

For all those statements, I have no opinion on others’ beliefs.  But when it gets down to a more brass tacks understanding of connection, we’re much more likely to think of us as complete individuals.  People believe, at some level, in connection — but it’s poorly defined.

But the reality is that we really are all connected.  We are connected as empathetic beings in both space and time, and when I make that statement, I’m not talking about some mythic level of connection.  I’m talking that our brains require connection, in a brass-tacks/reality kind of way.  Research, of course, is ongoing — but there’s some basic ways to understand this that do not require the power of faith.  And I’m ABSOLUTELY not discounting faith.

As a good scientist, I can tell you that the way we examine phenomena we want to study is with limiting cases.  What’s the limiting case for empathy, and what happens to people when they experience that limiting case?  If you’re super-connected, like at a happy Christmas dinner with all your loved ones (and bear with me — I know holiday dinners, for many people, can be stressful, and this is not a shared experience for everyone!) you’re likely to feel a larger sense of peace and well-being.  You’re connected, laughing with people that love you and whom you also love.

But what’s the opposite of that?  Solitary confinement.  You put someone in a hole, you take away all human contact, and even if you feed them, clothe them, and make sure they’re warm, they’ll lose their mind.  Many psychologists and physicians consider solitary confinement extreme torture, and the research supports this.  Our brains need connection with others in order to stay healthy and sane.  We need peoples’ comments, expressions, gestures and touch in order to keep our brains healthy.

Yes — that means you have to have a time-dependent view of connection.  We are not all connected, all of the time, at least in the obvious, physical sense.  But without some dollop of empathetic connection, we lose our minds.

What this leads to is a physical reality of how we are all connected.  And it’s not that spiritual connections don’t matter.  Far from it.  But you don’t need the metaphysical or supernatural to explain connection and our need for it.

Takeaway:  We are on a physical level some aggregate, time-dependent species, joined together physiologically with empathetic connection.  And yes, it’s complicated and doesn’t boil down to simplistic statements well.  

Further reading:  The New Yorker has a series of articles on solitary confinement.  Highly recommended.

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