So How Does Empathy Synchronize Time?

Jumeirah Station

Jumeirah station, Dubai, UAE

One of the more interesting thoughts that I’ve had about empathy is how it has to work to both generate and synchronize time scales in the brain.  Why?  Or rather how does that work?

If one understands that empathetic connection, at whatever level of the pyramid we’re at, is the bedrock of how the communication channel between two people (or more) works, then one starts realizing that the context of the relationship must also provide cues on how time is processed.  It is, in many ways, similar to how two computers have to be synchronized in order to talk to each other on the Internet.  There are protocols that must be followed — from external (like a meeting time) to independent sources (watching someone’s face in a round of poker.)

Except it is learned from the outside — different social structures and cultures have different senses of time.  And if you’re put inside one, you either have to adapt or be ignored.

Consider a tribal social structure.  Anyone who’s worked in these situations know the meaning of ‘Indian time.’  It can be used in a derogatory fashion.  But it is also insightful, and for someone that has worked in parallel with tribal cultures, a useful construct.

The short version is that there are two time scales in tribal societies — a long time ago, and somewhat in the present.  One can add perhaps a nature-based, animistic trigger to some of this (the Lakota had a ‘Moon of Popping Trees’ for the middle of the winter, when things were so cold the trees would literally freeze.)  A friend of mine doing work in Mongolia told me of a story once where she was told to meet someone ‘tomorrow’ — but tomorrow turned out to be a week later.  In Barry Lopez’s classic book, Arctic Dreams, he talks about walking with Inuit hunters and have them calibrate time in terms of distance, blurring the two variables.  Looking across the horizon, they would pronounce the distance in terms of some time in the future.

Other social orders have other time scales.  Survival-based social structures only have the now.  Authoritarian structures have the Now where the boss is.  Before the railroads, the clock in a town was set by high noon in the town square.  After the railroads, which required a legal hierarchy in order not just to make sure the trains ran on time, but also that they didn’t wreck into each other, the government gave us time scales.  Time is self-reinforcing along many self-similar orders.  It’s no surprise that the British Empire established Greenwich Mean Time as the time where the day starts.  That’s the advantage of having a map of your holdings that stretches around the world.

Since relationships are where we practice the vast majority of our information processing, it should come as no surprise that the various social orders affect the way we view time — or if we view time (or consequentiality) at all.  And that such repetition should beat down in our fundamental neural circuits?  Why do you think we use expressions like ‘we just didn’t click’?

Takeaways:  Empathy and social connection directly create and calibrate our brain’s notion of time, as well as our ability to think consequentially.  Reflecting on our own temporal scale will tell us how much are able to care about both the small stuff (our next dental appointment) and the big stuff (like global warming)  which will all be tied back to how we construct relationships.  Which is all about empathy.

Further reading:  neuroscience plods along, failing to account for our connectivity — but this fine scale stuff is still interesting. 

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