Back to Basics — Empathy, Metacognition, and Managing Uncertainty

Guangzhou Jade Market

Guangzhou’s Jade Market, 2010, Guangzhou, China

Every now and then, I have an ‘Ah Hah!’ moment that makes me realize that while things may seem entirely consistent to me (or those damn squirrels in my head!) they may not seem so obvious to my readership.  There’s a famous (likely apocryphal) story about a mathematics professor teaching a graduate class.  He’s scribbling like mad on the board, and then turns to his class between steps of a proof.  He says “it’s obvious that XXX follows”, then turns and looks at the two steps.  He then exits the room, returning 20 minutes later, and says, “Yes, it’s obvious,” and then continues writing.  Another famous cartoon by Sidney Harris captures this as well:


Such was the moment I had earlier today. I was forwarded this opinion piece on the importance of art and poetry in managing uncertainty, written by Tod Marshall, the most recently named Poet Laureate of the State of Washington.  It’s really highly recommended, as it gets at the core of much of what I explain in a more systematic fashion, and that is the role of modern society in fragmenting us, as well as the importance of art in unifying our vision, increasing empathy and connection.  While I’ve emphatically maintained that education in literature and the arts alone is not enough to create empathetic individuals (years of observing sociopathy across the various disciplines at the university has convinced me of this, as well as the fact that there is no substitute for empathetic connection and its practice) there’s also no question that art and literature can expand us empathetically, once that groundwork is laid.  Or in the practice of learning together, we can be profoundly transformed in our ability to connect.

How does that work?  Lower level empathetic relational structures — those that exist mostly in the world of titles and beliefs — have a natural tendency to exclude asking questions about what else is out there.  Authoritarian structures are very bad in particular, as whenever one gets up and admits a lack of knowledge, that person suffers a loss of status.  Over time, such structures see metacognitive shrink wrapping — an inability to know what you don’t know, as well as cultivate an awareness of what is unknown out there — those ‘known unknowns’, as well as the ‘unknown unknowns’.  That loss of appropriate mystery is anathema to empathy for those different than you, and inevitably gives you angry, judgmental gods.  Before you know it, you’re sacrificing 40,000 people a year on an altar just to make sure the sun comes up every day, or burning witches at the stake.  Not very empathetic.

Higher, more developed empathetic relational structures encourage metacognition. You don’t know, but since you want to get to a goal, you can work to find out (Performance/Goal-based Thinking).  You’re going to work with a diverse group because you’re all going in the same direction.  Or you don’t know that stranger, but you can read them and figure out whether they’re friend or foe by analyzing their face, or their body language, because we’re all humans after all (Communitarian Thinking).  As you develop, you become more comfortable with the idea of knowing that you don’t know stuff, and that means you also become more comfortable with uncertainty.  The two are intrinsically paired together.

There’s deeper scaffolding involved than just that one connection.  The more empathetic you are, the broader network of people you’re able to assemble in your life.  That means you’re also able to deal with greater contingencies, because you have access to a broader knowledge base.  Uncertainty doesn’t bother as much, because you know someone who probably knows.  Your car won’t start?  You have a friend that knows what to do.  That’s gotta help your fundamental Survival and Safety needs.

You’re also able to understand the different social structures and the behaviors they generate.  That’s gotta help with overall predictability when you see behavior that is unfamiliar to you.  If something unusual pops up, you can relate it to something you’ve seen before.  That brings us back to art and literature — by placing different situations with different people in context, we can amass a greater body of shared experience than one person can in one life.

And that empathetic development also leads to a fundamental element of human development — the ability to trust others.  And not only that — you can also trust yourself.  You can only get that through development of personal agency, which then also involves the higher, more empathetic social structures that enable this kind of development.  Which then circles back around to the more- or less- empathetic.

But if you’re locked down in a fundamental incuriosity of one In-Group, you’re going to suffer.  Things unfamiliar are going to be scary.  Things uncertain are going to be threatening.  People with different, more difficult-to-read faces are going to be suspicious.

And now, hopefully, we can see that this ties back to a lack of larger empathy.  When you can’t connect, you’re gonna be alone, and your genes are going to tell you a lion is going to eat you.

So… it’s obvious.  🙂


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