Sunday, October 12, 2014

Living with Empathy

A Religious Sister, the head of a Research Center and a college lecturer, writes  In View from the Ark of the Catholic Times about mirror neurons. She mentions when watching a movie or a drama we are moved by the  same emotions the  characters express: crying or laughing. Why are these emotions, she asks, transferred to us?

Giacomo Rizzolatti an Italian doctor and his team noticed that when a monkey placed a peanut in his mouth the motor neurons would react, and this would also be true if the researcher put a peanut in his own mouth, the same neurons in the monkey would respond, and these were called mirror neurons. This was discovered with electrodes placed in the brains of the monkeys. She mentions that in California, scientists in 2010 discovered that humans have the same mirror neurons.

At sport events the spectator watching the athletes can have sweaty hands, be anxious, and when the athlete receives  a medal the spectator can experience the happiness of the  athlete. This emotional transference is called the mirror neuron. True not only with joy but also when one sees or hears about someone in pain. We are affected by the pain: empathy without the intention, comes to one automatically. 

Sister mentions a talk she heard by Daniel Goleman a psychologist. He talked about an experience he had when leaving work and going down the steps to a subway. A man was lying besides the stairs, without a shirt and not moving. People where oblivious of him and walking over him on their way to the subway. Golman stopped to see what was the problem and six other people came to where Golman was standing. The man had been walking the streets without anything to eat and fell because of weakness. He knew no English, was a foreigner, and had no money.Quickly a person in the group gave him something to drink and eat, someone called the police. Within a short time he got up and started to walk.

This little act on the part of Golman drew the attention of others to express their empathy for the man. All Golman did was stop beside the man; this gesture was enough to gather people around him. Latent empathy in these people was released by the action of Golman. 

Sister mentions  a study that was made by two scientist who said for every happy person you know, happiness increases by 9 percent, and for each negative person you know there is a decrease of 7 percent. We all know from our own lives that happiness and sadness are contagious. When a person smiles at me I am uplifted, when I see a grimace I am dejected. I need to remember I am a  person able to energize the communities to which I belong.

We learn strategies for survival, living in our capitalistic society where survival of the fittest is the norm. What allows us to maintain our life is not competition but sharing what we have, having sympathy and cooperating with others. We can hope for a consensus because of the mirror neuron.

She concludes the article by reminding us when we are only concerned about ourselves, and lack the leisure to go out to others, we will become a society without empathy. Feelings for others is not something exceptional, but simply words and gestures we use daily: a word of care for another, a smile, showing sympathy. She wants us have the leisure to make this part of our life.

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