Sunday, October 26, 2014

Monkey See Monkey Do

According to Jeremy Rifkin we are an empathetic generation. Empathy, that ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is essentially human mimicry. The question is whether or not this ability or superpower is all it's cracked up to be. 

It is commonly known that if you wish to be successful you should surround yourself with successful people. It is also commonly known that if you can fall into the "wrong" crowd, such as in high school, instead of thriving on the experience of learning and expanding your mind, you could end up smoking and ditching class. 

So, why is it that we are such an empathic civilization? And if we're so empathetic, why are some people still going around committing crimes against humanity? Perhaps it is because they are mimicking the "wrong" behavior. 

Empathetic mimicry brings beings together. If you are a cute puppy dog and you run into an even cuter little Bambi, then softness of manner is the behavior that denotes empathy. After all, little Bambi is frail and barely standing on her own two legs. Empathic mimicry instinctively tells us that we must pull forth tenderness from our being with which to greet our newfound friend. 

But what about morning sickness? Is sharing your wife's morning sickness, despite being highly empathetic, really the best thing for the soon-to-be dad (whose time might be better served being healthy so that he can take care of his pregnant wife)? 

In this respect, it could be argued that not all empathetic behavior is good for us. If a hungry cat decides to befriend a little mouse, to treat the mouse as he would like to be treated, he would go hungry (in the wild).

So, when does empathy promote the common good and when is it perilous to be empathic? 


  1. When you're a surgeon performing an operation 
  2. When you're driving a car and your toddler falls asleep in the back
  3. When all your friends jump off a bridge
*contains expletive

It is probably in our best interest not to repeat behavior that does not result in a favorable outcome for others or ourselves. But how do we stop being empathetic if we're an empathetic civilization? 

Not all cats go hungry in the wild. Irrespective of whether or not a bird saves a mouse from an eagle (above), some animals treat other creatures as treats rather than empathizing with their plight and sharing their kibble. 

Maybe the answer lies in the word itself. After all, empathy doesn't really exist. Empathy might have found its way into the dictionary, but empathy is actually a misunderstanding of the word sympathy. Sympathy comes from the Greek sympatheia, which, when translated, means "experiencing or suffering (in the sense of together or at the same time)." Sympathy describes all forms of feeling and understanding the pain of others

Empathy was actually introduced into the English language in the twentieth century by E.B. Titchener (1867-1927) as a translation for the German word Einfühlung

In German aesthetics and psychology, Einfühlung describes how people PROJECT their feelings into an inanimate object (in the process giving it a certain life and dignity). So, that is what empathy SHOULD mean to folks. But because empathy sounds so much like sympathy and both words involve the projection of emotion, people use the words synonymously. 

Empathy involves "harmony" or "conformity of feelings." We have empathy when we share our friend's disappointment when they do not receive that promotion they were hoping to receive. Here we can imagine or replicate the feeling inside ourselves or put ourselves "into their shoes" and imagine what it might feel like if it were us not getting the promotion. For most people, empathy is when we imagine ourselves in someone else's shoes. 

The idea of empathy as resonance comes from David Hume (1711-1776) accounting for our interactions with other people. As Hume described it, empathy can be an unconscious transfer of emotion from one person to another. 

The minds of all men are similar in their feelings and operations, nor can anyone be actuated by any affection, of which all others are not, in some degree, susceptible. As in strings equally wound up, the motion of one communicates itself to the rest; so all the affections readily pass from one person to another, and beget corresponding movements in every human creature. 

According to Hume, empathy is becoming infected with the emotions of others. Rather than being spread like a germ, empathy is spread by empathetic mimicry. 

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Essentially human beings unwittingly mimic the behavior of others, things such as fidgeting, agitation, excitement, passion, and so forth. So basically, if I smile, others smile with me. 

Due to our similarity in construction, we are wired to relate to others. But what about those moments when someone is feeling devastated or otherwise distraught? Do we really want to relate to their feelings? Do we want to feel them ourselves?

Monkey See, Monkey Do is essentially human duplication. What was it that Hume said again? 

When any affection is infused by sympathy, it is at first known only be its effects, and by those external signs in countenance and conversation, which convey an idea of it. This idea is presently converted into an impression, and acquires such a degree of force and vivacity, as to become the very passion itself, and produce an equal emotion, as any original affection. 

Way to go, Hume! Talk about hit the nail on the head (unless doing so would hurt the nail, in which case I'm certain that an empathetic hammer might reconsider). 

A Hammer With a Heart

After all these interesting insights, Hume leaves us with the notion that sympathy is "nothing but the conversion of an idea into an impression by the force of imagination." 

When someone else feels something that reminds of us something we've felt before, we are more inclined to be sympathetic. The memory (an idea) of it happening to us produces a vivid sensation (an impression) via the imagination. 

Neuroscience has taught us that neural activity and brain structure can be mimicked from one person to the next person very easily. 

If a monkey rips a piece of paper, the same areas of their brains are active when they see or hear someone ripping paper. These so-called mirror neurons are thought to bridge the gap between knowing what something is like for me and knowing what something is like for you. 

Many of the same neurons are active when you imagine an experience that someone else is having. Thus, empathy, even as Hume described it, would literally consist of replicating the brain structure and activity of the person with whom you're empathizing. 

Monkey See, Monkey Do reminds us that we should pay close attention to what we allow ourselves to imagine, to the emotions and behaviors of others that we pull in as our own, and to the thoughts - in our own minds - that can lift or otherwise hijack our so-called rational mind away from its regularly scheduled processing line-up. 

Having the power to replicate the brain structures of other human beings makes some philosophers wonder if we can replicate other structures in our minds. If other human beings are processed as objects by the human mind, then by contrast we could hypothetically mimic all sorts of structures given the plasticity of the material from which we are organically structured. 

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