Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Empathetic Rats

A friend sent me a very interesting link to a report about empathy in rats. I was interested for 2 reasons--1) the question of whether animals as well as humans can feel empathy is very intriguing, and 2) I really like rats. They're one of my favorite animals.

Please check out the video on YouTube. Then consider the emotional life of rats and other animals with me.

We had a pet rat in my class of 4- and 5-year-olds for several years. His name was Squeaks, and he was the most gentle, good-natured guy you'd ever want to know. He would sit on the kids' laps and let them pet him like a cat; he would let them carry him around in their sweatshirt pockets; he would give them little rat kisses. I learned a lot about rats, studying them with the kids. Rats are highly social creatures, organized into coherent and efficient social structures in their rat societies. They're very smart, and I have to think that intelligence is a necessary component of empathy. I don't think turtles are smart enough to be able to understand something from another turtle's viewpoint; I think rats are that smart. I also think that caring for infants is another requirement for empathy. Animals--mainly mammals and birds--that care for their own young have to be able to feel compassion and to understand what their infants need--i.e. they must have empathy for their infants.

So I believe that many animals can and do feel empathy, not only for others of their own species, but also for other species sometimes (dogs and their owners will back me up on that, I'm sure!)

Of course, this raises the question of whether we humans should feel empathy for other animals, and what we should do about that. One obvious thing is that we should feel the pain of animals raised on factory farms in horrible conditions (see the movie, "Food, Inc.") Are we participating in the torture of animals when we order a hamburger at a fast food place or pick up one of those convenient, already-roasted chickens at the grocery store? I'd say yes. Taking it one step further, many vegetarians would say that our empathy for animals should prevent us from eating them at all. Where do you fall on the food continuum? My older son won't eat intelligent animals--no more calamari, no more pork--but will sometimes eat fish, or humanely-raised chickens or beef. My middle son is a vegetarian. I can no longer in good conscience order chicken or other meat in a restaurant unless they specifically say it comes from a local, sustainable, humanely-conducted family farm. I'm still thinking about the issue of eating intelligent animals.

Well, I guess we've gone a bit afield from the question of whether animals can feel empathy. Do watch the video. You'll learn that rats are nicer to each other than we humans often are!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Science of Evil book review

I said back in May that the next book I would be reading was "The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty" by Simon Baron-Cohen. It took me till mid-August to get the book from the library, because there were so many holds on it--which is good, that people are interested in this subject.

Baron-Cohen is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, and has been studying empathy for 30 years. He has concluded that there is a biological basis for empathy or the lack thereof, as well as factors in the environment that affect the development of empathy. He and his colleagues have discovered some genes related to empathy, and expect to find more. They have pinpointed areas in the brains that are activated when a person has an empathetic response (or not very activated in the brains of those low in empathy.) He talks about hormonal factors--testosterone negatively affecting empathy, and oxytocin increasing empathy. (Not surprisingly, males on average rate lower than females on empathy.)

He presents a bell of curve of empathy, with those at the lowest end being termed either "zero-negative" or "zero-positive." The zero-positives are autistic people, particularly those with Asperger Syndrome, who are unable to understand another's point of view, but who nonetheless have a moral code and understand that they must live by the rules of society. (See blog post from Nov. 20, 2009 for a discussion from a reader on the difficulty of being married to a person with Asperger Syndrome--her husband literally just did not understand her.)

It's the zero-negatives that are commonly labeled evil. They lack an ability to appreciate another person's feelings or experiences, and are totally centered on their own selves--their own needs and desires. These people probably have a lethal combination of bad genes and a bad environment, most likely having been raised in abusive homes by zero-negative parents. They include sociopaths, narcissists, and people with borderline personality disorder. Whether their zero-negative state leads them to be angry at others all the time and to lash out verbally or physically, or whether it leads them to be coldly manipulative of others, or even to murder someone, the results are always bad for both the person and those around him.

Baron-Cohen talks about evil as simply being a complete lack of empathy, and it certainly makes sense that one would not be able to commit evil acts if one felt the pain of one's victim. I don't know that being zer0-negative is the sum total explanation of evil. It doesn't seem to explain those that get pleasure from others' pain. Particularly when it comes to psychopaths, such as Eric Harris, the Columbine killer, something else must lead them to move from not caring about causing pain to others, to actively seeking to cause pain. Psychopaths, says Baron-Cohen, can intellectually understand another's viewpoint, which is why they're so good at manipulating people, but they are unable to care. But psychopaths also seem to have a great deal of contempt for anyone but themselves, regarding others as inferior and deserving of whatever they do to them. This additional step seems to be necessary to get to evil.

One of my favorite movies is Fargo, partly for its brilliant portrayal of an ordinary, evil man. The car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard (played superbly by William H. Macy) is clearly a zero-negative person. He has absolutely no empathy for the terror he is willing to put his wife through in staging her kidnapping in order to solve his financial problems. He has absolutely no empathy for his son--what a painful, moving scene when he stands in the doorway of his son's bedroom, seeing his son in so much pain over his kidnapped mother, and is unable to comfort him. At the end, he has absolutely no remorse for what he has done--just fear of the consequences for himself.

The book raises a lot of provocative questions. For example, it is often asserted that anyone is capable of committing evil acts, even murder, given the right circumstances. Is this true? People cite the famous psychological studies in which ordinary people can be induced to give painful electric shocks to strangers (or so they believe), or the experiment in which college students were randomly divided into guards and prisoners, and the guards ended up treating the prisoners (really their fellow students) cruelly. However, not everyone who participated in those studies did these bad things. Some people refused to do so, despite the experimenters' attempts to push them into it. Baron-Cohen's bell curve of empathy helps to explain this. Those in the lower to middle range, who score a one t0 a four, would be more easily induced to ignore any feelings of empathy for the other. Those at the high end, who score a five or six on the scale, would be those who would walk out or refuse to inflict pain on others, no matter what.

There is no denying that being zero-negative on the empathy scale is a necessary condition for evil. Certainly, environmental factors would have to contribute. (Often, but not always, parenting. Other factors might come into play--peers, media, and so on.)

The consideration of evil is a big topic, far to big to cover in one, or several, blog posts. But I would recommend this book as a fascinating jumping-off point. Let me just conclude with my favorite quote from the book: "Each drop of empathy waters the flower of peace."

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Teaching Empathy in College

A faithful supporter recently sent me an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which the writer asks the question: should empathy be taught to college students? The author, Richard Kahlenberg, asks: "In higher education, should colleges affirmatively seek to teach students empathy or is doing so inappropriate because it is unrelated to academic achievement and might be overtly political?"

First, I have to say I see nothing political about empathy. One would hope that politicians of every persuasion would see the pro-social value of empathy in our society. Yes, some on the far-right side of the political spectrum do not believe that values should be taught in school, but rather should be left strictly to home. Also, as the speaker to whom Mr. Kahlenberg was listening pointed out, President Obama was castigated by some Republicans for saying, when he was in the process of making his last Supreme Court appointment, that he would be looking for a justice with the trait of empathy. (See previous blog post from May 2009 for my take on this topic.) But I seriously doubt any political party would wish to call itself "anti-empathy".

There are 2 questions to be answered as to whether teaching empathy to college students is advisable: is it worthwhile, and is it possible?

Possible? Maybe, maybe not. Empathy is a human trait that I believe is built into the human brain and the human social system, and it is learned naturally just as we learn language, the social mores of our particular group, and many other things. Most humans develop empathy to a certain degree--some more, some less, and a few, not at all. (See my blog posts on March 2009 and May 2o11 for further discussion of this topic.) Mr. Kahlenberg discusses a college which is requiring its students to take part in an 8-week program in which they do things like spending a day in a wheelchair, or a night in a homeless shelter. My feeling is, this may help some young people broaden their understanding of what people less fortunate than themselves experience, so why not do it? Of course, spending one night in a homeless shelter cannot give a true, deep understanding of what it is like to be without a home--to live in uncertainty day after day, to not be able to own more than you can carry on your back or maybe store at a friend's house, to not know where you will be sleeping each night, to not have a neighborhood and the sense of belonging that comes with that... But even having a taste of the experience might open up some eyes and hearts to things the person had not understood and thought about before.

And I too am only speculating and imagining what being homeless would be like, because I have not personally experienced that. In fact, I would hope that the college would pair each "experience" with a guest speaker who could talk to the students about what their life is like and how they feel about it, and who could answer the students' questions and engage in a deep and meaningful dialogue with them.

As far as whether it is appropriate for colleges to teach empathy? Absolutely! Gaining understanding of the larger world is pretty much the mission of higher education, isn't it? Don't most English literature classes involve analyzing and trying to understand the characters' feelings and experiences? Don't sociology classes, anthropology classes, psychology classes and many other college courses expand a student's empathy and understanding of other people?

The intention of a liberal arts education is to broaden young people's understanding of the world and those who live in it. Enhancing students' empathy gives them another tool to do so.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Facebook: the face of empathy today?

I read a very inspiring article in the New York Times about a new Facebook page that is connecting young Palestinians and Israelis. It's called Facebook.com/yalaYL, the YL standing for "young leaders." This site was created by a former Israeli diplomat, and is being supported by many important people. There are welcome messages from Shimon Peres, president of Israel, and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, is very excited about this project.

According to the NewYork Times article, this site is getting many Israelis and Palestinians to talk to each other for the first time. They quote an 18-year-old Palestinian student who says, "This is my first contact with Israelis. ...I think it's cool." Another student, who got a friend request from Egypt, said, "I asked one Egyptian why he had contacted me...and he said, 'After the revolution, everything is permitted. I want to see what Israelis are like."

Clearly, Palestinians and Israelis will never be able to make true peace with each other until they can know each other--until they have empathy for where each other is coming from, and for what each other is going through. They must know each other, as individuals, and hear each other's stories and experiences, feelings and desires, to be able to come to see each other as fellow human beings, rather than enemies.

Social media just might bring the world together.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Can rich and powerful people be empathetic?

Lately, several things have added up to my asking the question in the title.

On The Daily Show this week, Jon Stewart interviewed the author Jon Ronson, who wrote The Psychopath Test. He avers that a surprising number of CEOs and powerful politicians are successful precisely because they are psychopaths. In other words, they completely lack empathy for anyone else, and thus are able to do whatever is necessary to get ahead. As Booklist says in its review of this book, "those behaviors are found in CEOs who recklessly eliminate jobs while lavishing money on themselves and their friends, as well as in murderously dangerous Mafiosi".

Tomorrow night my book club will be discussing the 2010 novel The Privileges, by Jonathon Dee. It's a brilliantly-written depiction a family--husband, wife, daughter, son--who become ultra-rich. The man is very good at his job and makes a lot of money working for a private equity firm, but he feels absolutely entitled to a life of ultimate privilege for himself and his family. So he engages in illegal insider trading, and makes an incredible fortune. The man and his wife are totally narcissistic and lacking in empathy for anyone else outside their 4-person family unit, including their own parents and siblings. They believe that their children should be denied nothing. The results are horrifying.

Meanwhile, our newspapers are filled with stories about how the rich have gotten richer during our current economic downturn. Two days ago, I read this headline in the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "Rich Spend as Everyone Else Scrimps." I have to wonder if someone who spends $5000 on one handbag, which is just plain ridiculous, can have any empathy for the other 99% of humanity.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me." Being born rich has to put you at a remove from ordinary people which would be very difficult to bridge. Does attaining great wealth do the same thing? Or do you have to feel that remove from others in the first place in order to amass a personal fortune.

Of course I am not saying that all rich people and all powerful people lack empathy. Certainly many people, like the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, go into politics precisely because they have great empathy for others, and wish to help them and make the world a better place. And I'm sure some rich people send their kids to public school and do other things to keep their children, and themselves, grounded and in touch with regular people. Prince William flies search and rescue helicopters and hangs out with his RAF crew.

But history is full of people--from the robber barons of the past to Bernie Madoff of today--who are very rich because they are sociopaths who have a talent for taking money from other people in various ways and not caring one tiny bit about those whom they have hurt.

The next book I'm going to read is The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, by Simon Baron-Cohen. If I learn anything therein that helps us know what can be done about rich and powerful sociopaths, I'll let you know.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The GIft of Sharing Pain

I have a good friend who has cancer. She was diagnosed with breast cancer last fall, had 3 surgeries, and has been undergoing a grueling series of chemo and radiation treatments that started in January and will last until the end of May. Like many others, she has a CaringBridge website that allows her to stay in touch with friends and family around the country, and keeps us updated on her condition.

This lovely person has a wonderful sense of humor, and it is beautifully on display in her journal updates. She jokes about her "day at the nuclear spa". She says, "I absolutely look like Molting Ostrich Girl, which is quite hilarious. I am collecting a wonderful assortment of ridiculous wigs and headgear, the newest one a fiery red mohawk hat."

But she has also found the strength to honestly share how hard the long battle with cancer is, and to trust that we will hang with her, that we do not need jokes all the time to make it bearable. I so much appreciate her sharing the dark side of cancer with us. I have been lucky in that, so far, we haven't had any family members diagnosed with cancer. I didn't know that when you're having weekly chemo sessions, you get one "good" day a week--the day before your next session, when you plunge down the chemo cliff again, your mind engulfed in a chemo haze and your body barely able to walk. She says, "The basic news is that it's darn tough, not a little frightening, a lot lonely, and a huge challenge across the physical, emotional and spiritual spectrums. Those aren't bad things, however. Hope springs eternal! "

It is so hard to open up and let people know the darkness you are dealing with. My friend is a very strong, vibrant person. And now she has found the strength to be dependent, to feel anger at the setbacks, to need support. As she put it so well in her most recent post: "I thank my friends for staying close to me, and for pushing me to let you help me. I deflect with humor and try to make it easy to be around me, and realize that I have a really tough time showing my vulnerability. Part of the journey to the other side is getting your rear end kicked, and learning to let a lot go!"

Monday, January 17, 2011

MILK for MLK Day

We just watched the movie "Milk" this evening, and it occurred to me afterward what an appropriate thing this was to do on this particular day. So many parallels between Martin Luther King Jr. leading the fight for racial equality and human rights, and Harvey Milk doing the same for the human rights of gay people. Both men courageously spoke up for the rights of their people; both men led demonstrations for the civil rights of their people; both men knew there was a good chance that in fighting for the rights of their oppressed people they would be assassinated by a hate-filled person--and indeed, so it happened.

Certainly, the civil rights issue of our time is the rights of gay citizens to have all the protections and rights of the rest of our citizenry, including the right to marry the person you love. In Harvey Milk's time, in the 1970's, the battle was being fought in California over Proposition 6, to force the firing of gay teachers; in 2008, the number bumped up to Prop 8, and the fight was over banning gay marriage.

The most stirring thing that Harvey Milk says in the film is his plea, in fighting against Prop 6, for every gay person to "come out", so that all California citizens could find out that they know a gay person-- their neighbor, their nephew, the guy in the office two doors down, the waitress at the local coffee shop, and yes, even their own sons and daughters. And so people would understand that to vote for Prop 6 was to vote against these friends, co-workers and family members. If this isn't an argument for the primacy of empathy, I don't know what is.

Harvey Milk was right. And I'm sure Martin Luther King Jr. would have marched arm-in-arm with him if he had lived.