When you hear the word terrorism, what picture comes to your mind?
The answer to this question may be more important than you could ever imagine in understanding the challenges with empathy in the modern world. Here are two basic reasons why your brain might be stopping you from empathising with others and what you can do about it.
Brains love association
Our brains are not simple, linearly processing databases. They are instead complex, association machines that collect and link abstract and unrelated pieces of information.
In this complex web, probably better resembling a soup, our brain makes sense of the world based on what it knows. So if I said to you, imagine a man protesting on the street, you’d have a vast range of options to try and make meaning of the situation. He may be protesting deforestation, animal cruelty, climate change, LGBTQ rites, political corruption, police violence, legalisation of abortion, mining job cuts or immigration. The list is long.
If I said it was a young white man with dreadlocks, you’d probably cut that list down pretty quickly. Of the list above, which would you eliminate?
The answer you want to give me is that you still don’t know and you need more information before ruling any options out. But deep down, you probably chose one of the first few as far more probable than the later options. This is because you have seen young white men with dreadlocks in more protests about deforestation and animal cruelty than you have about right-wing fascism.
This means your brain, making associative assumptions, will push you to believe ideas for which it has made associations. You don’t see an objective world, it is always tainted by your associative processing.
Brains are scared of the world
Your ex-partner was right… You don’t really listen. Actually, your brain is designed to ignore millions of pieces of sensory data that are being delivered to it every single second. Think about it. Each nerve attached to each hair follicle is constantly sending a signal to say your clothing is rubbing against it. Your eyes are capturing millions of bits of information from huge amounts of light flooding the eyes. Your olfactory sensory neurons are reporting on smells from particles in the air and your ears are being bombarded by constant noise.
Thankfully, for your sanity, you ignore most of it. What your brain chooses to focus on is largely determined by your safety. You are wired to scan the environment for threat. What could be dangerous? What might harm you? What threatens your very existence?
This threat focus means when you are speaking with someone, you are more likely to hear things related to your perceived threats than you are interesting facts about them. You are tuned in for any signs of them attacking your sense of self-worth, accusations, slights or dangers. Your brain is on the lookout for these… and therefor has trouble hearing the rest.
This is where empathy is impeded. A focus on threat means a lack of attention on really hearing them. This leads to a reduced ability to understand their point of view and lower abilities to truly empathise.
Being a better Brain
The good news is that you can get better. There are practices you can use to improve your ability to empathise with others and build a richer understanding of the world around you. They are Mindfulness, Active Listening & Diverse Conversations.
Research by Anna Ridderinkhof from the University of Amsterdam showed a strong increase in reported empathy from as little as five minutes of mindfulness practice. Mindfulness helps our brains to quieten the default modes in the brain which usually block, filter and associate incoming stimuli with existing beliefs.
By practising mindfulness and meditation, researchers Richie Davidson and Daniel Goleman have been able to measure changes in the brains of meditation practitioners allowing them to experience the world differently. Quietening their default modes and being more open to broader experience.
- Active Listening
I bet you did an eye roll. Everyone talks about the benefits of active listening, but so few practice it. So, let’s pull out just one little part you should implement right now to improve your empathy.
Repeat and shut up!
That’s it. When you are speaking with someone and wanting to really build empathy and understanding of them, let them speak, then repeat what they said and shut up. What you will find is this slows down the rapid association machine from taking what they have said and extrapolating it into some new area. You won’t break off onto a tangent. You won’t be able to assume and move on.
You will instead leave the control of the conversation in the hands of the other person. You showed that you listened by repeating them, conveying attention and interest, now you leave it to them to lead the conversation. This powerful technique will open a channel for empathy.
- Diverse Conversations
In a world of social media, we have never had so much opportunity to just talk to people like ourselves. We do it constantly. We have long threads of chatter about politics with people who believe what we believe. Reinforcing each other’s beliefs and feeling good about how right we all are. But these conversations are not serving us.
We need to break out of our little cliches. Sadly, when we do venture to speak with people who have different views, it is almost always to do battle. We see a conflicting view of our own as a meme or a comment and we pounce. Declaring the errors or misguided beliefs of the other. Behind keyboards and screens, we valiantly attempt to overpower the misguided fools with facts and figures. Quotes from inspirational heroes. Clever quips or blatant insults. Whatever the weapon we choose, it is war!
We need to stop.
Empathy is best built when we put down our weapons and seek instead to understand. To force our brains into the uncomfortable and sometimes threatening world of uncertainty. To suspend our own views of the way the world is and instead, wonder what it might be like for someone else.
By having more conversations with people who are nothing like you, you will be able to start the difficult process of reshaping your brain. Carving new neural networks. Looking for hidden treasures in places you long ignored.
So, speak to a stranger. Risk being the weirdo on public transport. Because by having new conversations, you might just find a new YOU.