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Lions Roar : November 2006
If the human brain contains a system designed to attune us to someone else’s distress and prepare us to act to help, why don’t we always help? The possible answers are manifold, enumerated by countless experiments in social psychology. But the simplest an- swer may be that modern life militates against it: we largely relate to those in need at a distance. That separation means we experience “cognitive” empathy rather than the immediacy of direct emotional contagion. Or worse, we have mere sympathy, where we feel sorry for the person but do not taste their distress in the least. This more removed relationship weakens the innate impulse to help. As neuroscientist Stephanie Preston and biologist Frans de Waal note, “In today’s era of e-mail, commuting, frequent moves, and bedroom communities, the scales are increasingly tipped against the automatic and accurate perception of others’ emotional state, without which empathy is impossible.” Modern-day social and virtual distances have created an anomaly in human living, though one we now take to be the norm. This separation mutes empathy, absent which altruism falters. The argument has long been made that we humans are by na- ture compassionate and empathic despite the occasional streak of meanness, but torrents of bad news through history have contra- dicted that claim, and little sound science has backed it. But try this thought experiment: Imagine the number of opportunities people around the world today might have to commit an antisocial act, from rape or murder to simple rudeness and dishonesty. Make that number the bottom of a fraction. Now for the top value, put the number of such antisocial acts that will actually occur today. That ratio of potential to enacted meanness holds at close to zero any day of the year, and if for the top value you put the number of benevolent acts performed in a given day, the ra- tio of kindness to cruelty will be always be positive. (The news, however, comes to us as though that ratio was reversed.) Harvard’s Jerome Kagan proposes this mental exercise to make a simple point about human nature: the sum total of goodness vastly outweighs that of meanness. “Although hu- mans inherit a biological bias that permits them to feel anger, jealousy, selfishness, and envy and to be rude, aggressive, or violent,” Kagan notes, “they inherit an even stronger biologi- cal bias for kindness, compassion, cooperation, love, and nur- ture—especially toward those in need.” This built-in ethical sense, he adds, “is a biological feature of our species.” With the discovery that our neural wiring tips toward putting empathy in the service of compassion, neuroscience hands philosophy a mechanism for explaining the ubiquity of the altruistic im- pulse. Instead of trying to explain away selfless acts, philoso- phers might contemplate the conundrum of the innumerable times that cruel acts are absent. ♦ From Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, by Daniel Goleman. © 2006 by Daniel Goleman. Published by arrangement with The Ban- tam Dell Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. The Instinct for Altruism Brain-science writer DANIEL GOLEMAN describes how we are hardwired for kindness—and why that impulse is sometimes short-circuited. RICHARD GERE: In your book, you offer examples of peo- ple who have been tormented and yet attain real freedom. MATTHIEU RICARD: One testimony that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has often told us about is from a monk who had been through an incredible ordeal in Tibet—imprisoned for twenty years, tortured, subjected to electric shock. He even- tually made his way to Dharamsala in India and saw His Ho- liness, who asked him, “Did you have fear at some point?” And the monk replied, “Yes, I had one, the fear of deeply hat- ing my torturer, because then I probably would have been destroyed and not have survived.” The real destruction comes not from the outside but from the mental toxins. If you rid yourself of them, you have a wonderful inner freedom and strength, to which you can always relate. That depth gives you the resources to deal with whatever comes your way. When we have that depth, it is like the entire ocean. When we don’t, it’s like the waves near the shore: one moment you are surfing, happy and triumphant, and the next moment you are hitting the rocks and suffering miserably. SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2006 73 ➢ page 117