January 2, 2017 § 6 Comments
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” ~Audre Lorde
A great many New Year’s resolutions revolve around exercising self-discipline, which may in the moment yield less pleasure, but will create a better outcome in the future.
Recent research reveals that the part of the brain responsible for self-control is the same area that allows us to feel empathy.
The human brain perceives the future self as if it were a stranger.
Tests reveal that when we think about ourselves in the present, parts of our prefrontal cortex light up that remain dim when we think about a stranger—or try to imagine our future self.
“Empathy depends on your ability to overcome your own perspective, appreciate someone else’s point of view, and step into their shoes,” remarks science writer Ed Yong.
“Self-control is essentially the same skill, except that those other shoes belong to your future self—a removed and hypothetical entity who might as well be a different person.” (“Self-Control Is Just Empathy For Your Future Self.”)
In the early 20th century, German philosopher, Robert Vischer, adapted the word to create the German term Einfühlung—literally “feeling into”—which was then translated into English as empathy, defined as “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference.”
Research has uncovered the existence of “mirror neurons,” which react to emotions expressed by others and then reproduce them.
This is why we get caught up in the emotion of art & performance, as well as the reason we feel a twinge of discomfort when we witness someone else experiencing pain.
Some people—a case notably examined on the podcast “Invisibilia”-–have an overactive level of empathy, known as mirror-touch synesthesia, wherein they experience a debilitating level of physical empathy for any reaction witnessed in others.
“The capacity for empathy seems to be innate,”relates Jane E. Brodey, “and is evident even in other species — the adult elephant that tried to rescue a baby rhino stuck in the mud despite being charged by its mother, as recounted in “When Elephants Weep.”(“Empathy is Natural, But Nurturing it Helps.”)
Empathy is a skill that can be learned & developed. The more we practice imagining what it feels like to be in another person’s circumstance, the better we become at doing it—and at giving our future self gifts, not grief.
“Think of [it] as a kind of temporal selflessness,” notes Ed Yong. “It’s Present You taking a hit to help out Future You.”
But for all the buzz empathy is getting these days, it’s possible that its sister state, compassion, is the more constructive practice to cultivate.
Buddhist Monk & French writer, Matthieu Ricard-–known as “world’s happiest man”—reflects that while empathy can lead to emotional burnout, the mood of compassion for another being is nourishing, energizing & empowering.
The French monk details:
“The cerebral networks activated by meditation on compassion were very different from those linked to empathy. In the previous studies, people who were not trained in meditation observed a person who was seated near the scanner and received painful electric shocks in the hand. These researchers noted that a part of the brain associated with pain is activated in subjects who observe someone suffering. They suffer when they see another’s suffering.
“When I engaged in meditation on altruistic love and compassion, [the researchers] noted that the network linked to negative emotions and distress was not activated, while certain cerebral areas traditionally associated with positive emotions, with the feeling of affiliation and maternal love, for instance, were.” (From Matthieu Ricard’s book, “Altrusim: The Power of Compassion To Change Yourself & The World.”)
Empathy fatigue can breed avoidance of the distressing emotions that can accompany resonating with another’s pain, but cultivating a focus on compassion is affirming & fortifying.
“When altruistic love encounters suffering it manifests as compassion,” Ricard tells us. “This transformation is triggered by empathy, which alerts us to the fact that the other is suffering. One may say that when altruistic love passes through the prism of empathy, it becomes compassion.”
French psychologist Christophe Andre writes, “We need the gentleness and the strength of compassion. The more lucid we are about the world, the more we accept seeing it as it really is, the easier it is to accept that we cannot face all the suffering that is encountered in the course of our lives unless we have this strength and this gentleness.”
We can apply this same philosophy to those “strangers” of our future selves.