What’s happened to our empathy?

Empathy crops up quite often these days in public debates. RSA chair Matthew Taylor included it as central to his idea of  “21st Century Enlightenment”


and Jeremy Rifkin produced an enormous tome called “The Empathic Civilisation” where he argues that empathy interacts with economics throughout history and, if we’re lucky, we’ll avoid global meltdown through increased empathy…

Last Sunday, Joan Bakewell, in a radio talk  (text on BBC Magazine website)* used empathy, contrasted with sympathy, to ponder on the contrast between increased “public tearfulness” and our hardening attitudes to the plight of other people, why people get so involved with dramatic suffering on Coronation Street or in King Lear but seem to want to keep their distance from the real suffering of actual people. She points the finger at our individualist culture, with its outgrowth of celebrity culture, as separating us from others: “Given the isolating nature of this culture of narcissism, how are we to recover the empathy for others that we now only feel at the soap opera or great Shakespearean drama?”

What is intriguing me is that neuroscientists have shown, with brain imaging, that empathy is automatic. When we see someone suffering (or being happy), we cannot help but feel some similar emotion (those mirror neurons again!). If that automatic empathy doesn’t come through into altruistic or helpful actions and attitudes, there must be a lot of inhibiting of empathy going on. What are we doing that so successfully stops empathy? Now there’s a question I may be able to find some answers to in my data!

* http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00wlj74/A_Point_of_View_A_Time_for_Empathy/


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