Where is the Collective Humanity of our Leaders? 

This past week I was intrigued by an interview I heard on NPR about a rare condition known as mirror-touch synaesthesia, where a person empathizes with others through a process of simulation. Much of the literature on this condition provides evidence on the correlation to a heightened empathic ability. Empathy excess, however, is much rarer than empathy deficit. And while people with empathy excess suffer alone, those with empathy deficits cause others to suffer. Or at least some of them do.


“Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion,” writes Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge. People who lack empathy see others as mere objects. Empathy is truly about our humanity and given our current political landscape, we need to be pragmatic about how we plan to deal with the lack of humanity elected officials are demonstrating when it comes to the most vulnerable in our society. The word humanity is from the Latin humanitas for “human nature, kindness.”  When our representatives are shamelessly attacking the poor, children, immigrants, people of color, women, people with disabilities, to name a few, it tests our faith in humanity.


Clearly, people who demonstrate empathy deficit show up with adversarial attitudes towards groups of people who differ in their beliefs, traditions or ways of life from their own. They are unable to step outside themselves and tune in to other people’s experiences, especially those who think and believe differently from them. Interestingly, overcoming an empathy deficit is easier than you may think. In fact, considerable research shows that the capacity to feel what another person feels is “hard-wired” through what are called “mirror neurons.” Functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) shows that regions of the brain involving both emotions and physical sensations light up in someone who observes or becomes aware of another person’s pain or distress. Similar research shows that generosity and altruistic behavior light up pleasure centers of the brain usually associated with food or sex.


Jeremy Rifkin’s book, The Empathic Civilization, provides a strong argument for an emerging empathic civilization in human consciousness. He presents evidence that counters the usual assumption that self-interest and greed are dominant forces among humans. It helps us understand how we can move away from self-centered, knee-jerk reactions to surface differences like religion, race, or ideology. By understanding our humanity, we also learn that humans are not the competitive creatures we have been conditioned to believe. In the book, No Contest: The Case Against Competition by Alfie Kohn, he cites over 400 peer-reviewed studies that prove humans are not naturally competitive. We learn to operate within this limited perception but we, in fact, are born to naturally care and be cooperative with each other; to naturally love each other.


Am I naïve to think that most people would love to live in a world that is less divided by ethnic, economic, and religious strife; to be surrounded by people who are at least attempting to comprehend the needs of those who think and act different from us? For all of us working to make this society more equitable, we understand that having empathy and showing our humanity is a prerequisite to any meaningful action we can take.