The Empathy Instinct
Empathy, easily definable without spelling it out, is like an emotional dopamine, especially in Ireland, where we are quick to react to a stranger’s plight – such as the corpse of a Syrian toddler washed up, face down, on a beach. And, like dopamine, empathy can have a short shelf life: closing our border to the thousands of Syrian refugees who undoubtedly would prefer our green pastures than the hell of Aleppo.
Empathy, writes Peter Bazalgette, who helped devise some of the biggest entertainment shows in recent British television history – Big Brother and Ready Steady Cook – is quite simply the inclination to understand others. ‘The ability to connect with and share another’s feelings.’ Empathy, it would seem, is the catalyst which enables us to act compassionately.
We take pride in an Irish naval’s rescue mission off the coasts of Italy and Africa because we empathise and sympathise with the refugees on overloaded boats, but not sufficiently to put a roof over their heads. So, quite frankly, empathy isn’t enough. It isn’t even a solution, but it is a start.
From birth we are susceptible to emotional contagion – a baby will cry at the sound of another’s wailing – but ultimately the capacity to empathise whilst growing is affected by toxic stress – emotional abuse – or an internal pot of gold– healthy emotional development.
Visiting a hospital recently, I was struck by three pregnant patients, in slippers and dressing gowns, puffing furiously on cigarettes, oblivious to the no smoking sign and indifferent to the damage to their babies. Is it stupidity or an absence of empathy? Where is their internal pot of gold for the as yet unborn?
Bazalgette’s book, naturally leaden with the research of others, including the omnipresent Simon Baron-Cohen, is insightful on digital dystopia: one in five children in Britain under the age of eleven has a Facebook account. Digital narcissism, writes Bazalgette, is all about the individual and what they are experiencing, regardless of how it affects the feelings of others.
Research predicts that the most digitally connected – one in five of teenagers in South Korea use their smart phone seven hours a day – will suffer digital dementia: the right side of the rain remains underdeveloped, leading to a diminution in cognitive abilities.
The antidote, believe it or not, is reading: poetry, novels, the telephone directory, The Echo, The Bush Telegraph, whatever: a chapter a day keeps the doctor away. ‘The empathy instinct is an idea whose time has come,’ believes Bazalgette. ‘It could be the most valuable resource in the world.’ Thus, in the final chapter, he mounts a passionate defence of arts (and popular culture) as a means of bridging the widening empathy gap.
Demonstrative of art’s capacity as an agent of change for good is the most articulate and impressive sentence in the book, by a poet almost 200 years dead, Shelley: ‘The great instrument of the moral good is the imagination, and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.’
In 2016, Waterstones experienced a doubling in profits in Ireland. Literature is back in fashion. Maybe the times are a changing.