Born to Care: Empathy Is Hardwired

("Crying Babies" | Ted Van Pelt)

("Crying Babies" | Ted Van Pelt)

Finding common ground in the expanse is an extraordinary ability, yet our mind does it every day.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Familiarity promotes the blurring of the Self and the Other on a neural level. Which is to say, humans are hardwired to empathize.

To better understand and navigate the world, our mind divides our experiences and places them into different sections in our brain. Yet the compartment we put those familiar, those we know, overlaps with our sense of self. The beauty of the mind is in its complexity. Like traveling through space, we can move fluidly from one end to the other, yet space itself is unending and continuously growing. Finding common ground in the expanse is an extraordinary ability, yet our mind does it every day.

The more time we spend with another — the more we enjoy them — the more we begin to see them as being the same as ourselves. Friends, allies, and lovers are essential for our collective survival. We naturally form villages, we congregate towards one another.

In the context of early survival, even such things as anxiety and insomnia would be useful since we would need particular villagers to be on high alert to keep the rest of us alive. In the modern environment, many of these instincts become mental illnesses, but in the survival setting, they are expressions of vigilance. Empathy becomes codependence when we have no common mutual goal other than dependence.

When we like someone, when we make a friend, when we fall in love, a threat to them is a threat to us. When we choose to allow someone into our inner circle, we are electing to make this person a part of us. That should not be taken lightly. It takes courage and vulnerability to allow someone into our lives. That is not hyperbole, that is the grace of the mind.

Even to a misanthrope, the worst form of punishment is solitary confinement.

Part of our evolutionary process is empathy. It not only kept us alive, it helped us thrive. We are a valuable resource to the community, our community is an important resource for our well-being. Expanding our community expands our resources. A threat to our resources is a threat to ourselves, a threat to ourselves is a threat to the survivability of the community. The "self" becomes fluid and shared. This cannot happen without trust and cooperation, the building block for which is empathy.

If we lose value in ourselves, we may hurt those close to us. If we feel we have no close kinship, we lose a part of ourselves. When we focus on the differences, we may lash out at others. There is an inherent risk to closeness, such intimacy allows one to hurt another more than a stranger could. It feels the same as self-harm, a type of psychic betrayal. Time spent together can create conflict, make apparent how much you dislike someone. Then empathy is nothing without resilience. If empathy is the torch in the darkness, then resilience is the steady hand that faces the heat.

The very nature of our survival depends on social interactions. We need people to live for, to share happiness with — to belong. The Self, itself, is a construct of the mind, and like empathy, bred into us for the sake of mutual continuation of the species.

Not all relationships are virtuous or worthy, it is not automatic. Through experience, we build better social webs. This will take time and practice, yet it is worth your while. For proper relationships can light the way if we are strong enough to bear it.

When we forge ahead, there will be many things waiting ahead of us, some good and some not; then we need numbers to face the challenge and to celebrate the bounty.

Useful Companions to This Article: