The Downside of Empathy

This Invisibilia podcast talks about all manners of how humans & other matter are entangled with each other. Spoiler: human brains are wired to be empathetic.

But what does that really mean?

The study of the physiological component of empathy is not a radical new thing. The term "mirror neurons" debuted in modern psychology over a decade ago. It's a complex phenomenon that we still only know very little about, but the ultra-quick response time point to something "involuntary and automatic"—meaning, empathetic connection is something so core to being human that we cannot turn it off, and it's not a calculated gesture.

But there's a limitation. You can only offer what you know.

When Fin started crying during the last Tragically Hip concert, Bubbles' empathy was genuine and uncalculating. But he didn't understand death like Fin does. So when he said, "don't worry, just ask mummy to play it again tomorrow," it did not comfort Fin's sadness about Gord Downie's illness.

In the above-mentioned podcast, empathy posed a conundrum for a mother and daughter. They both had a form of synesthesia that allowed them to feel sensations and emotions that others are feeling, a sort of ultra-empathy that made speaking to each other almost redundant. At the same time, they both felt a lack of connection. "She never actually talks to me," the daughter said.

Empathy alone isn't enough. One needs to understand, and to understand, one must listen. Even if empathy makes you feel like you've already listened, listen some more.

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