Human Brains Are Hardwired for Empathy, Friendship

Aug. 22, 2013 — Perhaps one of the most defining features of humanity is our capacity for empathy — the ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes. A new University of Virginia study strongly suggests that we are hardwired to empathize because we closely associate people who are close to us — friends, spouses, lovers — with our very selves. – ScienceDaily

Most of us already knew that, but a bit of scientific evidence is always nice to help support our beliefs. This week on the same website was a story about the howling of wolves. “When a member of the wolf pack leaves the group, the howling by those left behind isn’t a reflection of stress but of the quality of their relationships.”

So we and wolves [and many other mammal groups] are hardwired for our kind, our group, our families.  What about other kinds, other families or other groups? Do we ‘care’ for them as well? Only not so intently? Or not at all?  Further, what defines ‘group’ or in the case of wolves, their pack?

How far removed from the pack or our human families does this empathy extend? Where does that concern tend to drop off?

Enter politics. Of course, I could have said, enter religion, but I’ll stick with politics. Do Democrats form a positive, empathizing subgroup? Or Republicans? Or  the Tea Party? Using magnetism as metaphor, do those of similar political persuasion attract  empathy, albeit not quite as strong as family and friend?

What about race? Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington which brought tens of thousands of African Americans to the Capitol. Surely there was strong magnetic attraction among the attendees. Yet, I wonder if this group was disdained by another group- those whites who worry about black power. The negative attraction must have been intense.

Does the level of melanin in human skin both engender as well as repel human empathy? How deeply ingrained is this in the human psyche? Has skin shade always drawn boundaries around groups of humans? After all, it is one of the most easily observed traits a person perceives. Do we still have the fear of ‘the other’ deep within our ancestral memories? Whereas in prehistoric times [and even historic times] that sense of ‘other’ may have been a life-saving perception, it appears today to be a deterrent to forming a cohesive national community.

Perhaps that phrase so often quoted from our Declaration of Independence regarding the equality of all is a farce and shall always be so for many decades into the future. We here in the 2nd decade of the 21st century may not be able as yet to see beyond our human differences, beyond skin tonation, to form a more perfect union. We may still be genetically or meme-ically programmed to both recognize and repel those who do not fit into our group. Unlearning a meme which has been passed down for generations may be quite difficult, especially if there is no opportunity to discover the uselessness of such a meme. I refer to education and expanding horizons.

As I watched yesterday’s reenactment of the march from 50 years ago, I could not help but think of my own group, my family, set of friends from the 1960’s. Few of my relatives still live; many of the deceased were racially bigoted- some more strongly than others. That meme was passed on to me, yet I was able to learn the insidiousness of racial bias and, hopefully, that meme ended its generational transfer with me.  One commentator from the TV coverage noted that with each new generation there seems to be more tolerance for ‘the other’ than the last generation.

Let us hope that this trend continues. Sadly not all of my peers were able to isolate that racial bias meme. There are still plenty of 70-year-old racial bigots on this side of the grass. Our hope is in their grandchildren. And in education. That is my dream 50 years later.

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12 thoughts on “Human Brains Are Hardwired for Empathy, Friendship

  1. Recently, M_R, I received my copy of the most recent alumni
    magazine of my Toledo catholic high school. Again, as in the
    previous publications, I noticed the lack of minority students
    enrolled. There should be approximately 70 black students
    attending, but there is hardly a picture of black students in the
    entire run of the magazine.

    1. Yes, but that was a private school and they can do anything the hell that they want to do.

      On the other hand, it is a Christian school therefore it ought to…

      Never mind!

  2. It’s elitism! The magazine makes much about the school’s out reach to
    the poor and disadvantage. Where is the “in-reach?” The school by its actions are teaching their students de facto racism and segregation.
    Equal but separate? Yes, I reversed it, lol! Same as the private schools
    down here, very expensive to attend, for the elite, and a statement that
    they don’t discriminate, and prove it by having a couple of minority kids
    enrolled. At the high school level the student is there for his ability in
    football or basketball.

    Come to think about it, M_R, maybe that is what has happened..,that is…
    “separate but equal” has been replaced with “equal but separate”. Theory and practice, before it was practice and theory!

  3. A further look at this racial stuff in Toledo- Central Catholic high school is becoming the ‘black’ Catholic school in Toledo- although many of those students are not Catholic. It is about 50% black now. This is where the ‘integration’ occurs so that the lily white Catholic high schools can maintain their ‘purity.’

    1. The same here with the catholic high school. The educated blacks don’t
      want their children in the under performing Jackson public and the private
      highs are costly and elitist, so that leaves the catholic high school.

      So, why are we looking at it as racial? Why not just people wanting something better and safer for their children? Why do we call it a “black
      school” and that they are “not catholic”? Racism and Religion…..

    1. JOB- I’ve long noted that the idealism of a parent is frequently superseded by the concern for the wellbeing of their child.

  4. Well, Engineer, that is important and good that we progressed in 50
    years. However, we have a black President who violates MLK’s positions
    on jobs and war. As I write this, we have a black President who expanded
    the war in Afghanistan and is on the verge of attacking Syria. And, where are the jobs?

      1. Why not ask the President? By executive order he could create
        many public sector jobs to retool cars, trucks, vans from gasoline
        engines to natural gas, and even have the additional advantage of cutting fossil fuel emissions by a third.

        As to asking Boehner, well, you are in the district of Mr. Latta. Go defeat him and maybe Mr. Boehner will go away…. Need action, my friend, not rhetoric…

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