Dopamine and Empathy

Yesterday night I discovered the answer on why I’m so driven to find questions and their answers on the internet; questions, that arise while looking for answers. And where did I find it? On the internet, of course.

We are all addicted to information and there is a reason. Taking in and processing  information was essential for survival such as scanning the landscape watching for predators or other dangers. And nature has made this an incentive by giving us a warm ‘fuzzy’ feeling through the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It’s  the same way nature rewards sexual behavior to ensure the survival of the species.

Scanning the horizon yesterday has been replaced with browsing the internet today and that bar that  B.F. Skinner‘s rats hit over and over again for the reward of food has been replaced by the “Enter” key that we press all day for our dopamine fix.

However, what do we do with all that information that we strive so hard to seek? Isn’t it all too much? And what else suffers as a result of this?

Nicholas Carr, who has written extensively about the effects of the internet on cognition, talks about the consequences of information overload in this 15-minute lecture. Hopping from article to article is a lot like multitasking, something we’re all familiar with. But multitasking doesn’t actually exist, it is rather the process of shifting from task to task, adjusting constantly to the new stimulus in front of you.  It’s not an efficient process, because it interrupts a more sophisticated exploration and leads to a lack of important processing skills required for creative  and systemic thinking.

And guess what else it affects and this was a surprise to me…..Empathy!

Research suggests that along with the decline of book reading, college “kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago” according to Kevin Dutton’s article “Psychopathy’s Double Edge” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Isn’t that scary?

Here is why the 500+-year old art of reading a book is today more important than ever:

Reading a book carves brand-new neural pathways into the ancient cortical bedrock of our brains. It transforms the way we see the world—makes us, as Nicholas Carr puts it in his recent essay, “The Dreams of Readers,” “more alert to the inner lives of others.” We become vampires without being bitten—in other words, more empathic. Books make us see in a way that casual immersion in the Internet, and the quicksilver virtual world it offers, doesn’t.

- Kevin Dutton

Usually when reading a book we become immersed in the story as the protagonist and imagine life from the viewpoint of the hero/ine. How about reversing this? What about imagining your own life and the people around you through the eyes of a Jane Austen, or William Shakespeare. Isn’t that an interesting thought?

Trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes is not only an entertaining experiment but also applied empathy. Often I try to see life through the eyes of someone I don’t like that much. That usually helps me understand the motives of the other person’s actions and helps me to stay calm.

Empathy is important. And not only for the ones at the receiving end.

Credit for finding Kevin Dutton’s fascinating article and the video above go to Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Beast.

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10 Responses to “Dopamine and Empathy”

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  1. terif says:

    I recently observed that I’m a little addicted to checking my email, via phone or computer. I feel the need to keep up on the mail that comes in, even though it’s not essential to my job. So this entry was particularly interesting to me — thanks!

  2. frifris says:

    I love all your different thoughts and ideas and quotes and projects (even though I haven’t taken my time to comment in a while) of the past weeks.
    John Cleese’s thoughts and arguments and now this text illustrate how important it is to do nothing once in a while. And too much input (Carr) kills creativity.

    Being a SAHM at the moment, I quite have the privilege of letting my mind roam for a longer uninterrupted periods of time than the general workslave (sorry), at least part of the day.
    I also noticed, the more I look at projects on the internet, the more I am frustrated with my own creative output.
    Seing and reading too many ideas is not good, or at least I need time to let the ideas “set”.

    The only thing I’m not so sure about is the loss of empathy in the younger generation (due to less reading). I can’t really say that’s true, at least not with the students I taught. Quite on the contrary, I find empathy and in general social skills are valued a lot more and taught better at schools nowadays than years ago.

    I love the Tucholsky text (I had read it before, but a loooong time ago), and I loved your interpretation of the concept “hole”. Thank you for connection of philosophical thought and textile creation, I really like that.

    Greetings from Germany,

  3. Suschna says:

    Funny thing. I read what you wrote Frifis, and I thought: This woman says what I would say. Then I saw your name and realized: I know her, only in German. Here were are, comunicating in English, and it somehow sounds new.
    Well, anyway, I think too that a lot of young peope today are very “mature” in their social life and behaviour. Much more considerate and reflected than we were. It might have to do with all the new media – you do not tend to see yourself as the center of the world if you are able to see a lot of the world, and also networking humbles you a bit? Difficult in English, hope it makes sense.
    Also greetings from Germany!

  4. Suschna says:

    Forgot to say, I own most of the books of Alain de Botton and met him once in Berlin, very nice man.

  5. kathrin says:

    Thank you so much, dear frisfris. Here we are the three of us, having a conversation in English instead of German. I’m always amazed about speaking a different language express the same issues with a slightly different flavor. Or,

    speaking in terms of color, a different shade. Your English is also really really impressive. Thanks so much for commenting. So glad to hear from you – and suschna – that you don’t have the same experience I blogged about regarding loss of empathy. I live in an Ivy League college town and my friends who teach do mention the “me-first- attitude” quite a bit. Hopefully it’s not wide spread and they are the exception. Liebe Gruesse von Kathrin

  6. Kathrin says:

    I have actually not read any of his books, but will do so now. Any suggestion on which one to start with? Just checked and we have them all in our local library.

  7. frifris says:

    Haha, this conversation made me smile.
    And yes, language does make a difference. Sometimes there’s a whole different concept or attitude behind it. As in:
    Great minds think alike.
    Zwei Dumme – ein Gedanke. Personally, I prefer the English expression for obvious reasons. Not very humble, though.

    Grüße im Dreieck!

  8. kathrin says:

    Oh yes, that’s a great example, I’d totally forgotten about the “Zwei Doofe” vs. “Great minds”. In diesem Sinne…..Three great minds ein Gedanke?

  9. Suschna says:

    Too bad we don’t live next door. The books are not very suitable for reading through in one time. Rather something you pick up now and then to have something to think about. I have several books from the 90s about love (bought in a time when I needed insight there, as sort of self help books) . Then the Proust book and one about happiness and architecture (“Von der Kunst, daheim zu Hause zu sein” – isn’t that the nicest subtitle for a book about archituecture?)
    Guess I would pick the Proust book as a first read (but then you will want to read the whole Search of lost Time series). Just looked at my pile, the books are full with pagemarkers, but I didn’t read one of it through.
    Sorry for going on like this. Thank you for making me take out the pile, will look at it tonight again.

  10. Wendy says:

    You three are all incredibly impressive being able to express your thoughts so eloquently in your second language. I enjoyed your thougthful post Kathrin. I speak only a little bit of german, so would love some help on the translation of ‘von der kunst daheim zu house zu sein’ translations. Is it something like ‘Art makes a house your own’?

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