Monday, May 12, 2014

Thinking, Thinking

Lately, this article has had me thinking. The summary of the article reads:
"When the brain's analytic network is engaged, our ability to appreciate the human cost of our action is repressed, researchers have found. The study shows for the first time that we have a built-in neural constraint on our ability to be both empathetic and analytic at the same time."
You'll have to read the article, which, like many studies, leave more questions to be answered and a rich ground for further discovery and study.
After I read this, I immediately thought of the people who others describe as "being in their head". I do think people who rely too much on the logical network risk becoming repressors and avoid feelings at all costs (being completely cut off from emotions is called alexithymia). What goes along with that are all kinds of negative behaviors, because if you cannot understand or care how your behavior affects another, then you will have a tendency toward behavior that is dishonest, deceitful, or downright harmful to others. Those who rely too much on empathy risk being naive and overly trusting and are taken for granted. Our culture (in a broad, general sense) seems to favor a high level of detachment, and does not know what to do with feelings.
My next thought was education. Could the way children are educated be helping them rely too much on the logical network and not enough on the part of our brains that use empathy?  What if we were all taught and encouraged, as the article says, to be fluid in our use of both parts of our brain: the logical and the empathetic?
 In my work at a Waldorf school, I find that people have different reactions to the Waldorf way of educating children. Often, people think Waldorf is an "art" school,  and therefore not academic enough (I know in other parts of the country this is not the perception). Waldorf schools have an emphasis on teaching children how to think for themselves, and how to truly be in relationship with others. It is a paradigm that is much different from what most of us are used to and art and music and drama are integral parts of Waldorf education. It is a way to develop intellect in a way that does not ignore the heart of a child. I believe studies like this highlight a real strength of Waldorf education, for practicing the arts in a certain way can help us cycle between empathy and logic
(Waldorf education is a long subject and the internet is full of sites extolling its virtues. If you want to know more, start here.) 
This is where education has the capacity to be most healing for our culture.  I once knew a little boy who grew up hearing from a parent, "Logic would dictate..." as a critical way to address his behavior. That parent was right. Logic WOULD dictate, but empathy would understand. .  I wonder how our society would be different if we were taught in our homes, schools, and workplaces, to value this ability to move with fluidity between our heads and our hearts? Developing intellect is easy; empathy, not so much. I feel like developing deep empathy could take me a lifetime, and in difficult circumstances, it is meted out in moments of quieting my own anxiety enough to open my heart. Other times, empathy comes easily. It takes fortitude and courage, though, to muster empathy when you are feeling angry and unsympathetic. That being said, empathy leads to peace and understanding. It is the basis of love. We truly need more empathy in this world.

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