One of the major themes in our 2008 discussion film Spring Summer Fall Winter Spring was empathy. The four seasons in the title of this lyrical film represent four stages in the lifespan of an individual: childhood, young adulthood, middle age, and old age. The scenes of childhood depict low empathy. Near the beginning of the film, a young boy engages in games with animals, apparently without awareness that his games are causing those animals to experience suffering and pain. At each successive older age depicted in the film, the amount of apparent empathy increases, culminating in an elderly Buddhist Monk who appears to have a particularly heightened awareness of the suffering and pain his own actions had caused others over the course of his lifetime.
I was reminded of this film last week when I covered the topic of empathy in the undergraduate college course I teach at UWT. Modern scientific findings suggest that adult Buddist Monks are indeed able to generate more empathy than most other humans. Neuroscientists use a method called Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to measure the amount of brain activity generated while subjects are engaged in various cognitive activities such as solving math problems, spelling, remembering past events, etc. Recently an fMRI study was performed on Tibbetin Buddhist Monks while they performed a meditation designed to generate feelings of pure compassion. The level of brain activity measured in left prefrontal cortex regions of the monk’s brains while they were engaged in this task was among strongest ever seen in human subjects performing a cognitive task.
So what is empathy? Speaking psychologically, it is the ability of an individual to feel an emotion similar to what is being felt by someone else, along with an awareness that the emotion being experienced is similar to what the other person is experiencing. For example, if an empathetic individual watches someone crying, that individual will both feel sad AND be aware that the sadness being felt is similar (in at least some respects) to what the crying person is feeling. Some humans exhibit little or no empathy. A psychopath can inflict pain without feeling or caring about the impact of his actions.
Peter (another member of the film club) and I recently read and discussed the book I Am a Strange Loop by the psychologist Doublas Hofstadter. He makes the argument that empathy allows us to share “ourselves” with others. When I have empathy for what you are feeling it is because I have neural activity bouncing around in my brain that is similar to the neural activity that is bouncing around in your brain at the same time. So part of you (your feelings) can exist in me at the same time as it exists in you, and vice versa. Hofstadter gives sophisticated scientific arguments for these views, but also applies them personally to the way he dealt with the death of his wife some years back. He derived some comfort from the idea that part of her continued to live on in the thoughts of others. Hofstadter’s books are never light reading (his classic Godel Escher Bach is a book you can spend months chewing on) , but this is one of his most accessible, and I recommend it for anyone with an interest in learning more about the cognitive psychology of empathy within the context of what he calls strange loops. And if you are interested in watching a very nice lyrical film exploring the topic of empathy, I recommend Spring Summer Fall Winter Spring.
I rated this film 4 out of 5 stars