There have been a lot of articles over the last ten years about the decline of empathy among American college students. As empathy would be considered to be a positive trait to have in a society – a trait that helps to bond people together and helps to create social stability, it would be important to try and understand what could be the cause of this decline. As you probably can imagine, given the focus of this column on modern technology, I believe that interaction with modern technology has a lot to do with it. There have already been discussions about this, particularly within the context that use of modern technology, particularly consumer technology, takes away time that could be used to have direct face-to-face contact with other people. I believe the problem is more complex than this and involves changes in a person as a result of ongoing contact with screen reality experiences.
But before I go into a discussion of these changes, I’d like to explore what empathy is and how it differs from sympathy. Sympathy involves giving solace and comfort to people who are experiencing pain, suffering or even discomfort in their daily life situations. It requires giving support to a person with problems in such a way that the person giving the support maintains strong defined discrete personal boundaries. And whatever emotional help is given, it allows the person receiving it to also maintain strong defined discrete personal boundaries. There is an atmosphere in this emotional connection, whereby the person offering sympathy appreciates the distress of the person with problems in the form of a vague overview, a general summary approach that doesn’t really dig into the deeper details of what is bothering the person receiving the sympathy. People who go to funerals offer sympathy to the bereaved. It is like a formal ceremonial display of concern in which both the comforter and the mourner play very precise careful defined discrete roles.
Empathy, on the other hand, has nothing of the formal or ceremonial. Empathy is an emotional connection that breaks through personal boundaries. The comforter blurs together with the person in distress through flowing blendable continual expressions of emotional grounding. The comforter gets into the details of the distressed person’s life to break down the sense of isolation that is so much a part of the distressed person’s problems. By getting inside the distressed person’s world, the distressed person derives approval from the comforter and a sense of greater security from knowing that he’s not dealing with his stress by himself. So empathy becomes a vehicle by which a person’s problems act as the foundation for binding people together emotionally as well as helping to bind the distressed person together emotionally from within. In other words, empathy is a kind of emotional mortar that holds people together both from without and from within.
This is why studies made over the last ten years showing a decline in empathy among different groups of people are so troubling. They show a decline in one of the most important components in emotional connection. Without empathy, society starts to crumble apart.
From another perspective, sympathy provides the emotional foundations from which a comforter makes and preserves more shallow imprints on the person with stresses. For instance, a condolence card is nice, but when a person dies, many friends, family members and acquaintances also come to the funeral and sign their name in a book. The bereaved certainly take note of who signed the book, but signing the book, in the long run, does not represent an imprint with long-term transformative ramifications. Yes, a signature remains in the book for mourners, but how often are mourners going to refer to it, particularly with the passage of time. On the other hand, empathy leads to deeper more significant imprints on the part of the comforter, imprints that can be more transformative in their effects on the distressed person. An empathic comforter would perhaps spend time with a mourner or mourners to help pull them out of their depression. And yet the loss of empathy in the previously mentioned studies seem to indicate a numbness with regard to people’s sincere interest today in and care for the people around them. So what is going on here?
What is going on is that people are spending too much time in the mediated experiences of screen reality and not enough time in the primary experiences of external world reality. The screen realities of movies, television, video games, computers, smartphone and tablets create fields of experience that occupy a lot of our time and that prevents direct contact with other human beings. Even to the extent that we are communicating with other human beings, we are doing it through the mediated channels of phone conversations, texting, emails and Skype. We spend less and less time in the full flesh-and-blood experience of face-to-face contact with other humans. As a result, we don’t learn to pick up on the nonverbal sensory cues that allow us to really connect with a person. The non-definable flowing blendable continual stimuli: three-dimensional physical appearance, gestures, vocal inflections, even smells that allow us to bond more deeply with a coherent organic person. Screen reality gives us the equivalent of laboratory data about a person, selective information that gives us defined focused aspects of a person, but not a larger coherent understanding.
How can one empathize with someone that merely exists for another person as fragmented data or the equivalent of barely connected pixels? One becomes numb to the other person. Not even capable of sympathy which represents a more mediated connection to a person who we should be experiencing as a defined discrete but also coherent entity.
Screen reality media model for us a relationship to our world that is distant from that we would normally experience as human beings, if we were not so immersed in technology. They flatten our fields of experience, and they flatten our emotions as well. They don’t contain the flowing blendable continual stimuli that are the foundational stimuli for the natural bonding that occurs between people and, by extension, the empathy that gives support to the distressed and meaning to the comforters. But screen reality media occupy so much of our time that they allow precious little time for direct primary experience external world connections with other people. In effect, these screen reality media fill our time much of the time with the equivalent of empty calories, junk experiences. Empty calories and junk food leave us feeling depleted of energy. Screen reality media, with the vacuumized experiences that they offer, leave us feeling empty of feeling, leave us feeling simply numb.
And when one is simply numb, he is definitely incapable of empathy.
© 2019 Laurence Mesirow