Do you get upset about somebody’s behaviour? Say, a public figure such as a politician or someone close to you, your spouse, kids, parents, friends? Then that is an indication that you haven’t empathized with the person enough. Well, that is the hypothesis I would like to explore in this article.
Easterine Kire Iralu’s book “A terrible matriarchy” begins with a childhood memory of the protagonist, Dielieno, a girl coming of age in Kohima, Nagaland, an eastern state in India. She remembers an incident when her granny is serving chicken curry to Lieno and her brothers. Lieno, who is four-five years old, tells her granny, “I want a leg piece”. Granny says, “Who is asking you, stupid?” and serves the leg piece to Lieno’s brother. Then comes the sermon from granny, “Leg pieces are for the boys, girls should eat the other pieces.”
When Lieno is six/seven years old, she is sent to stay with her granny who continues to make Lieno work hard, e.g. fetching the water from nearby stream, getting the stove ready, feeding the chicken etc. Granny believes that girls don’t need education or affection or time to play or even a good piece of meat with gravy! They need to become docile and hardworking in order to become good housewives. More importantly, on every opportunity, she makes it a point to tell Lieno that boys are more important than girls. Naturally, Lieno grows up hating her granny.
After Lieno’s granny expires, for the first time, Lieno talks to her mom about granny’s tyrannical behaviour. Her mom feels bad about it but also gives the background as to why granny would have become like that. Granny’s mom didn’t have a brother and she had to lose all the ancestral property to other relatives because only boys inherited property. That had a deep impact on her and she favoured boys all her life. After hearing this story, Lieno felt that she understood granny better. Her grudge turned into compassion. That is the beginning of empathy. What exactly is happening here?
To understand this process of empathizing, it helps see thought as a system of conditioned reflexes. A reflex fires automatically when touched. When the knee bone is hit, it jerks. That’s an elementary reflex. When the vehicle in front slows down, we break automatically. That’s a reflex. Our thought process is governed by millions of such reflexes that help us carry out our daily activity. As we learn new skills such as driving or form new opinions, we form new reflexes and over a period they fire automatically.
Some reflexes carry a special property of “necessity”. For example, we assume that the ground will hold firm as we walk or the cycle will turn left when we turn the handle left. However, sometimes the result doesn’t match our expectations. For example, a cycle may turn right when we turn the handle left. And then we realize that we can’t ride the cycle (check out the video “The backwards brain bicycle” above). Because the reflexes fire automatically, we turn the handle in the same direction where we want the cycle to turn. This happens in spite of the knowledge that we ought to turn the handle the other way for this cycle. Destin had to practice riding the backwards-brain cycle every day for 8 months to change the reflex. That’s the power of a conditioned reflex.
Some of our beliefs and assumptions are far more deeply and tightly ingrained than the cycling reflexes. For example, for Lieno’s granny, boys are more important than girls is one such assumption that has become a rigid reflex. So, no matter how much you try to explain to her, she will resist changing her opinion. Granny has almost no choice in her behaviour in this matter.
Once we see that the behaviour of a person is a result of almost mechanical and rigid reflexes, it becomes difficult to sustain grudge against the person. You don’t get angry with a computer or a car, do you? Empathy is that understanding of rigid reflexes. Empathy doesn’t mean you agree or like the behaviour. When Lieno felt she understood granny better, she still didn’t agree with her behaviour. She just didn’t feel the need to hold a grudge, that’s all.
Thought as a set of conditioned reflexes is explored in detail in David Bohm's "Thought as a system"