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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Are We Connected?

As a youngster (from 7-11) I frequently attempted to divide the world into two opposing camps. “The good Guys and the Bad”, “White Hats and Black hats”, “Rats and Finks” etc. One day when I was explaining my latest dichotomy to my dad, he suggested that I might divide people into two groups: those who divided the world into groups and those who didn’t. Recently, I’ve been thinking about how behavioral scientists, psychologists and historians have spent a lot of effort trying to identify the characteristic that separates man from other animals-the characteristic quality or ability that is unique to humans. Tool usage was popular for a while but then we discovered that apes, chimps, bonobos, lab rats and several other species were quite skilled in their use of tools. Next, it was language but we share that skill with whales, dolphins, elephants and others, lately it’s been “consciousness” but nobody knows exactly what that is, so we’ll have to shelve it for a while, All of this scientific navel-gazing and tail-chasing was aimed at proving that that man  is a unique, superior creature  and not really an animal at all but as the Buddhist monk said to the hot-dog vendor “Make me one with everything” , are one with all creatures, sharing many qualities but each species possesses some unique qualities that are shared with all. Man can’t fly without a plane or a similar mechanical device. He can’t communicate stereophonically - expressing two distinctly different messages simultaneously but whales and dolphins can. He can’t navigate in absolve darkness with sonar like abilities but bats can.

Six years ago my wife suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm that seriously endangered her cognitive function and her life. As a result I began an extensive study of the brain and its functions in order to better understand what had happened and how I might help her recover. I purchased, borrowed and read a huge number of books about the brain and visited many websites providing visual insights into the mysteries of the brain and the ongoing research into its functions. Obviously, I am no expert on cognitive function, brain mapping or related fields but I think I can claim a better than average layman’s knowledge of these subjects.

Recently, I’ve been exploring the emotional lives of animals thanks to Carl Safina and his wonderful and deeply moving "Beyond Words*" and primatologist Frans De Wall’s "The Ape and the Sushi Master*"*. The visceral impact of " Beyond Words"is very strong. Anecdotes  about elephant family life and infant care had a huge emotional impact and both books helped me to realize the connections that are possible between us and them (the elephants, the porpoises and the whales)

Our connections to others are in many ways similar to the synapses that are created in the brain . First comes a biological or emotional tie, e.g. a sibling or a friend and then, through shared experience or propinquity this becomes a connection which can sometimes last a long time or even a lifetime. In contrast even the relationship with a sibling is tenuous and the shared experience tenuous the connection is never completed and the connection like a neglected synapse - withers and dies.

The question arises: can we experience empathy without a real connection? Can we ever experience real empathy with someone we don’t even know?