Those who know me personally, know that I like to run. But the sport at which I truly excel is Jumping. Jumping to conclusions, that is. Here’s an example.
It was early in the morning. I was on Mile 3 of my tempo run. That’s the one where you hold the same pace consistently through the run. Though I wasn’t running super hard, it took effort and concentration to sustain my pace. I was running on a narrow sidewalk separated from the main road by a downward sloping grassy bank.
From a distance, I spotted two figures on the sidewalk, heading in my direction, one of them on a bicycle. Right away, I felt deeply annoyed. My inner voice said ‘Why can’t people ride their bikes on the road? The sidewalk is meant for single-file foot traffic. I’d have to slow down, or worse, stop, to let this lazy person on their bike through’. I didn’t want to navigate the sloping grass (the sprinklers were on), or get on the road and deal with traffic, at the pace at which I was running. So, I continued on the sidewalk hoping the “folks on the wrong road” would see me coming and step away from the pavement.
That didn’t happen. Instead, this happened. I eventually came close enough to actually seeing the two figures. One was a man, a few years older than me jogging slowly behind a bike. On the bike was a kid with the most enigmatic smile on the universe. His bike had training wheels! Poor kid was learning to ride a bike. Right away, it hit me that I was the one that was on the wrong road. Yikes! I felt like a class A jerk. At that moment, I didn’t care about my pace or watch or anything but simply stopped, smiled and let the little kid continue his bike-learning ride.
Was the incident above a classic case of mistaken judgment? I would like to believe I’m not the only one that’s an expert at jumping to conclusions. That I’m in good company. What can we do to understand and hopefully intervene before rushing to such judgment?
I was going to write about something light and fluffy this week. And then s*** happened. Or rather, Derek Chauvin happened. So I figured I’d write about Empathy, instead. To educate ourselves about not jumping to conclusions. Not a topic I’m an expert at, by any means, but learning every moment.
We all carry our own biases and prejudices. And they are strengthened every time we act on them. Technically, there are many types of biases. But we’ll stick to discussing Cognitive bias today. These are essentially cognitive shortcuts. Where we’re too lazy to evaluate a situation for what is, and instead form quick (and often miscalculated) judgments. But the risk they present is very real.
I rank biases on what I call a ‘Bother Scale’. As in, how bothersome are these biases to a person carrying them?
Stage 1 prejudices are cute — like saying everyone with a British accent is charming. Not true. But cute. (To my truly charming British friends, you know who you are and I don’t mean you). Stage 2 biases can cause annoyance. Stage 3 are the ones make you angry and finally Stage 4 biases that may make you so angry that people around you are forced to call 911 (In hindsight, that’s a poor analogy to use at this time, my apologies). Our goal is to limit ourselves to a Stage 1 or 2.
There are many types of biases. For the sake of brevity, I’ll discuss one of hte primary ones. From the moment we are born, we are taught to recognize what is “like us” and what is “not like us”. It starts out quite harmless. A baby sees her mother being able to move freely by herself but notices the table in the room is stationary. She starts to identify. Me like mother; me not like table. And so, it builds. Every interaction, every observation, every time her senses interact with the world (see, touch, hear, feel, smell), explicitly or implicitly, a little part of her brain neatly divides the experience as ‘like me’ / ‘not like me’.
By the time we reach adulthood, we are all simply bundles of biases floating around in the universe. We are experts at jumping to conclusions. We have built a strong bubble of Us v Them.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors traveled in tribes to survive. Being left alone meant ending up as dinner for some of our wilder friends. So, we needed to belong to a group. Belonging meant survival. We carry with us a part of that need to belong even today.
However, we find ourselves now in an increasingly global space. Where most folks we interact with are in the “not like me” category. And we struggle. Because we haven’t figured out what ‘’not like me” actually is. When knowledge hasn’t made it to the room, fear steps in to rule. Or as Yoda says “Fear is the path to the dark side”.
As a first-generation immigrant, I understand what “not like me” feels like, both from the context of others looking at me and from my own perspective. I’ve heard versions of ‘You’re in America, speak English’. (Ironically, that is the only language I feel I can express myself well in, albeit with an accent). The good news is that I probably have only managed to trigger Stage 1 (Cute) or Stage 2 (Annoying!) biases in others, because, I have no major battle scars to report. Quite the opposite. I have had a great time of it. And for that I’m very grateful. And how I wish, this were true for so many more!
My being treated well is a testament to the people I have interacted with who have managed to overcome their biases to recognize their likeness in me. And that brings me to today’s Science lesson.
Less than a quarter century ago, Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team of Neuroscientists discovered “Mirror neurons”. Mirror neurons are the neurological mechanisms through which two very important processes occur. Key processes that separate us from our ancestral apes.
The first is imitation learning. Babies, just a few weeks of age, can imitate their mom by peeking their tongue between their lips. A much more sophisticated version of monkey see, monkey do. It is argued that imitation learning is what separates us from other species, since it only takes one human to ‘discover’ or learn something new the first time and the rest of us can simply copy. Imagine if we were unable to learn by imitation. We’d all still be “inventing” our own version of the hammer. Not plagiarizing content from the web! And if you’re wondering, just for the record, I don’t. Even if I did, I’d give credit where due.
But, the second and more relevant aspect, for us, of mirror neurons is what’s termed “action understanding”. This essentially means I can simply see you start to perform an action but complete that action in my head, as though I performed it myself. This is the root of empathy. This is why when you see a rather violent scene in a movie of a blow to a head, you recoil as though someone hit you directly. Or you salivate at the site of a cold icy drink on TV on a hot day. It is how we put ourselves in another’s shoes (without shoving them, literally).
I quote the author of the paper, G. Rizzolatti. “We are social beings. Our survival depends on our understanding the actions, intentions, and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to understand other people’s mind, not only through conceptual reasoning but through imitation. Feeling, not thinking.”
Prof V.S Ramachandran, a major proponent of Mirror neurons, in his book, ‘The Tell-Tale Brain’, refers to mirror neurons as “Gandhi neurons because they blur the boundary between self and others — not just metaphorically but quite literally, since the neuron can’t tell the difference’’.
So, hopefully, there was a point of this little lesson in science? Yes. We are bestowed with the capacity to understand and empathize. We simply need to learn to use it. It’s time to start training these Empathy neurons. The world desperately needs us to stop jumping to conclusions.
Some of the ways to become more empathetic is by understanding more of what “not like me” really feels like. Here are a few tips:
- Smile more at people that you wouldn’t normally smile at. Don’t worry if they think you’re a weirdo. (They’re probably right?)
- Read more. Fiction and Non-Fiction. Books have this amazing ability to give us insight into worlds that are so different from our own. Recent books I read such as ‘Educated’ or ‘Where the Crawdads sing’ were huge mind-openers.
- Become a Chatty Katty. Start a conversation with the stranger seated next to you. Yeah. Be THAT person! The one the whole world fears. Or, next time you are in the elevator (a couple of years from now, thanks Covid!), spook the stranger in the elevator with a great “Good Morning” and start discussing the weather. Not simply to see them squirm, you wicked person! But to genuinely dispense any fears they may have of you. To show them you don’t bite. On a serious note, this means engaging with people you normally won’t or being part of a community or group that you typically don’t.
- Second guess your automatic responses. This is critical. This is how we truly learn of our own biases. It is this knowledge that will help us from jumping to conclusions. However, doing this requires a degree of Mindfulness, something I harp on quite frequently.
- Avoid Apathy (opposite of empathy) by knowing its triggers. Usually, when the brain is preoccupied with basic needs (hunger, sleep) or in an uncomfortable situation (too hot/cold, anxious), it does not have the energy to question its own biases. This explains, the example of my running at a difficult pace and the consequent prejudiced response. Had I been walking at a leisurely pace, I probably would have had a much more pleasant response. I sure hope so! So, fix what’s bugging you first, if you can, before you interact with the world.
At this stage, I feel the need to address the elephant in the room. Everything I have said so far, works at a micro-level. What we’re seeing unfortunately around us today is far more amplified. It is systemic prejudice built over centuries. The tools required to address such widespread and deep-rooted preconceptions need to be vastly more potent. I, again, refer to the wise words of my favorite Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron (paraphrased). “You can attempt to save a house and control a fire when you notice an ember. However, if you let the embers flame out into a full-on fire, it might require the might of a Fire department or worse the house simply crashes and burns”.
Right now, the situation Stateside is explosive. But for every Derek Chauvin out there, I believe there are thousands of protesters out there too with their hearts in the right place.
I would like to believe that we have, as Harvard Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker says, ‘Better Angels in our nature’. In his book ‘Enlightenment Now’, Pinker argues that, despite all the bleakness around us, we have made incredible progress. In his book, he uses hard data to show how the graph of hate crimes in the US has actually been trending down, quite significantly, over the last quarter century.
However, the events of the recent past make Pinker’s optimism hard to believe. But believe we must. Because, really, what other choice than Hope do we have? While this large crisis plays out in front of us, there are many tiny ones brewing. It is imperative we nip those in their buds. We can’t afford not to. Our job is to recruit those Mirror neurons in ourselves to find common ground with those we don’t see as our own. To extinguish embers of apathy through sustained effort. So, we can stop these tiny embers from turning into massive fires. And ultimately stop jumping to conclusions. Because our survival as a species depends on it. That, or simply because it’s too much fun to spook strangers with random talk and watch them squirm.
Blakeslee, Sandra. “Cells That Read Minds.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Jan. 2006, www.nytimes.com/2006/01/10/science/cells-that-read-minds.html.
Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Penguin Books, 2019.
Rizzolatti1, Giacomo, and Laila Craighero21Dipartimento di Neuroscienze. “THE MIRROR-NEURON SYSTEM.” Annual Reviews, 2004, www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144230.
Ramachandran, V. S. The Tell-Tale Brain: a Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human. W. W. Norton, 2012.
Originally published at https://partably.com on June 5, 2020.