Our Disembodied Selves

Brett and Kate McKay have suggested that the disembodied nature of online interaction could be one of the causes in the decline of empathy.
Brett and Kate McKay have suggested that the disembodied nature of online interaction could be one of the causes behind the decline of empathy.

Having written about the decline in social attentiveness and empathy that seems to be encouraged by our digital preoccupations, I was fascinated to read an article today by Brett and Kate McKay that has raised many of the same concerns.

Their article, titled ‘Our Disembodied Selves and the Decline of Empathy‘, shared some alarming research about a widespread decline in empathy that has corresponded to the rise of the internet.

According to studies that have been tracking this since 1979, college students are 40% less empathetic than their counterparts 30 years ago. 40%…. What could be the cause?

Now there are bound to numerous theories, and I’ll humbly offer mine.

What sticks out to me is that the authors of the study “found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000.”

This is also the year that the internet took off and began to greatly alter our lives, diminishing our face-to-face, physical interactions with others and replacing them with conversations conducted as disembodied versions of ourselves. What does this have to do with empathy? A whole heck of a lot.

The amount of communication that takes place between our physical bodies is amazing. We pick up the mood and mirror the body language of others nearby. Studies have shown that couples start to look like each other over time, and the couples that looked most alike after 25 years of marriage were also the happiest (the study controlled for couples that simply looked alike to begin with). A couple of decades of face-to-face communication had physically transformed the couples’ visages.

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Empathy derives from the powerful synchrony that exists between our physical bodies. When others laugh, we laugh; when they yawn, we yawn. The smiles and frowns of others cause our mouths to droop or rise in turn. Think of the difference between listening to your favorite band at home and being at a concert where a whole mass of people is connected by the same emotion and moving the same way.

Empathy is communicated between bodies; we do almost literally step into another’s shoes. We map another person’s body onto our own. Our thinking causes our bodies to act, and our bodies cause our brains to think.

Dr. De Waal argues: “We’re beginning to realize how much human and animal cognition runs via the body. Instead of our brain being like a little computer that orders the body around, the body-brain relation is a two-way street. The body produces internal sensations and communicates with other bodies, out of which we construct social connections and an appreciation of the surrounding reality. Bodies insert themselves into everything we perceive or think….the field of “embodied” cognition is still very much in its infancy but has profound implications for how we look at human relations. We involuntarily enter the bodies of those around us so that their movements and emotions echo within us as if they’re our own. This is what allows us, or other primates, to re-create what we have seen others do. Body-mapping is mostly hidden and unconscious but sometimes it “slips out,” such as when parents make chewing mouth movements while feeding their baby. They can’t help but act the way they feel their baby ought to.”

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