Our future as a species will not depend on our ability to process data or material at an increasingly rapid rate so much as it will depend on developing our ability to feel compassion for ourselves and for the entire living world. The exclusively materialist views of our existence, intelligence, technology, and conceptions of the universe maintain – and even worsen – a situation in which the vast majority continues to suffer while a tiny minority prospers.
As the evidence of millennia of human history demonstrates, it may well turn out that it is not our massive forebrain that will save us or give our lives meaning. For without strong feelings of connectedness binding us one to another and to the entire ecosystem which sustains us, we remain forever bound to the dysfunctional pursuit of individual prosperity at the expense of the suffering of others and the destruction of our fragile environment.
It is most fortuitous that recent discoveries in neuroscience are uncovering aspects of the human being which underscore the evolutionary significance of our capacity to experience bonds of empathy. Initially found in macaque monkeys and subsequently confirmed in the human brain, a grouping of cells in the premotor cortex known as “mirror neurons” respond when actions are both taken and perceived. And they can also be observed to fire in corresponding ways during the feeling and perception of emotion.
This living connection between individuals is the neurological bridge upon which interpersonal – and even inter-species – bonds essential to socialization, understanding, and empathy are formed. Because our actions have instantaneous effects that can be felt around the world at the speed of electronic communication, now more than ever in our evolutionary history, developing empathy and compassion for other human beings and for the whole of life is necessary to our continued survival.
To that end, it is fitting to remind ourselves that, as we attend to the material details of living our daily lives, we can accomplish our highest goals and fulfill our destinies by the simple method of listening to ourselves and each other closely enough to hear our heartbeats – by remembering, practicing, and envisioning what it means to be fully human.
Image: “I Feel What You Feel” by Tullio DeSantis, 2011