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How to get better at empathy despite practicing social distancing
Isolation and empathy are by no means mutually exclusive.
- As we began prepping for isolation at home, there was a strange sense of disassociation, as if there was no need to think of or care for others and that it was everyone for themselves.
- The pandemic, interestingly enough, put many of us in a situation of "forced empathy."
- In reality, we are all "first responders" in the need for empathy, as countless anecdotes about inspiring acts of compassion during the pandemic attest.
It was mid-March when most of us realized that whether or not we contracted COVID-19, our lives were about to change pretty dramatically. As we began prepping for a retreat into our "bubbles" to ride it out, there was a strange sense of disassociation.
It was as if the looming isolation meant there was no need to think of or care for others, that it was everyone for themselves.
We saw this play out with the panicked hoarding of essential supplies, and the way we avoided each other's eyes at the grocery store. We went into this thinking we had to take care of ourselves and our families first, and to an extent that was true. We do need to take responsibility for ourselves.
Yet I've come to realize in recent weeks that the exact opposite reaction, which we can see taking place around the world as well, is one of the most striking features of the pandemic. Isolation and empathy are by no means mutually exclusive. In fact, if we had acted with more empathy from the start, it's possible that humanity could have dramatically changed the outcome.
Forced solitude calls for empathy
As we retreated, we became isolated. And isolation breeds loneliness, reason enough to act with more empathy.
Emily Cross, a professor of Social Robotics at Macquarie University, and Anna Henschel, PhD candidate in Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of Glasgow, cite brain scan studies that show subcortical regions being activated differently depending on whether we receive pleasurable or stressful sensations.
"When we feel lonely and rejected, brain regions associated with distress and rumination are activated," the two recently pointed out in The Conversation. "Lonely people also have a more negative focus and anxiously scrutinise people's intentions. Sometimes this can become so strong that it makes us feel even more lonely – creating a vicious cycle."
Social media can help break this cycle, but often has the exact opposite effect. Cross and Henschel believe that much of the reinforced loneliness caused by social media can be traced back to the lack of all-important non-verbal cues, such as a facial expressions and body language. "These allow us to gauge the tone and context of a social encounter," they asserted. "When this information is missing, we perceive fewer friendly cues from others."
I see this every day on social media, as the "middle ground" is shouted down by the strident voices on either side of political divides. While armed protesters rail against harried lawmakers and exhausted healthcare workers, I think the majority of us are a bit stunned by what brought us to this place.
The pandemic, interestingly enough, put many of us in a situation of "forced empathy," as Eve Fairbanks recently explained in The New Republic. After traveling internationally and reporting symptoms consistent with COVID-19, she underwent testing then waited four days for her (negative) results.
"No individual can control a virus, despite what the president might wish," she wrote. "But before I got tested—the current state of millions of Americans—I felt helpless over not only my own fate but also the fate of all the others I might have infected. It's a rare thing to feel a stranger's potential pain so intimately."
This is why so many of us consent to wearing masks; we aren't necessarily protecting ourselves but protecting others from possible infection. It's forced empathy, and for many, it feels strangely rewarding to act on it.
Born empathic or learned behavior?
True empaths already know what it feels like to be keenly aware of other people's needs, stresses, and feelings. In times of widespread stress and anxiety, this can have some significant drawbacks, noted Jonathan Fields, producer of the critically acclaimed Good Life Project podcast.
"When someone else is in pain, it can be hard to dissociate from it," Fields recently wrote in Psychology Today. "Whether you know them or not. It can also stop you from being able to help someone else. You're of no use beyond being a warm body to commiserate, when their pain paralyzes you as much as them."
Yet he believes that "to feel is to live," and we must stay mindful to avoid being drawn in too deeply to others pain, to the point where we are no longer able to help.
The payoff? Being more empathetic doesn't just help others; it has personal benefits, noted Elizabeth Segal, PhD, in Psychology Today. Segal believes empathy can:
- Help us make better decisions
- Connect us more deeply to others
- Lower stress
- Provide antidotes to burnout
- Guide our moral compass
"Empathy is a foundation for the moral behaviors that create healthier communities, from which all of us benefit," she wrote.
We can learn to show more empathy toward others, and this pandemic gives us a perfect "training ground" if you will. It all starts with simple steps that anyone can master:
- Engage in acts of service
- Observe others acting with empathy
- Listen to others, without the need to insert your own opinion
- Actively imagine yourself in another's position
Taking a leadership role in the move toward empathy
In reality, we are all "first responders" in the need for empathy, as countless anecdotes about inspiring acts of compassion during the pandemic attest. I was particularly touched by the story of a Tennessee man who, worried about his mother and others in her retirement community, brought his guitar and serenaded residents outside their windows.
We see others leading with empathy around the globe. Italians signing to each other from their balconies; kids in the U.S. mowing their neighbor's lawns; volunteers sewing thousands and thousands of face masks for health care workers.
Unfortunately, we also see plenty of people who are most definitely not getting this right. As CNN's Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger reminded us at the end of March, President Trump gives us a prime example of self-centeredness and a distinct lack of empathy. "By tweeting a New York Times story about the millions of viewers his evening news conferences attract, the President made one thing clear: In his mind, it's all about him," Borger wrote.
On the other hand, we see leaders like New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern lead with empathy first. "People feel that Ardern 'doesn't preach at them; she's standing with them,'" Helen Clark, New Zealand's prime minister from 1999 to 2008, told Uri Friedman of The Atlantic.
Ardern video chats with her nation from her remote location, dressed down and with her children's toys often visible in the background. She is authentic and real, even apologizing for using the national emergency alert sirens to get out the shelter-in-place message.
And her country is responding. Out of a population of nearly 5 million, only 20 people have died from the virus as of early May, thanks in large part to willing compliance with widespread testing and quarantining mandates. Her empathetic approach has no doubt saved lives.
Stop looking for empathy, and start delivering it
We must stop looking for empathy (even if we wish our own political leadership cared more about us than their election prospects) and begin delivering it. Dan Kerber, VP of Business Operations for Ericsson, wrote a beautiful piece on how we can lead our teams with empathy during this stressful time. He stresses the importance of treating our employees with kindness and basic humanity:
- We can be flexible with schedules and more understanding of workers who are home with kids.
- We can help our teams set boundaries on their working time, not expecting them to answer in their off hours.
- We can welcome their family members into the conversation, not being phased if the little ones toddle into the room or the cat jumps up on the keyboard.
- We can make sure they have the resources and support they need to continue working and stay mentally healthy.
Eventually we can carry this attitude forward as we come out of this pandemic. In all of this, the prevailing questions for business leaders might be "How can I help?"
We will all come out of this changed in some way. We get to decide if those changes will be made intentionally, or forced on us by our circumstances. Let's choose wisely, and bring a more empathetic mindset with us.
Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.
- Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
- Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
- Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
The nervous system’s ancient reflexes<p>You accidentally place your hand on a hot stove. Almost instantaneously, your hand withdraws.</p><p>What triggered your hand to move? The answer is <em>not</em> that you consciously decided the stove was hot and you should move your hand. Rather, it was a reflex: Skin receptors on your hand sent nerve impulses to the spinal cord, which ultimately sent back motor neurons that caused your hand to move away. This all occurred before your "conscious brain" realized what happened.</p><p>Similarly, the nervous system has reflexes that protect individual cells in the body.</p><p>"The nervous system evolved because we need to respond to stimuli in the environment," said Dr. Tracey. "Neural signals don't come from the brain down first. Instead, when something happens in the environment, our peripheral nervous system senses it and sends a signal to the central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord. And then the nervous system responds to correct the problem."</p><p>So, what if scientists could "hack" into the nervous system, manipulating the electrical activity in the nervous system to control molecular processes and produce desirable outcomes? That's the chief goal of bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There are billions of neurons in the body that interact with almost every cell in the body, and at each of those nerve endings, molecular signals control molecular mechanisms that can be defined and mapped, and potentially put under control," Dr. Tracey said in a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJH9KsMKi5M" target="_blank">TED Talk</a>.</p><p>"Many of these mechanisms are also involved in important diseases, like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension and shock. It's very plausible that finding neural signals to control those mechanisms will hold promises for devices replacing some of today's medication for those diseases."</p><p>How can scientists hack the nervous system? For years, researchers in the field of bioelectronic medicine have zeroed in on the longest cranial nerve in the body: the vagus nerve.</p>
The vagus nerve<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYyOTM5OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NTIwNzk0NX0.UCy-3UNpomb3DQZMhyOw_SQG4ThwACXW_rMnc9mLAe8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="09add" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f38dbfbbfe470ad85a3b023dd5083557" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Electrical signals, seen here in a synapse, travel along the vagus nerve to trigger an inflammatory response.
Credit: Adobe Stock via solvod<p>The vagus nerve ("vagus" meaning "wandering" in Latin) comprises two nerve branches that stretch from the brainstem down to the chest and abdomen, where nerve fibers connect to organs. Electrical signals constantly travel up and down the vagus nerve, facilitating communication between the brain and other parts of the body.</p><p>One aspect of this back-and-forth communication is inflammation. When the immune system detects injury or attack, it automatically triggers an inflammatory response, which helps heal injuries and fend off invaders. But when not deployed properly, inflammation can become excessive, exacerbating the original problem and potentially contributing to diseases.</p><p>In 2002, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues discovered that the nervous system plays a key role in monitoring and modifying inflammation. This occurs through a process called the <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature01321" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammatory reflex</a>. In simple terms, it works like this: When the nervous system detects inflammatory stimuli, it reflexively (and subconsciously) deploys electrical signals through the vagus nerve that trigger anti-inflammatory molecular processes.</p><p>In rodent experiments, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues observed that electrical signals traveling through the vagus nerve control TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. These electrical signals travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, triggering a molecular process that ultimately makes TNF, which exacerbates conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.</p><p>The incredible chain reaction of the inflammatory reflex was observed by Dr. Tracey and his colleagues in greater detail through rodent experiments. When inflammatory stimuli are detected, the nervous system sends electrical signals that travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, the electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, which trigger the spleen to create a white blood cell called a T cell, which then creates a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. The acetylcholine interacts with macrophages, which are a specific type of white blood cell that creates TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. At that point, the acetylcholine triggers the macrophages to stop overproducing TNF – or inflammation.</p><p>Experiments showed that when a specific part of the body is inflamed, specific fibers within the vagus nerve start firing. Dr. Tracey and his colleagues were able to map these relationships. More importantly, they were able to stimulate specific parts of the vagus nerve to "shut off" inflammation.</p><p>What's more, clinical trials show that vagus nerve stimulation not only "shuts off" inflammation, but also triggers the production of cells that promote healing.</p><p>"In animal experiments, we understand how this works," Dr. Tracey said. "And now we have clinical trials showing that the human response is what's predicted by the lab experiments. Many scientific thresholds have been crossed in the clinic and the lab. We're literally at the point of regulatory steps and stages, and then marketing and distribution before this idea takes off."<br></p>
The future of bioelectronic medicine<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYxMDYxMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjQwOTExNH0.uBY1TnEs_kv9Dal7zmA_i9L7T0wnIuf9gGtdRXcNNxo/img.jpg?width=980" id="8b5b2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c005e615e5f23c2817483862354d2cc4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2000" data-height="1125" />
Vagus nerve stimulation can already treat Crohn's disease and other inflammatory diseases. In the future, it may also be used to treat cancer, diabetes, and depression.
Credit: Adobe Stock via Maridav<p>Vagus nerve stimulation is currently awaiting approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, but so far, it's proven safe and effective in clinical trials on humans. Dr. Tracey said vagus nerve stimulation could become a common treatment for a wide range of diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension, shock, depression and diabetes.</p><p>"To the extent that inflammation is the problem in the disease, then stopping inflammation or suppressing the inflammation with vagus nerve stimulation or bioelectronic approaches will be beneficial and therapeutic," he said.</p><p>Receiving vagus nerve stimulation would require having an electronic device, about the size of lima bean, surgically implanted in your neck during a 30-minute procedure. A couple of weeks later, you'd visit, say, your rheumatologist, who would activate the device and determine the right dosage. The stimulation would take a few minutes each day, and it'd likely be unnoticeable.</p><p>But the most revolutionary aspect of bioelectronic medicine, according to Dr. Tracey, is that approaches like vagus nerve stimulation wouldn't come with harmful and potentially deadly side effects, as many pharmaceutical drugs currently do.</p><p>"A device on a nerve is not going to have systemic side effects on the body like taking a steroid does," Dr. Tracey said. "It's a powerful concept that, frankly, scientists are quite accepting of—it's actually quite amazing. But the idea of adopting this into practice is going to take another 10 or 20 years, because it's hard for physicians, who've spent their lives writing prescriptions for pills or injections, that a computer chip can replace the drug."</p><p>But patients could also play a role in advancing bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There's a huge demand in this patient cohort for something better than they're taking now," Dr. Tracey said. "Patients don't want to take a drug with a black-box warning, costs $100,000 a year and works half the time."</p><p>Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, elaborated:</p><p>"Why would patients pursue a drug regimen when they could opt for a few electronic pulses? Is it possible that treatments like this, pulses through electronic devices, could replace some drugs in the coming years as preferred treatments? Tracey believes it is, and that is perhaps why the pharmaceutical industry closely follows his work."</p><p>Over the long term, bioelectronic approaches are unlikely to completely replace pharmaceutical drugs, but they could replace many, or at least be used as supplemental treatments.</p><p>Dr. Tracey is optimistic about the future of the field.</p><p>"It's going to spawn a huge new industry that will rival the pharmaceutical industry in the next 50 years," he said. "This is no longer just a startup industry. [...] It's going to be very interesting to see the explosive growth that's going to occur."</p>
The first rule of Vulture Club: stay out of Portugal.
So you're a vulture, riding the thermals that rise up over Iberia. Your way of life is ancient, ruled by needs and instincts that are way older than the human civilization that has overtaken the peninsula below, and the entire planet.
"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.
- Want three reasons why that headline is justified? Characters and acting, universe building, and science.
- For those who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system with three waring factions: Earth, Mars, and Belters.
- No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building.
Credit: "The Expanse" / Syfy<p>Now, I get it if you don't agree with me. I love "Star Trek" and I thought "Battlestar Galactica" (the new one) was amazing and I do adore "The Mandalorian". They are all fun and important and worth watching and thinking about. And maybe you love them more than anything else. But when you sum up the acting, the universe building, and the use of real science where it matters, I think nothing can beat "The Expanse". And with a <a href="https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/the_expanse" target="_blank">Rotten Tomato</a> average rating of 93%, I'm clearly not the only one who feels this way.</p><p>Best.</p><p>Show.</p><p>Ever. </p>
Contrary to what some might think, the brain is a very plastic organ.
As with many other physicians, recommending physical activity to patients was just a doctor chore for me – until a few years ago. That was because I myself was not very active.