Big Think Interview With David Small
David Small is an award-winning American author and illustrator of over 40 books for children. A Detroit, Michigan native, he graduated with an MFA from the Yale School of Art and published his first illustrated book in 1981. His illustrations for "The Gardener" (written by his wife, Sarah Stewart) received a Caldecott Honor in 1997, while his work on “So, You Want To Be President?” (by Judith St. George) earned him the coveted Caldecott Medal for children's illustration in 2001. His widely acclaimed 2009 memoir, "Stitches," was nominated for a National Book Award in Young People's Literature. Small's work has also appeared regularly in The New Yorker and The New York Times, among other publications. He and his wife live in southwest Michigan.
Question: How does it feel to be up for a National Book Award as a graphic novelist?\r\n
David Small: It's thrilling. I'm overwhelmed. But I also—I won a big award and a couple of minor things, and I'm trying to just keep in mind that this is just a blip, you know, in my life. I mean, if I get it, that'll be very nice, and probably lead to a flurry of e-mails and phone calls and who knows? Maybe some trips, and then it'll all be over, and the big spotlight will move on to somebody else, and my studio will become very quiet again. And that's just the way it goes, and that's a good thing.\r\n
Question: Was your book miscategorized as “Young People’s Literature”?\r\n
David Small: I do not believe that it was miscategorized. I think it was categorized exactly where it should be. I didn't think of categories when I was writing the book. I knew that I was stepping out of the children's world, but I never thought that I was stepping completely into the adult world, because the book is about a teenager, for example. It really—the principal ages are six and 14—of the main character. And when the controversy started, I began having second thoughts and wondering, hmm, did I put some things in there that, you know, teenagers couldn't handle? I didn't think so. I mean, they see so much now, and things are talked about so openly in young adult literature. I actually thought that I was being rather modest in my book with the things that I left out. And also by not taking, by not adopting a totally sarcastic viewpoint. That—I questioned myself about that too, because it almost seemed totally uncool to not be, you know, absolutely ironic about everything. I'm not really ironic about anything in this book; it's pretty sincere, without, I hope, ever falling into sentimentality, which I despise. But I—you know, I was questioning it until yesterday at the New York Public Library, where the five of us finalists spoke to a room of, I don't know, it looked like hundreds of teenagers. And they all came up to the mikes afterwards with questions. And I could see that these young people were so touched by Stitches; it was just unbelievable. The questions that they asked were—they were the equal of the very best questions that I have been asked by bloggers in the whole—you know, you can read 53 pages of blogs and reviews of my book on Google—and these kids were just as intelligent and just as—they were giving my book just as sensitive a read as any adult who's talked to me. And I was really touched by that. And as one of the teachers said to me who came up to the table afterwards, you know, everybody feels—especially at this age—they feel the kind of isolation that's talked about in Stitches. They feel that kind of loneliness. And I—you know, the book is really—it's not about being an abused child in the sense of the kind of abuse that attracts our attention in newspapers all the time—you know, kids getting their limbs broken and being thrown downstairs or out of second-floor windows. None of that happened to me.\r\n
I was abused, but it was all psychological; it was much subtler. And I think everyone to some extent can relate to that. And I think above all why this is a book for teenagers is that teenagers—part of the teenage angst, part of the angstiness of being a teenager, and part of the rebellion, is this sense that they're not being told everything about the adult world, that there's a deep hypocrisy out there that they are desperate to know about. And, you know, teenagers are always sneaking around in drawers where they shouldn't go and reading things they shouldn't be reading. And that's an attempt to try, I think, to penetrate—and that actually happens in my book—there's—that's how I found out as a teenager what was going on, was by sneaking into drawers and reading letters that I had no business reading. This is how I found out that I had had cancer, that everybody—my whole family—thought that I was going to die, and nobody had told me about it. And my reaction at the time was the reaction that I had been taught by my own family to give, which was to clam up, to not respond, to hold it inside. And then when I started, like a teenager will, to act out, and in pretty bad ways—running away from school and threatening suicide and needing to see a shrink and so on—that's when the truth began to come out. And of course, what I discovered on my own was that, you know, that I'd had cancer, but then I found out later that it was my dad who had given it to me in his practice as a radiologist, and that was just sort of the tip of the iceberg in terms of—mixed metaphors—family skeletons, you know. I was the least of the ones that came tumbling out of the closet one after another at that point. So I think this is something that kids really, really can relate to, and I don't see it miscategorized at all, and I'm very happy to be in that category.\r\n
Question: Do you prefer “graphic novel,” “comic book,” or some other term?\r\n
David Small: You know, I've been in that flurry of whatever terminology—misunderstanding—I'm perfectly fine with the term graphic books, whether it refers to fiction or memoir or what have you. It doesn't bother me. I'm not a purist about comics or anything like that, maybe because I never really followed comics and I don't know much about that world. I don't know much about the graphic novel world either; I wasn't a big fan of them until I read some of the European things. And now—and then of course somebody started sending me piles of them when they heard that I was working on my own. I started receiving some, but I didn't read any of them until I was finished with my book because I didn't want to be infected or influenced, you know. I especially didn't want to see anything that was really tremendous that would make me feel intimidated. So I guess this is a twisted way of telling you that I really didn't know what I was doing, except telling my story in the best way I thought I could. But I know there is a big insistence on people from the comics world; it's as if they want to get their due finally, they want to be respected. And so they keep insisting that these things be called comics. And, you know, if they want to call my book a comic book about my life, that's fine too; I don't care. It is in panels. But I don't use many of the comic book conventions. My influences are more from film and certain films, certain filmmakers.\r\n
Question: If not graphic novels, what works have influenced you?\r\n
David Small: I'm a reader. I like—I'm a great reader. I keep going back, though, to certain authors, just like I love film, but I keep going back to just five or six certain filmmakers. In literature I like Chekhov, for example; I think he's my favorite. And Flaubert—you know, that kind of concision. But I also like Tolstoy; I love those romances that, you know, weigh 500 pounds and take months and months and months to read. I read the three big novels of Thomas Mann in one year; that was an interesting project. But I've found that, like Chekhov, you have to read him as if he's a short story writer in order to get through those novels. In film I like the guys that came along in the '60s and early '70s, along from Europe: Bunuel and Alansky and Bergman. Antonioni I didn't like very much when I first saw him, but now later on, realizing that even though I found his movies very boring when I was in college, and sort of incomprehensible—or its converse, kind of insult—too easy to understand—going back to them—I have gone back to them recently because I realized that some of his images and sequence were unforgettable. I couldn't get them out of my mind. So it was good to go back as an adult and to see them. And I think certain of his films are just works of genius, some of his early things. And I like the people that those people were influenced by, Welles and Hitchcock. And they, of course, were influenced by silent film. But I don't know much about that medium.\r\n
Question: How did “Stitches” come about?\r\n
David Small: It started as an act of self-therapy, really. I found that I had reached over half a century of life, and that I was still, in spite of the fact that I have a perfect career doing something I really love to do, a wonderful home, a wonderful, wonderful marriage, friendship—and in spite of all of these things I was having dreams and sometimes anxieties and exhibiting a kind of erratic behavior that showed quite clearly that I was still on some level a troubled lad of 14, or even younger. And I had always wanted to write maybe stories or something relating to some things that had happened to me as a young man, but I never thought that there was a full memoir or even a possibility of a book in there. But I did have this need to go back and to see my youth again. What I really wanted was, I really wanted to go back into psychoanalysis. I'd had a wonderful analyst, who's in the book, for 12 years when I was a young man. But I wouldn't call it deep Freudian analysis because I was so young. My analysis really was going to an office, first five and then three times a week for many years, and sitting down with a man who actually was, for me, a perfect parent, somebody who just allowed me to be myself, who loved me for who I was, and just allowed me—and he really did love me; I think that's why it was so effective. He really cared for me. And because I had no voice, he had to speak for me.\r\n
So the talking cure in my case got reversed. It was the analyst that did all the talking, telling me what was probably, he thought, going on in my mind. And as it turned out many years later, because of the similarities in our experience, he did understand me very, very well. But you know, being able to sit with somebody who was patient with me and sympathetic and empathetic, and who would allow me to act out my fears and so on, and who didn't despise me for it—you know, that's really what saved me as a young man. And I wanted that back; I wanted to do it again. You know, I was, I think 55, maybe 10 years ago, when I first started longing to go back. And I also—I wanted it back fully. I didn't want to just be going to see a therapist, and—you know, I wanted that kind of relationship. But the fact is, I live out on the edge of a prairie out in Michigan, in a very rural setting, hundreds and hundreds of miles from that kind of help. I'm not even sure I have health insurance that would cover it. So I finally realized, after yearning for it for so long, this impossible thing, that if I was going to have it, I was really going to have to give it to myself. And that's what I did: I started sitting down and, first in prose and then later on in pictures, tried to write out what had happened to me as a kid. And I tried to imitate what my old analyst had done for me. I was patient as I worked through all this mess of memories, which of course came back with no—you know, memories aren't chronological; they didn’t come back in any logical order. But I just let that happen; I let it flow. If I had dreams that I had—if I suffered from a dream that disturbed me at the time, I would write it down as I usually do and try to—and then to draw it out—when it started becoming a graphic thing. And so I was trying to be like my doctor; I was trying to be patient and sympathetic, and yet not totally tolerant, you know. There was always an expectation that I would get through this. And then later on, when I had a contract from a publisher, that was another spur to get through it, to get to the end. And that's the way it developed; that's the way it started. It didn't really start as a book; it started as therapy.\r\n
Question: Did the book force you to confront painful buried memories?\r\n
David Small: I think the worst thing, the worst part, was when I started drawing things out they really got real for me. As long as I was doing it in prose, there seemed to be kind of a scrim between me and the experiences that I was remembering, shadows moving behind an opaque screen. But when I began to draw especially my mother, when I saw her face on the page, and when I realized that I could draw her from any angle, and really brought her back with all of her—that aura that she had—it was as if she was with me again. It was as if I had really brought the ghosts back, and I began to get very, very anxious, because even after the age of 50 it was impossible for me to see my mother as a human being. I felt she was a monster, and she had subtly been influencing my behavior and my thoughts and my dreams for so long that she was kind of a monster; she was a demon. And when I brought her back to life, I could feel that malevolent presence around me again, that woman who was totally incapable of giving nurturing to anybody, and, you know, her selfishness and her withdrawn indifference to everything but her own needs. And I began feeling these feelings of anxiety that I used to have when she was alive, and especially when I was a teenager. And one night my wife and I were out at a restaurant, and I was leaning on my face like this, or on my neck, and I suddenly could feel this lump swelling up under my fingers. And I thought at first that it was just some sort of physical hallucination, until I looked at my wife, and she had just gone white. She reached across the table and took my wrist, and she said, darling, what's wrong? And I said, I don't know. And she thrust a glass of wine into my hands and said, drink this. And I drank it, and it calmed me down a little bit, but I could actually feel that this lump was there.\r\n
It was hard and it was big and growing. And it was exactly like this lump that I had had in my neck when I was 14 that had taken years and years to get to the size of like an eggplant. But here it had come back in a matter of minutes. And I stumbled into the men's room, which, thank God, was empty, and I had to see it in the mirror, because I had to see what was happening to me. And there indeed again was this lump that I had had, which was of course cancerous when I was 14. And I realized at that moment that my body was expressing all of my repressed feelings and all of my anger and anxiety. Since I wasn't letting it out, since I wasn't able to speak about it, my body was speaking for me. And I understood in that moment, in that place, that awful little room, that I could die from it if I didn’t do something about it, that it was going to kill me. And it could have happened right there. And so I just took some deep breaths, and I said, this is not where I'm going to die, and this is not the end. And I'm going to do something about this. And it was that moment when I resolved to seriously get to work on this book. And the lump, of course, turned out to be a swollen gland. It went right down that same hour; it just went away. It just disappeared.\r\n
Question: Did drawing your parents humanize them for you?\r\n
David Small: Absolutely, yeah. No doubt about it. And that—you know, that humanization and that coming to understand somebody as a human being is about as good a kind of forgiveness as you can get, I think. I don't like my parents; I never will. I didn't cry at either of their funerals. I haven't missed them for five seconds. I didn't—you know, our characters were so at odds with one another right from the beginning. But I do understand them now as human beings, with the understanding of an adult. As a man, I can now—having seen them again and brought them back; having, you know, furnished the rooms and let the ghosts come in and act their little plays again—I've been able to see them and understand their impulses, their fears—their fears of having no money in the case of my mother. You know, that's an adult thing. Or hidden sexuality, sexual impulses that you don't want to bring out—that's an adult thing. Children don't understand this. You know, as a six-year-old—and my brother, we just—the two of us could not understand what was going on in our household. And I don't think any kid really can until they're adults. There are just certain things you can't talk about with kids. I just totally do not believe in this sort of Bart Simpson character who infects so much of our literature and film and TV stuff nowadays, these know-it-all kids who seem to understand the hypocrisy of the adult world so thoroughly and can talk about it with such articulateness. That's bunk. Kids are kids; they're innocents, they really are. For a long time, no matter what they see, no matter what they're exposed to, they can't get it until they have developed enough.\r\n
Question: When did you first start drawing and writing?\r\n
David Small: I began drawing probably when I was—around the same time everybody else puts a mark on a piece of paper with a crayon—when I was two, probably. The difference between me and everybody else is, I kept doing it for the rest of my life; there was something very satisfying about that. And I also got a lot of praise for it from my mother and her friends and so on, because this was the early '50s and, you know, that was before the days of TV, before the days of women in the workforce. And anything that distracted a child and took him off in a safe way and out of the mother's hands was praiseworthy. And that's what drawing, I'm sure—you know, my mother thought it was just great that I would draw endlessly for hours. And my dad actually furnished my first art materials straight out of the X-ray department of hospital where he worked. The first drawing paper I ever worked on were these enormous sheets of yellow paper from the Kodak Company that used to come wrapped around X-ray films. Instead of throwing that stuff away every week, they started boxing it up for David. And they'd bring it home. On Friday nights my dad would come home with a new box of yellow X-ray paper, and I'd get out my crayons and draw on the living room floor, just endlessly. But I never wanted to be an artist.\r\n
I wanted—when I started thinking about a career in the arts, it was more literature, or for a while it was acting. I don't know if I ever would have developed into a good actor, but that got completely scotched when I lost my vocal cord at 14 in that operation. But writing always—writing plays, writing, writing, writing, that was what I wanted to do. And I actually had some plays put on in Detroit when I was 17—that was back in the '60s, when there was all kinds of experimental theaters popping up everywhere, and Detroit was no different from any other cultural center; they had little professional theaters in storefronts and so on. And my plays were picked by one of them to be put on, and then the university put on another one. And then a friend of mine one night—he was a really wonderful photographer, so I listened to his opinion—he came to me and he did me the favor of telling me the truth, which is very hard. He had to get a little drunk to do it, but he said, David, I've got to tell you man: I've been your roommate for two years; I've watched you writing away every day, and I've seen all your plays put on, and you've let me read all of these things. And quite frankly, I don't know why you're not studying art, because the little doodles that you make on the pad by the phone are so much better than anything you ever wrote, and they just seem to flow from you so much more naturally and easily. I think that's what you should be doing. And I was furious with him for, you know, a couple of hours. But then I began to realize that this huge weight had been lifted off my neck; that I didn't have to pretend that I was a writer any more, because it wasn't—there was the—I wasn't a writer. The hardest thing I'd ever done was try to write plays, or to finish them. It was a real feat, and it left me exhausted, not exhilarated. But art—I had never thought of that as a career because it was like something I did so naturally, and it was fluid, and it is. And even though I still admire literature as the superior art form, I have to admit that art, for me, that's it; that's what I'm good at, and that's what I should be concentrating on.\r\n
Question: Which particular artists inspired you?\r\n
David Small: It would have been the artist of the month, you know. When I was your age, I was just letting myself be totally immersed in first Daumier; Lautrec I loved. You know, both guys have things in common; not just that they're French, but that their drawings are filled with life. And then later on I came to appreciate Degas, whose drawings are very measured and very exacting, and yet still have this feeling of life coming out of them. And Egon Schiele. But I also liked the expressionists; I loved some of Kokoschka's stuff. And Rembrandt; above all, I think, Rembrandt. His drawings; not so much the paintings, but those wonderful loose brush drawings that were obviously done very quickly and with so much knowledge of anatomy and structure underneath them—but just in a few lines, just dashed off, the whole scene, the whole expression of the body there. And then—you know, that plus studying anatomy when I got into college. Things like anatomy and drawing and design and color had pretty much been drop-kicked out of the curriculum in the '70s, when I was studying art, in favor of abstraction and minimalism. You know, people had basically thrown up their hands with storytelling in art in those days, and said art is pointless, so let's just make it a skin of paint on the canvas and do that in a pretty way. And here I wanted to learn to draw the figure from any angle and any position, from memory. And so I studied that and, thank God, found a few teachers who were still interested in teaching it, both at Wayne State in Detroit, where I did my undergraduate work, and at Yale in the grad school there. But then later on, as a teacher I taught anatomy; I chose to teach anatomy, which nobody wanted to study. But I wanted to teach it because (a) I was enthusiastic about it, and I knew that I could make some kids interested in it, and I did; but (b) I wanted to learn more about it, and you know, so I was always a couple steps ahead of my class. And it was good, it was worthwhile.\r\n
Question: What is an illustrator’s basic toolkit?\r\n
David Small: Hmm. That's a good question. I haven't been asked that one. But relating back to Stitches a little bit, people ask me frequently why I chose to do it in black and white. And that would be my first answer to your question about art materials: that first of all, I think drawing is really the basis of all art, even sculpture, film. The greatest filmmakers have always been able to at least roughly sketch out their ideas in storyboards. And black and white in particular is a good place to start. I stayed with black and white charcoal drawings for years and years and years, maybe—I think I was maybe 38. I started the serious study of art when I was 21. When I was 38 and did my first picture book, I had to start thinking about color. And that's when I found that that whole basis of working in black and white and grays became the basis of my understanding of color, because it's all about tone, it's all about light and dark. If you don't get that, then your color work is going to be a mess. So that's the beginning of the toolkit: drawing and black and white media. In terms of surprises, I'm always surprised by the things that come to me through literature. I think it's really important for any artist to expand themselves in some other area. You know, I've taught—I used to teach on a college level, and I've taught in schools where kids just wanted to be artists, and I used to be furious with them if they didn't read, because they just seemed so—their education seemed so thin if all they could do was pick up a paint-loaded brush and fling it at a canvas. I mean, there was nothing to express there, except maybe their own personal feelings. But if they're not—if they don't have a grounding in the way these things have been expressed by other people down through the centuries, then they're lost. They're pretty much—you know, they're reinventing wheels that don't need to be invented any more. Things come to me through literature and also my study of film that are constantly surprising and enriching for me. So I'm not talking so much about artistic tools as I am about things that come out of the air.\r\n
Question: What advice would you give someone writing or drawing for children?\r\n
David Small: Do what you feel like, you know, what you think is right. That would be my—I don't have any theories about it, you know. I just—and I actually, even though I have this solid career in picture books, I've not only been thinking about kids—because I don't think that much about children; I'm not a child educator; I'm just a former child. And I know what I would have been enchanted by or interested in as a kid, so even when some art directors early on in my career would say, oh, no, no, no, no, no, you can't draw that way; that's much too loose for kids to understand; well, all that's been proven as bunk, because people like Jules Feiffer are doing things for kids. And you know, Feiffer is the Daumier of our age; his stuff is just so loose and wiggly and, you know, looks like it's out of control although there's perfect control behind it. And kids love that stuff; they eat it up. Or Quentin Blake is another guy that—the guy who illustrates Dahl's stories—Roald Dahl's stories, not doll stories.\r\n
I've always been interested in a certain kind of sophistication in children's literature. I loved Roald Dahl; I loved the underlying nastiness of some of his—darkness of his tales. I loved a guy named Tomi Ungerer. You know, early Sendak things. And as a father—you know, that's what kind of got me into making this stuff is that I used to have to read some of this swill to my children 50 times a week, and while the kids actually seemed to be interested in certain books, they were putting me to sleep. But then when I'd get my hands on a Roald Dahl novel, suddenly I was able to invest my reading with some energy and, you know, real interest of my own and come to bedtime with real eagerness. And so there was a sharing between the kids and me. And that was the kind of books that I wanted to write and draw myself, the books that kind of straddled that fence between what would entertain a child and what would entertain parents too. I wrote a book called Imogene's Antlers, which I think is a good example of a book that kids and their parents enjoy. But I realize now that I sort of participated in a history of sophistication that—over-sophistication in children's literature: too much irony, too much sarcasm, too many jokes that the kids got left out of. There was a whole spate of picture books coming out for years and years and years where it was quite evident to me that it was the parents who were buying these books—it wasn't the kids who were choosing them—and that the parents had—they had sort of preempted—is that the word?—co-opted bedtime for themselves instead of—I mean, the worst thing I can think of is making a book where—I have this vision of a dad sitting on a bed with his daughter or his son and laughing his ass off, and the kid's sitting there just totally left out of the joke. And also the parent not being able to explain why it's funny—that's bad. And that's what's—that's what I try to do in my picture books, is to be all-inclusive, but not exclusive, to not exclude the kid and not exclude the parents from the experience. And it's not a very easy task; you can't find stories that work that way too much of the time.\r\n
Question: What keeps you up at night?\r\n
David Small: Oh. I do keep up at night. I try not to let my mind go to extremes in the middle of the night because it would be better to turn all that stuff into dreams; it would be better if I was sleeping, because dreams become good metaphors for what's really going on inside of you. But you know, I come from a family of—my mother worried about money all the time, and I think her being a Depression child was part of that. But that vision of hers of always ending up in the poorhouse, or her kind of—she never talked about it, but I'm sure she had apocalyptic, you know, visions of poverty and destitution that have infected me and—you know, my brother has the same anxieties. And it's silly, really, but that's part of the family tradition, and it's something that I would hope to break sometime in my life. But I don't know if it's every going to go away. You know, I worry about money, I worry about security. And nowadays it's really easy to fret about that sort of thing. I try not to watch the news too much because that just aggravates the anxiety.
Recorded on November 18, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen
A conversation with the illustrator and author of "Stitches."
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
- In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
- The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
- The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
The controversial herbicide is everywhere, apparently.
- U.S. PIRG tested 20 beers and wines, including organics, and found Roundup's active ingredient in almost all of them.
- A jury on August 2018 awarded a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma victim $289 million in Roundup damages.
- Bayer/Monsanto says Roundup is totally safe. Others disagree.
One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?
Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."
Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.
Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.
The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."
That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"
The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.
Some back story
Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.
The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.
Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.
There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.
A Dunbar Correlation
Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?
"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.
I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.
Professor Dunbar's response:
"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."
I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:
"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."
In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.
Friendship, kinship and limitations
"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."
These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.
"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.
As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."
We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.
In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."
This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.
If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.
Gray matter matters
One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."
It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷
It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.
There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:
(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."
(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.
In the end
Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.
Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.
Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.
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