Big Think Interview with Jay Smooth

.

 

Jay Smooth:  My name, for the public sphere, is Jay Smooth; J-A-Y S-M-O-O-T-H. 

 

Jay Smooth:  I am the composer, arranger, and conductor of New York’s longest running hip-hop radio show, The Underground Railroad, also a blogger at HipHopMusic.com and a video blogger at IllDoctrine.com.

Question: What is the added value of the video format?

Jay Smooth:  I was drawn to radio because there was a sense of intimacy there—just sitting at home listening to someone's voice—that I felt was unique compared to television and any other stuff that was out there. I think what we have now with blogging, and especially video blogging, it sort of recreates that intimacy in a different way.  Having my face inside the box there at home it sort of adds a bit of mystique of television, but it's a more intimate, personal thing. I feel like radio…I don't think radio is going to go extinct, but certainly the role that radio plays in our lives has diminished somewhat, with all the resources we have online. 

I saw pretty early on –I've been working in the non-profit media world, so that false sense of security that mainstream people had, I never had that.  I always had a sense of… this opportunity that I have to propagate my voice, it could disappear at any moment—because when you're at a small non-profit station you're always going through lots of turbulence and barely surviving. So, I saw pretty early on that the Internet was a place where I could plant my own flag and have sort of an autonomous voice–-have an outlet for my voice that I owned and controlled and would always be there.

I think that we've seen people who work in mainstream media sort of shift over to seeing the Internet that way—the way that I did in the late Nineties. I think we’ve see more and more people recognize that, as the music industry as a whole, and various forms of old media, start falling apart and becoming a lot less viable, people are seeing the Internet as a place where, on a smaller scale, you can plant your own flag and make sure your voice is out there and build a more direct connection with your audience than you could before. So, I've been drawn to the Internet for a long time because of that. I think web video is the place where you can do that most effectively now.

Card 2: How has the audience-interaction changed as media evolves?

Jay Smooth: Internet media is much more of a two-way experience.  I mean on the radio you can take phone calls and get a little bit of feedback. When you do print media—I use to also work the Source and various magazines like that—you would write your review and it would go out there in the either and you'd never really get a sense of what the response was.  But anything you do online you have this precise measurement of exactly how many people viewed it, you see dozens or hundreds of responses, if you're lucky enough to get viewed that much. You get a very detailed view of what the public's response to it is, and you're able to converse with them and sort of build a conversation out of it. Once I put my initial piece of conversation out there and the public adds on to it—that to me is an integral part of the piece. I feel like I'm writing the first chapter of something and then the comments that come underneath it is a part of the work that we create collaboratively.

So, I feel like there is much more of a connection with your audiences than you were ever able to have certainly in radio or in print media. I think of a lot of old media people are very intimidated by that, and you see when old school journalist start blogs and things like that, they seem to be horrified by having these comments right underneath. Even just, where newspaper sites are set up so that readers are able to comment underneath, reporters are aghast at having this feedback right underneath and they have a lot of difficulty coping with that.  Which I think is interesting because you hear a lot about how new media doesn't have the checks and balances through an editorial process that keeps you on point, but I think there's a similar set of checks and balances in new media that comes after you put your work out there, because you're accountable to the public and because they 're crowd sourcing and it's not each individual. Any way that you were slipping, you're going to get caught slipping once you put it out there, if you have a substantial audience.  So I think there's a connection with the audience that's fairly different than what you were ever able to have in old media.  I think it helps you approach your expression in new ways that you wouldn't have done before. 

Question: Where do you see hip-hop going?

Jay Smooth: I think we're looking out at a new frontier right now, as far as how anyone trying to express themselves creatively, or just deal in the realm of ideas as a journalist or a writer. How are you going to find a way to survive as an artist or creative person?  I think we're all trying to figure that out. I think the Internet is going to provide ways for you to do that on a smaller scale and what a lot of us are hoping is that the era of people seeing hip-hop as a get rich quick scheme is going to fall by the wayside, and people who really have a deep commitment to creating art that connects with people are really going to be able to do more than ever on a smaller scale. You have the Seth Godin theory: as long as you have 2,000 loyal fans that's enough for you to subsist as a creative person or anyone with a public voice.

I'm hoping that, bit-by-bit, hip-hop is going to recognize that that's the way you can sustain yourself. I think a lot of things that the younger generation is doing, that we, as older hip-hop heads, look down upon, I see signs of hope in someone like Soulja Boy who musically, aesthetically, we hate; if you look at the model that he has established for how to connect directly with your audience, completely out of the mainstream and build a lasting relationship.  He's far past being a one-hit wonder now.  He's done it without any of the pretensions that major label rappers were offering to the public.

He doesn't have any of that gangster mythology.  He's not pretending to be anything else but a regular kid who is connecting with regular kids out there through YouTube. He's built a franchise that doesn't show any signs of slowing down, much as we may not like the music. I feel like that's a model that a lot of us could look towards to know how to create art. There's no reason that this generation’s Public Enemy can't follow that Soulja Boy model and connect with people and recreate that success.

So I'm hoping that people who represent hip-hop in all the various subcultures around the world where hip-hop has blossomed and bloomed, I hope we can all see how new media gives us a chance to sustain ourselves and get ourselves out there.

Question: What responsibility do you feel those in the public eye have to encourage or discourage certain behavior amongst their listeners?

Jay Smooth:  I think any artist’s responsibility is, first and foremost, to create good art.  I think hip-hop -- I'm certainly not the first to say this, probably not the first to say this on Big Think, but hip-hop has always been held to standards that I thought were unrealistic and unfair. Standards that now other modern pop music form has been held to as far as our lyrical contents and how much we deliver a substantive message, or whether we craft our music into a comprehensive handbook for how to live your life.

I mean, I don’t think anyone has ever looked at the blues or jazz or country or any other form—no one has ever looked at John Coltrane and said he's failing as an artist because he didn’t provide a detailed blueprint for political change in our country, or a detailed blueprint for how to raise your children. Because people recognize that the value of John Coltrane’s music comes in its musical expressiveness. But with hip-hop a lot of people don't recognize hip-hop’s musical value, so they latch on to what's easier to them to understand, which is the lyrical content, and judge it strictly on that basis.

I think hip-hop gets a raw deal in a lot of ways, especially because right when hip-hop was beginning to be discovered by the mainstreamers, right towards the end of people call the conscious era, where groups like Public Enemy, who raised hopes very high for having this generation fill the void that had been left behind when the civil rights movement ended, the black power era had ended due to COINTELPRO and self-implosion and whatever else went on.

I think people were hoping for some kind of voice to rise up and when you had Public Enemy, and all the other groups around them, speaking so compellingly I think people got their hopes so high they had unrealistic expectations for how much these young musicians could really deliver as far as offering substantive social and political leadership.

Working in a left wing progressive circle of non-profit media, it's always been a struggle for me to get people to recognize that hip-hop should be recognized for it's musical value first and foremost, and if we're making great music then we've done our jobs.  If we're expressing something that's explicitly political or positive, that's great—but that's icing on the cake. If you don’t have the foundation of great music underneath that, you know, it doesn’t matter. If it was all about the message and only the message, Cornel West would be the best rapper in the world, which I'm sure he would agree, he is not.

Question: What do you think are the effects of media's portrayal of young black men as almost exclusively athletes or rappers? 

Jay Smooth:  I think the most obvious assumptions people make about how the media's representation of young black men would effect our public consciousness—both as young black men, and for everyone else looking at young black men. I think the obvious assumptions people make about how that narrow representation affects people is true; that it gives young black men a very narrow sense of what their opportunities are. I think you can see that all the time; anyone who works with kids you see what they aspire to be. Obviously, we hope that's expanding now with certain other recent developments.

I do think that the rise of hip-hop is also -- and the example that athletes have set more recently, has expanded our concept of what we can do because there's been a phenomenon of entrepreneurship, both in this generation of athletes and in this generation of hip-hoppers, that has also shown the kids that you don’t need to be just an artist who's out there on stage and getting exploited. You can also be on top of the business end and have other franchises and enterprises and build something beyond that. I think, a lot of people, someone like Diddy, have built a reputation as an entrepreneur more than as an artist. I think that's one of the good things that's happened as we've seen this generation of athletes and hip-hoppers develop; even within that narrow window that they give to us, they've forced in a wider palette for kids to see and latch on to.

A lot of people in America and around the world, their impression of what a Black man is and can be comes from 50 Cent; and I think 50 Cent is a lot more complex than a lot of people give him credit for; but, nonetheless, he certainly—on his records, if not in his interviews—he represents a very narrow concept of hyper-masculinity and so on that is reductive.

Socially, we've been connecting more and more and hip-hop has been a part of that. We have so much more exposure to each other through the Internet and other forms of media that I don't think anyone is as reliant on television and movies to form their entire impression of other cultures as they use to be. I hope that the reductive impact that mass media has, and how they portray us, is going to be lessened more and more because I think it's inevitable that there's going to be a reductive representation—because in order for you take a culture and change it into a product, you have to simplify it down into something that can me branded and described in five words or less.  There's never going to be a complete representation of who any of us are as human beings when were being turned into a media commodity.

My biggest hope, I think, is that we'll continue connecting with each other in smaller ways outside of those mass media windows and get more of a sense of how much we all have in common, despite those differences on the surface.

Question: Has the concept of ‘player hating’ eliminated room for effective critique in hip-hop?

Jay Smooth:  I think hip-hop has always had a problem with letting itself be criticized.

That notion that you're either suppose to support me or say something positive or just keep quiet and keep it to yourself.  That belief has been around in hip-hop pretty much as long as hip-hop has been around. That's why the Internet has become so scary for hip-hop artists as well because now you have bloggers and people who are independent of the media machine who are expressing their views much more frankly and are much more detailed than you had before. Rappers and labels are not able to control those independent voices and you have much harsher critiques than you had before.  That's been a big adjustment for the hip-hop world, is that new level of accountability that the Internet brings.

The concept of a player hater is one that people still try to enforce. You see that all the time—artists will describe any sort of critique as hating. I always say that the true definition of a hater is someone who tries to dismiss any criticism as hating. And this is a phenomenon that goes beyond hip-hop: there's always a sense that any sort of minority expression, such as, let’s say black film makers, for example, there’s always been a sense for many people in the black community that we need to always speak positively of the work even it's mediocre or not really up to snuff because we need to support these artists--we need to support this because there's not enough of it out there. I think that principle has been in effect for hip-hop as well, but I think hip-hop is established enough now that we can shift and support our artists by setting high standards for them and not pretend that everyone’s turds are made of gold. I think, if we really love and respect our artists, we should check them and hold them to a high standard and critique them harshly because we respect them enough, and admire their work enough, that we believe they can meet our high standards. That's the ultimate show of respect is to criticize someone frankly. We, as fans and commentators and artists, should all adjust to that—recognize that hip-hop has grown up. We can take it.

Question: Why is Beef such a Strong Force in Hip-Hop?

Jay Smooth: Beef has always been around, obviously it pre-dates hip-hop. Approaching your artistic expression in a competitive way has been around, specifically in the black community, for ages and ages with The Dozens and with the competitive storytelling Zora Neale Hurston documented in “Mules and Men”. You can see a lot of precursors in the world of music: George Clinton calling out Kool and the Gang and Earth Wind and Fire, James Brown calling out the Average White Band, or even The Beatles and the Stones—lots of people are competitive. And hip-hop itself grew in the Seventies out of a scene in the South Bronx that was dominated by gangs like the Savage Skulls and the Black Spades, who had very real beef going on and hip-hop blossomed as an outlet for them to either have an oasis from that beef when they went to Kool Herc’s party, or as people like Bam – Afrika Bambaataa continued to develop it, they specifically shaped it into an alternative outlet for that beef and competition.

Starting even back in the early 60's, before people were calling anything hip-hop, you had those gangs in the Bronx steppin’ to each other with sort of ritualized dance moves—the top-rocking and up-rocking that was initial first version of break-dancing or B-boying. You saw that going back to the early 60's, according to heads that were there.

Hip-hop has always been a way to take that competitive spirit and pride on your block and competitiveness with the next block.  Hip-hop has always been an outlet for that energy. That's always been the thread, but I think as hip-hop became contrived, from the early 90's on, into this forum to live out this street life mythology, things got blurred to a point where people thought they had to act out that beef. People got caught up in the beef and forgot that they were just doing a competitive art form and felt they had to live it out another form.  So the beef has become -- the concept of beef has become something that is more toxic and more paralyze than it was for most of hip-hop's history.

Obviously, we had some major tragedies in hip-hop that no one knows in detail what happened, with the deaths of Biggie and Pac, but certainly there was beef that led up to that ultimate ending.  I think people have backed away from taking things that far and I think, beef nowadays, it's not even…the thing that's wrong with beef nowadays isn’t even that there is the threat of it becoming something that leads to real violence, it just becomes sort of inane and insipid, because the ‘beef’ is not even about making songs anymore. ‘Beef’ plays out in other multimedia forms where I make a YouTube video about you, then you make a YouTube video about me where you find my grade school teacher and interview her about how I use to wet the bed, then you go and find my ex-girlfriend and talk about how I was impotent. There’s so much other TMZ-style drama that goes on, instead of having the beef inspire us to make great music, which was always went on, even with Biggie and Pac, the ‘beefs’ that turned ugly. There was always at the core, we were trying to represent and show that we were the best musician, but now its sort of we're the best at creating tabloid gossip, is what the ‘beef’ is based on. Hip-hop ‘beef’ has become tiresome in that sense.

Question: Do you think hip-hop artists are maintaining ingenuity when sampling is so pervasive?

Jay Smooth: I think the greatest challenge to our innovation and ingenuity has been the decreased ability to work with sample-based production actually. I mean, I think that the greatest explosion of artistic innovation, to me, was when sampling technology was available but the sampling laws were not yet in place, so we had free reign to create what Prince Paul created for De La Soul, what the Bomb Squad created for Public Enemy, what the Dust Brothers created on the Beastie Boys' second album, and I think the sampling laws that came in a couple of years after that, were very stifling and brought things in another direction where people were still creative in various ways and people who have a budget to be able to work with samples, like Kanye or Just Blaze, can continue doing that but a lot of other people have to find alternative ways.

I think that sort of tug-of-war between artistic expression and the protectors of intellectual property is something we're seeing in many different places in media, not just in hip-hop. But that's been one of the most dramatic places where, to me, the value of the art that was created by us having free reign to create whatever pastiche and montage we wanted to create.  I mean, it always seemed clear to me that we were creating something new and valuable and adhering to the same creative process that everyone has throughout the history of music; just the technology allows us to do it a different way by manipulating the actual recordings instead of working with those influences in different ways.

I mean, you can go back to, throughout the history of music, back to the first –-in Western music–-the first polyphonic music was based on taking a Gregorian chant in a lower register and then singing a new Gregorian chant–-singing a new melody on top of that, in a higher register. You're basically taking a song and then adding something new on top of it–-that's the same creative process as hip-hop. You can see other parallels throughout music history. The only difference is that in the mid-Nineties we had samplers that let us actually manipulate the recordings, and do it that way instead of other ways. You can look at jazz standards, you can look at what Led Zeppelin did with blues tracks—there are parallels to that all throughout music, but people get caught up in the fact that we're using the actual recordings. They see it as lazy, but if you've ever tried to make a beat as hot as what the Bomb Squad made, or try to make a beat like Just Blaze made, or even the beats that we see as really simplistic, like the beats that Diddy made. If you tried to make a beat that sounded that good you'd find that it's much harder than you think it is, and I think the amount of creativity and innovation that goes into sample-based hip-hop is very underrated.

Question: Is the Skip Gates arrest an example of the work that still needs to be done?

Jay Smooth: I think the Skip Gates scandal was a great example of how far we are from being post-racial, obviously, and I don't think being post-racial is a worthy ideal. I think being colorblind or being post-racial--to me that's kind of like when people talk about secondary virginity: it's something that could never exist and wouldn't be worth having if we were able to get it. I think we should be fully comfortable with seeing someone who is of a different ethnicity and recognizing that they are.

The problem comes from when we make irrational assumptions after we notice that.  You know what I’m saying? If you forget race and look at gender…I don't think most women want people to look at them and not notice whether they're a man or a woman. It's just; do you make assumptions about who they are and what they're capable of after you notice they're a woman? You know, I think our culture and ethnicity—for most of us—is a big part of who we are, and we take pride in it. I hope that we're able to become more racial, rather than becoming post-racial, and be able to recognize our differences in a rational way and relish them and appreciate them and be able to talk about them frankly instead of hoping to never notice our differences or discuss them away. I mean, to me, that's being afraid of something that's not being comfortable with it. 

But, I think the Skip Gates scandal is certainly a reminder that there's a lot of work to do—both in our perceptions and in how our institutions function, and I think that aspect is what unfortunately was lost in how the Gates scandal played out. In the way that Obama has addressed race—which I think he's addressed it extremely well-- the one flaw that I felt was there is there's so much of an emphasis on conversation, and on each of us acknowledging and honoring the other person's feelings and perspectives and recognizing where those feelings come from, that we've lost track of how racism and injustice and inequity are also manifest in ways beyond personal feeling and personal expression and thoughts.

There's also institutional inequity, institutional racism, and systemic inequity. And those are things that can't be fixed by conversation and sharing each other's thoughts and understanding. And I think what you saw in the Skip Gates scandal…Skip Gates he made errors in the way that he spoke; Obama made an error in the way that he spoke; but that Officer Crowley, he didn't make an error in how he spoke, he abused his power to arrest somebody, and he was backed up by the institution that he represents.

You know, that is a very widespread problem of police abusing their power that is not something you can fix by having a conversation over a beer. There need to be changes in how we train police officers. There need to be changes in the policies that we enforce, you know, so that–-I mean people spoke about Officer Crowley as if he was a rouge or a bad apple, but it seems clear to me that he wasn't a rogue. He was someone who was provided training on these issues, and was trained in such a way that he thought it was okay for him to arrest somebody because he didn't like their attitude –inside their own home. And you saw his institution back him up after he did that.

So, I think he wasn't being a bad apple.  He was doing what he was trained to do.

And we need to enact change on an institutional level to stop that from happening again. Because it happens to thousands of people who don't have the connections Officer Gates has, and the consequences are not going to be a beer with the President, you know, it's going to—when it escalates—it's going to escalate to a Taser, or a night stick, or something worse than that. And I think that's something I wish had been focused on more. I mean, it's great for us to encourage conversation, but I wish that President Obama had also taken some time to note that there are bigger things than conversation that need to happen with this issue.

Recorded on August 4, 2009

Big Think interview with Jay Smooth

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • 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.
Keep reading Show less

Active ingredient in Roundup found in 95% of studied beers and wines

The controversial herbicide is everywhere, apparently.

(MsMaria/Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • 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.
Keep reading Show less

Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Photo credit: Adrian Swancar on Unsplash
Sex & Relationships

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.

Lapses

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.

Emotional regulation

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.

Rabbit holes

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.