Big Think Interview With Rainn Wilson

Question: Why do some people get creatively blocked?

Rainn Wilson: I think creative blocks come from people’s life journeys.  If you don’t know who you are or what you’re about or what you believe in it’s really pretty impossible to be creative. So I think a lot of times when people have "creative blocks" and I know my share of friends do as well if they’re at just some stuck point.  They’re not sure what to do with their lives or their writing or their photography or their filmmaking or whatever it is that they’re doing.  I think the best advice is you have to change your life up completely; to go on a trip, to go spend a year being of service.  Be willing to take some major drastic action to get you out of your comfort zone and go inside, not outside.  Our society is all about focusing on the externals, "These people like me, I'm successful because of these people, they view me as being good and we need to take that vision and instead of expanding it outwards we need to look inside ourselves.

I think meditation helps greatly with creativity.  It doesn’t.... If it’s a pure expression of yourself no matter what it is or what medium, it’s going to shine.  It’s going to resonate.  You could look inside of yourself and you could have a canvas and you could paint a dot in it, but if that is where your creative purpose is taking you then it needs to be that dot.  Again, we’re so focused on the externals about like well he did this and he already did this and tons of people are already doing that, I need to do something new and you’re just looking outwards all the time and you’re not taking that time and that is what... a trap of technology is to just always have our vision somewhere else, somewhere else, in the future, looking outside of ourselves. And I think taking the time in the morning to connect with your breath, that's where the purest impulse comes from.

Question: Is creativity for everyone? 

Rainn Wilson:  Creativity is absolutely for everyone.  I firmly believe this.  I think if you’re the driest accountant with the plastic pocket pen protector it’s in how you interact with the world.  There is artistry in everything that we do and there is expression in everything that we do and you see that in the game of chess as you...  I used to play a lot of chess and competitive chess and study chess and as you get to the grandmasters and learn their styles when you start copying their games like the way they express themselves through...  The way Kasparov or Bobby Fischer expresses themselves through a game of chess is it’s astonishing.  You can show a chess master one of their games and they’ll say "Yeah, that is done by that player." 

So it doesn’t matter.  It’s again, about that yearning to transcend.  There is a surrender to a power greater than one’s self as every artist or scientist or thinker talks about a certain point when it’s no longer like their brain.  It’s like the ideas are like streaming through them and that can happen with anyone.  If you’re a janitor you can do it through your work or on the side or how you are with people, but this is the mission of Soul Pancake is to show that everyone is an artist.  Everyone is creative in their own way and that that creativity is a great thing.  It’s a human thing and it needs to be nurtured and it can help us go down life’s path and help us to become deeper, richer, more satisfied human beings.

Question: You have over two million Twitter followers. How do you weild this great power?

Rainn Wilson: Two million followers is quite an enormous responsibility.  Technology, like anything else that mankind creates is a tool and that tool can be used for good or for evil, like a light saber. Technology is supposed to bring people together, streamline things and make life easier and in a lot of ways it does that.  However, technology can also disconnect you from other people and break down the social network, the real social network of family and friends and interpersonal communication, and isolate people, make them feel alone, make them feel small. So it’s a tool that needs to be used correctly. I use two million Twitter followers as a tool.  The reason I have Twitter is so people can get to know me as a different person other than Dwight.  I just realized all of the sudden like everything thinks I'm Dwight.  They think that I'm Dwight from the office and that I'm this kind of annoying, difficult, nerdy, creepy guy and they don’t know Rainn Wilson—although I'm a little bit nerdy, annoying and creepy.  I'm not as much as Dwight Schrute. And it’s a way for them to get to know my sense of humor and my passion projects like Soul Pancake... So that is the purpose that it serves, but I don’t want Twitter to be a time suck.  I don’t want it to take me away from my family and from what is important.  It’s just a tool that I use.

Question: What is one of the strangest real-world interactions that have resulted from your role as Dwight on "The Office?"

Rainn Wilson:  One of my favorite memories of Dwight was being in the Detroit Airport and this really overweight, crazy-looking bedraggled baggage handler comes running up to me and he is like, “Yo, Dwight, Dwight, yo, yo.”  And he is like running from a long distance and he is holding out his phone and I was like okay he is going to ask to take his picture and he holds up his phone right to my face and on it, it says, “I can and do cut my own hair.”  And it says like, “From Katy.”  And he goes, “You don’t understand. My daughter and I...”  I don’t know why he talks like this.  He is from Detroit.  I don’t know why.  Maybe he was from the Bronx or originally or it’s just my characterization. And he goes: “My daughter and I, we exchange Dwight texts all day long. It’s awesome. You’re awesome. You bring us together.”  And that is what I think about is I think that doing comedy and playing Dwight is a service. Not to get grandiose about it, but I have a talent for playing oddball characters and I can make people laugh and that can help bring families together and people will really enjoy it and it puts a smile on their face and I think that is a really great thing.  I try and remember that.

Question:  Is it hard to play the same character for seven years in a row?

Rainn Wilson:  Yeah, it’s an interesting challenge.  We’ve done 139 episodes at this point or something like that and you have to remember at the beginning of each new episode this is fresh.  This is... you’re discovering these moments for the first time.  You can’t phone it in.  You can’t clock it in.  You need to keep things scintillating and in the moment and really listen and really kind of like tap back into those instincts of like what would Dwight do, how would Dwight look at this.  You have to think as Dwight, see the world through Dwight’s eyes and it does definitely take a little focus and concentration to keep sustaining that.

Question:  Has the character of Dwight evolved since "The Office" began?

Rainn Wilson:  You know it’s interesting.  I look back on some season one and I realize that the character is pretty much the same as when I started him.  I think that he has evolved as a person over the last seven years and that has been an interesting thing.  I think he is not so much Michael’s sycophant anymore.  He is pretty separate and independent from Michael.  They’ve had some falling outs.  He is no longer interlocked with the character of Michael Scott, so he has matured.  He is more confident.  He is more socially confident.  He is more confident for women.  He has become a little bit more of the alpha male kind of testing his limits in the office, in the workplace and I think that has been interesting, but the character in terms of the acting is really the same I think from season one.

Question:  Would you hire Dwight Schrute?

Rainn Wilson:  I would hire Dwight.  Yes, I would, in a heartbeat.  He would do anything.  I could hire him for any job imaginable and he would morph himself to the task.

Question: How did your experiences growing up in a sort of unconventional family inform who you are today?

Rainn Wilson:  Well, I grew up a very dorky, weird looking kid in suburban Seattle and to make matters worse another way in which I didn’t fit in was my parents were Baha’is, members of the Baha’i faith, and I grew up a member of the Baha’i faith. And one of the great things about that was that I had a very Catholic—from the original use of the word Catholic—view of religions.  We soaked in all kinds of different beliefs.  Jehovah’s Witnesses would knock on the door.  We would invite them in and discuss the Bible with them.  We would have Buddhist monks traveling through town stay with us.  We had books on Sufism and Sikhism and I knew about all of these things and I was raised to think about philosophy and religious thought and the soul and the spirit of humankind in a different way, also really socially progressive teachings of the Baha’i faith, the equality of men and women, the elimination of racial prejudice, the equality of science and religion, so it was a big cauldron of big ideas in my household. And we were weird and unhappy family, but nonetheless that was a really positive thing that came out of it. 

Then when I moved to New York in my 20s, I really abandoned all that—and so many people do that grow up in religious households.  They just abandon the way of their parents.  I decided there couldn’t be a God, that there was so much suffering in the world.  Religion perpetrated so much evil.  I wanted to do my own way and take my own journey and what I did was I became an artist and I just focused on being an actor and all of my attention just went to... and my kind of my fervor went to theater and acting and I really thought with my friends that went to school down at NYU we would do little basement productions of Hedda Gabler or whatever and we really thought we could change the world.  If we did the right piece of theater in the right way with the right audience we could touch people’s hearts and we could just blow their minds and just open things up completely.

And I also focused on my career as an actor a great deal and I became very me-focused and me-centered, just myself and my career and what is next and how do I get a better agent and how do I get into TV and movies and then I you know I felt a yearning. I came to a crossroads.  I hit bottom, in a way.  I was really unhappy, and realized that I just wanted something more about.... from the experience of being alive.  I was like I was doing great plays.  It wasn’t changing the world.  I was getting good agents and doing film and TV and I wasn’t happier.  I was like "Wow, there is an unease inside of me." And that led me back on my kind of more spiritual path to the Baha’i faith in a new and fresher way and a more realized way and I came to also understand at that point that there was no difference between being devout and being an artist.  There is no difference between creativity and spirituality and philosophy and that is what Soul Pancake, the book, and SoulPancake.com are about is: it’s all about human expression and it’s all about seeking to transcend.  It’s about that yearning and whether it’s through science or through art, through service, through worship it’s the human experience of longing to connect with people, to connect with the energy throughout creation and we compartmentalize all of these things and I realized it’s all the same thing.  I play Dwight.  That is just much me being of service and worshiping as if I'm on my knees in some temple somewhere or bowing my head in prayer to God in some way.  It’s really all just the same thing.

Question:  What keeps you up at night?

Rainn Wilson:  Boy, I sleep like a log.  I always have.  I just I hit the pillow and it’s like [snore sound].  What keeps my wife up at night is my horrific snoring, which I got to get taken care of.  I need to get those nose strips.

Question:  What do actors know about communication that the rest of us don’t?

Rainn Wilson:  I don’t think actors know diddlysquat about communication.  I really don’t.  I think that actors are terrible communicators as people by and large.  I think our tendency is to kind of be self-centered and tune people out and just kind of get really me-focused, so I think communication for actors is a big challenge actually.  I'll tell you.  I'm a much better listener when I'm acting than I am as a person in real life because you learn as an actor that listening is so important.  You have to really key into what the other person you’re acting with is saying and how they’re saying it and react in the moment to what is going on.  I'm much more "in the moment" when I'm acting.  I can be in my life I'm just like uh, and then I'm acting and going foom.  You know I just zero in and clock in and I've noticed that about a lot of actors.  A lot of actors are just like la la la—they’re never really connected and then they’re in the scene and then boom.  They’re looking you in the eyes and they’re just really focused.

Question:  "The Office" relies heavily on embarrassing moments for humor. Why are we so into awkwardness in humor?

Rainn Wilson:  Our show is the most kind of awkward, embarrassing and kind of real show on TV that deals with that color of comedy.  I think we’re the best in that genre, which we inherited from the brilliant English show, but what is so interesting to me is how much young people like that kind of humor.  They love it.  Older people, they don’t like it.  They’re like, “I can’t watch it. It’s too awkward. It’s too painful. The people are too gross. They’re weird. They’re mean and it’s awkward. I can’t stand it.”  Young kids I mean down to 9, 10, 11, 12 year-olds they eat it up.  They love "The Office."  They have it memorized.  They love that kind of awkward humor. 

I don’t know what it is, but it seems that Ricky Gervais was able to just capitalize almost on a generational shift with an understanding that so much of the comedy is not in the set up, set up, punch line.  There is very few "jokes" on our show.  It really is behavior, characters behaving and the reactions to that behavior.  You know Dwight will do something stupid, but the laugh is on Pam watching it or Jim seeing it and then turning to the camera because that is I think how young people... that is how young people feel today.  You know they’re seeing all this absurdity and it’s like if they could young people would just be like and just look at the camera, so it’s less say a comedy of awkwardness and more a comedy of reactivity. 

Question: Do you have a similar sense of humor?

Rainn Wilson:  I really like the stuff that is very absurd and very real at the same time.  I think Anton Chekhov is the greatest comedy writer of all time.  I think he would make a great addition to The Office staff. If you look through Chekhov plays there is a lot of awkward pauses in there. His mixture of pathos, absurdity, truthfulness and whimsy is just mixed together perfectly.

Question:  What big idea are you most excited about in 2011?

Rainn Wilson: In terms of big ideas I think that there is another revolution coming.  I'm not sure what it’s going to look like, but I think it’s going to be very interesting and it’s going to unfold over the next 10 years. And I think it needs to be a spiritual revolution because I think that our systems are broken.  I don’t think that our political system will ever work.  I don’t think no matter how great a man...

If you cloned JFK and Abraham Lincoln and made them president it wouldn’t matter.  Our system is just too corrupt and too broken.  I think that science is corrupt and broken.  I think health and nutrition.  I think the economic systems, the international relations, the environment, everything, the engines of everything are broken.  There are some good ideas there behind and some good intentions, but these are going to break down more and more and more.  We’re going to see these wild pendulum swings between democrat, republican, tea party, right, left, right, left.  It’s going to swing every election because people are scrambling for answers and it just it doesn’t work, so the young people are going to need to like they did in the 60’s, they’re going to need to take the reins here and really look at the world in a fresh new way and say you know enough is enough, you guys screwed it up, we need to take our planet back and I think part of that journey, part of that revolution needs to be spiritual.  I think that the word spiritual is a very loaded, weird word, but I think it needs to be with a heart-based wisdom and this heart-based wisdom needs to go hand in hand with science and with social activism and love for our planet and love for our whole human family that spans the whole globe and this may sound very high and mighty or airy-fairy, but it’s going to have to go to that or else we’re just all going to destroy each other.

Recorded November 11, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

Directed & Produced by Jonathan Fowler

A conversation with the actor.

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.