Every change of season is a reminder of the endless ebb and flow of our lives and to always expect the unexpected. This fall started with drastic changes around the world. Major flooding in SouthEast Asia affected over eight million people, hurricane Harvey hit south Texas destroying homes and businesses that will take years to recover, wildfires are still raging in the north west, floods in Italy, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake hit right off shore from southern Mexico while eastern Mexico was impacted by hurricane Katia, and most recently hurricane Irma devastated the Caribbean and southern Florida. Wow, that’s a lot to handle to kick off our fall season.
As we sit in our cozy offices, homes, and coffee shops reading this column people around the world and right here in our backyards are going through drastic changes. It’s harder for us to empathize with people facing tragedies when we are living in luxury. Empathy starts from within. Take care of yourself, value being a human, and empathy for all other beings stems from making sure you are whole.
Yes, I’m arguing that making sure you are healthy actually makes you empathize not only with humans around the world but the environment. Not where you thought this column was going this week right?
I’ve noticed the people who care so much for others and our environment tend to have an understanding of who they are. So, I dug into some research. It turns out that in neuroscience the part of the brain, the right supramarginal gyrus, is an area that helps us distinguish our own emotional state from that of others and is responsible for empathy and compassion. If that part of our brain is not functioning properly our ability of empathy is reduced.
Research from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences found that doing compassion training led to participants experiencing significantly more positive emotions and increased resilience in stressful situations. Basically, we can shape our emotional reactions and alter the way we feel. As humans, we tend to use our own emotions to project onto others. If we can change the way we feel, we can change the way we relate and understand to other people and situations.
I’m definitely not a neuroscientist, I’m a wildlife biologist. So why am I interested in this idea? Forcing a view onto someone has been shown not to work. But, giving people the tools to understand and figure it out themselves may be the key to changing our current political environment and climate change trajectory.
In all of our western society we value material items – huge houses, big vehicles, high fashion and more. Our political leaders, thought leaders, and people we place high value on (celebrities) emanate these same emotions. In order to shift our culture to not value narcism and material items it’s worth a look inside our own selves. In environmental ethics there are three philosophical approaches. One is anthropocentrism – a human centered philosophy where we first think, how does it benefit me. Second is biocentrism – a life centered approach where we understand all organisms have a value and last is ecocentrism – all organisms and the health of the ecosystem have a value. Most people are very anthropocentric believing humans are the masters of this world. But this view doesn’t serve the health of each other nor the health of our ecosystems.
I think healing your own self and reconnecting to what’s really important will shift more mindsets to a biocentric or ecocentric approach. But how do we take care of ourselves? That’s the gold question right?! Especially when studies have found we don’t take all of our work vacation days, our jobs are our priorities, we want to make money to send our children to college, etc. How do we change this path?
We change our priorities. We value our physical and emotional health above all else. It takes time and the influence at first is subtle, but I’m optimistic it’s one of the ways we can change our world – human and environment. Just think about it.