The cavernous CVS was nearly empty—just one cashier, the pharmacist, and a single other customer, a thirty-something woman. We were in the same aisle when she showed me a dense lint on her pant cuffs, which she explained came from the carpeting. “Look at this,” she said, “a child would be breathing it, and you know it’s poison.” I looked, and I agreed. She was anxiously trying to remove the fibers with a lint-roller she had taken from the store shelf. It occurred to me that she hadn’t paid for the roller, but I had only a momentary concern about that as I looked at the thick accumulation of dusty gray fibers clinging to her pants and shoes. Certainly a child closer to the floor would be breathing the fire retardant and other toxic chemicals I knew were in those fibers. My sympathies were with her. “Could you help me,” she asked? I brushed and rolled at her cuffs till the roller-tape could accept no more, which she noticed and retrieved the roller to pull new tape around. “Thank you,” she said, and then, “I could do it myself. I just wanted to be touched by a human being.”
Why did her candor not surprise me? It was an odd revelation but somehow natural. Of course, I had known she could do it herself, albeit awkwardly; yet, I had not hesitated to take the roller and clean her cuffs. I was glad she asked. Where did my feeling of care come from?
More common experiences are familiar in our daily lives: You hold the door a little longer so the person behind you can catch it before it closes; you slow on the freeway so another car can change lanes; you distract the infant in the shopping cart baby-seat while his mother pays the cashier. These illustrate what philosopher and neuroscientist Francisco Varela called ethical know-how, caring behaviors that arise spontaneously from immediate experience, interactions that continually weave and reweave the fabric of our society. Their underpinning is the predisposition for a sense of justice or fairness.
That predisposition is located in what is known as the empathy circuit of the brain, a circuit sparked by the activation of mirror neurons through the eye contact between a mother (or loving caregiver) and her baby and developed through their attunement. At least ten areas of the brain form the empathy circuit. Once developed, that circuit guides us through a lifetime of ethical know-how and moral choices, whose mysterious rightness is known through the sense of wellbeing we ourselves experience when our actions support the wellbeing of others.
The gaze of love is only the most obvious of the mutually entrancing physical-emotional mirroring between mother and baby. These intricate, instinctive exchanges provide the blueprint for our moral organ. Participation and a sense of belonging are rooted there, in the enchantment of attunement. The human species had to evolve such a shared spell—a charm slow to fade—to see the baby, born far less developed than any other primate, through a long period of vulnerable dependency. In these earliest interactions of initiation and following, synchrony, counterpoint, harmony, and all rhythmic play, we learn the trust and joie de vivre that follow reliable, safe experiences of both predictability and surprise. Wherever she goes, the baby finds people exaggerating gestures, making faces, and speaking in the familiar sing-song of motherese. She learns to participate vigorously and joyfully in the surrounding world, over time developing a sense of empowered belonging in the wider web of community.
Attunement sets us up for a life connected. Refinement of the moral organ expands the boundaries of belonging to an understanding that we are all connected, many particles of light in a quantum reality where what happens on one side of the world affects what happens on the other. Boundaries can be pushed beyond species to embrace the ancient wisdom that all life—including rivers, trees, mountains and the soil itself—is sacred.
Moving past our limits, we can extend empathy from personally challenging situations (caring for a cranky relative, lending a hand when we are already too busy, charity toward the homeless on our streets) to life removed entirely from our direct apprehension—victims of violence in distant cities, migrants fleeing their homeland, endangered animals, the health of water hidden in underground aquifers. This latter form of empathy, distinguished from ethical know-how, is less immediate, involving both thought and choice. You decide to donate to a relief effort, you choose to support the Water Keepers at Standing Rock. Extended empathy is a cultivated emotional responsiveness brought into deliberation that allows us to identify through veils of distance and abstraction.
Blessed with astonishing brain plasticity, Homo sapiens are afforded opportunities for later learning; even in the absence of early attunement experiences, the empathy circuit may still be activated. Mindfulness practices, for instance, are known to rewire the brain, increasing our presence in the moment, thereby awakening ethical know-how and empathy later in life. But empathy can also be stunted. While we have learned how to increase our awareness on the one hand, our technology tends to remove us from it on the other.
Studies show that when we rely on GPS, we don’t activate the direction-orientation parts of our brain. If the exercise of our moral organ is an equally embodied capacity, seeded in early development through attunement, what happens when more and more contact with each other occurs through our screens? Those very screens that bring us into immediate communication remove us from the physical experience for which we are attuned, the circumstances that call forth our ethical know-how.
We have forty-two muscles in the face alone, far more than any other animal—not to mention information embodied in movement, scent, and touch—evolved for the direct contact that stimulates our responsiveness to one another. How do we read the feelings and intentions of others in absence of the body? Without face-to-face contact, including the most subtle movement of the forty-two facial muscles and multi-dimensional reflections of the mirror neurons, could we be at the risk of losing the pathway to our ethical abstraction?
I confess my response to the stranger at the pharmacy was not a clear moral decision and might even be judged morally wrong. After all, she used the lint-roller without paying for it, and I was complicit in that. Weren’t we stealing? What was there in her face, her body language, and the tone of her voice that called forth my alignment with her? Apart from her presence, would I have evaluated the situation the same way?
We depend on direct contact to feel kinship, which is at the origin of empathy. Can we hold the fabric of community, maintained over thousands of years, if we lose touch with each other? Our initial attunement is like a stone dropped in water. It expands outward, and can reach far beyond our personal experience—an extrapolation, an abstraction, rooted in the awakening of that original kinship bond. Shielded from body-to-body experience, we can lose our sense of belonging as readily as we attempt to build it virtually. Our exquisite nuances of feeling cannot be reduced to emojis, whatever short-cuts they offer.
Because our sense of relatedness arises fundamentally from physical presence, in a world we cannot touch or smell or sense, the voice of our moral organ can grow faint. Already rushed and distracted, we may not recognize the increase in assaults on civility. Focused on our screens, we may miss the opportunities to exercise our own ethical aptitude, which may languish and even atrophy like the direction-orientation of our brain with continual reliance on GPS. When the cell message is more important than my immediate companion, or giving my ticket to the bus driver has become a mechanical transaction apart from a sense of connection or community, this is evidence of the fragility of my ethical achievements. How do we restore and maintain the attunement that evokes our ethical know-how? Presence.
Mirroring each other includes engaging in subtle internal monitoring processes that guide our responses, but these processes can be faulty when we are distracted. We correct our failings only if we have time to notice and reflect upon them, measuring our actions against our values. Ethical development relies on this capacity to reflect. But our attention is constantly fragmented as our lives become more and more crowded with activity, confusing information, and (often irrelevant) choices. We risk losing the ethical inheritance of our species. Finding time to rest, reflect, and reintegrate is both more difficult and more urgent.
Can we use the challenges of our time and our technology to encourage and strengthen our inherent moral discernment? Can we extend our compassion to a global concern for each other and our Earth? Will we grow more disconnected and violent, or will we nurture belonging and community? Our ethical development is emergent, always a work in progress for society as well as for individuals. Ethical know-how is an attunement dance made joyful by interaction with each other. Compassion is a conscious commitment to the extension of that attunement through kindness. This is the great legacy of our social species. Will we still be human if we neglect that legacy and treat each other without care?