Remember to Exercise During the Holidays — Exercise Empathy!


Identifying a male or female by sight is easier than identifying a male or female brain.

Full from the over-seasoned stuffing and booming television commercials, the holiday party moves closer to the fireplace. Having been immersed in the blinking Christmas lights and the background holiday music for so long, they are long forgotten. Bored, you begin to play the anthropologist in the family, and notice an odd occurrence.

In one corner of the room are the boys ramming their toy cars into each other, competing to call out the loudest “Zoom, zoom.” Tiptoeing ever quietly toward the boys, you peer at the boys from behind the house plant. You see Jeremy chasing after the boys until, out of the blue, one of the boys shoves him and makes him fall while shouting, “You loser! Fatso! Go away!”

In the eyes of anthropologist Ritch Savin-Williams, this is how the boys make a bid for social dominance: pick on someone in the group, not only by ridiculing him but also by picking on him physically, and in full view of the others. For you who are observing this group, you must wonder if social dominance comes at the expense of empathy.

Now let’s take a peek at how social dominance develops among the girls. In the opposite corner are all the girls, putting on a play of characters that comment on each other’s looks and inquire into each other’s feelings. They seem nice enough, attempting to build friendships at first. Overtime, you notice Tami. She is holding the puppets and would accept or ignore other girls’ suggestions, sometimes not looking at a girl or making her invisible. At one point, Tami takes a piece of napkin and wipes off a piece of food from her cousin’s face.

According to Savin-Williams’ studies, even when some girls do start to hint that they are in control, they mostly do this through subtle strategies–the odd putdown (in words) or the withholding of verbal communication or eye contact. I am sure that you recognize these tactics. The girls’ verbal means for establishing dominance are usually indirect. Tami’s apparently caring attitude actually draws attention to the other girl’s clumsiness. Savin-Williams says a boy would simply call the other boy a slob, and invite the other boys to join in a group-ridiculing session of the victim. Both tactics may have the same effect, but the girls’ method is more sophisticated.

In Simon Baron-Cohen’s book, The Essential Difference: the Truth About the Male and Female Brain. He explains the terms, “male brain” and “female brain”, as shorthand for psychological profiles based upon the average scores obtained when testing women as a group, or the average scores obtained when testing men as a group. The psychological profile of a male brain is that it is more systematizing while the psychological profile of a female brain is that it is more empathizing. Of course, this is very different than the sad generalization that “all men have lower empathy” or “all women have lower systematizing skills.” Neither brain type Empathizing nor Systematizing is better or worse than the other, Baron-Cohen explains.

In the present day and age, however, Daniel Pink argues that “right brainers will rule the world”. His point being that in today’s world, we can outsource the systematizing part of our brain (left brain activities), such as logical thinking, computer programming, law and accounting; but we cannot outsource right-brain activities such as empathizing, creativity, storytelling, symphony, play and meaning.

In the increasingly small world and in the interest of “An Empathetic Civilization”, I would hope that science will explore the more empathetic way of leadership that females exhibit and its relationship to survival and happiness at this time in humanity’s history.

For a Buddhist nun interested in seeing more empathy in the world, I am here to share some resources on neuroplasticity research, which let’s us know that we are not boxed into only one of two seemingly exclusive types. Furthermore, I suggest that each of us possesses a spectrum of the male and female within us, not just in the brain of the head, but the brain of the body and the heart.

The Chinese word for mind, heart (physical and literal) and inherent nature are all the same character: 心. This and Jon Kabat Zinn’s explanations of mindfulness illuminate for us the idea that our intelligence, emotions and particularly empathy and compassion may not reside in the head alone. Richie Davidson of University of Wisconsin and Mind and Life Institute frequently tells the story of his early visit to Dhamasala. (See him tell the story in the video below, 21:56 to 23:54.) The 200 some resident monks burst out laughing, not at the funny electrode gadget capped on the head that Richie Davidson was using, but that these researchers were trying to measure the head to learn about compassion.

With that said, we now know that we can choose to be more empathetic or systematic. Breakthroughs in neuroscience show that we can change our brain circuits of emotion; we are capable of changing “the source of the world’s suffering [that] is the suffering mind.”

At a conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Stanford University’s CCARE (Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education) scientists in October, Karl Deisseroth described his opti-genetics experiments where a laser beam can delete brain cells to increase or decrease socialability and a sense of nurturing in mice.

There are numerous legal, ethical and philosophical implications and considerations with this particular research work; however, what is to be underlined here is that science is capable of altering our positive and negative emotions. I would propose that instead of getting botox injections of or permanent alterations to compassion, sociability, peace etc., that we strengthen our own “spiritual laser beams” so that we may choose to be more compassionate, wise or some combination we choose thereof in any situation.

One enlightened master I know, for instance, was sometimes seen aggressively berating one student on his left side, then turns to wink at the student on his right, then back again, shouting and screaming at the student who needed the anger. My conclusion is that this is someone who has the entire palette of emotions and personalities available to him. He chooses a particular trait or role intentionally, conscientiously and empathically for the sake of the recipient. It is not a multiple personality disorder because he is egoless in any role.

Contemplative neuroscience has shown that the brain science of meditation changes the brain for the better. Compassion meditation stimulates limbic systems, hence producing intense empathy and joy. Monks with 10,000 hours of practice exhibit significantly greater activism of the limbic systems, which permanently changes the way their brains operate even outside meditation. Like exercising a muscle, meditation is a form of mental exercise that stretches us.

May we remember to exercise our empathy this holiday season so it is well-prepared for the times when we choose to task it.