Sandra Massey, Research Program Coordinator

Living Heritage: our values, beliefs and ways of living shape our sense of identity, belonging and place. Moreover, how we see the world and how we navigate our way in the world is a direct result of the cultural context in which we live, work and play; a complex, social ecological system as discussed in my June 10th blog post. I recently read a fascinating book about the mind and the brain, both complex systems in themselves. In her book, Jane on the Brain: Exploring the Science of Social Intelligence with Jane Austen, Wendy Jones reviews and skillfully summarizes the work of many scientists, psychologists, psychotherapists, and philosophers to explain social intelligence as demonstrated by the characters in Jane Austen’s novels.

Jones, a former English Professor and now practicing psychotherapist, suggests that, “the complexity of human culture has pressured us to expand and depend upon our mindreading capability. People must routinely infer one another’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and intentions to function normally; this is a necessary social skill.” (p.241) Moreover, she tells us mind-brain scientists have identified two kinds of “higher-level mindreading : theory of mind (ToM) and empathy. ToM means knowing that other people have minds different from one’s own as well as inferring the content of their minds, which includes their thoughts, feelings, intentions, and so forth. . . . ToM can include awareness of feelings in an abstract sense, called cognitive empathy: knowing what another is feeling rather than actually sharing those feelings. The latter is the provenance of empathy.” (pp.241 and 242)

While Jones found little agreement among scholars on how to define empathy, she concludes that empathy consists of four elements:

 

taking the perspective of another person cognitively, and so understanding their thoughts and feelings;

actually feeling what they feel;

regulating our own emotions so that you don’t become overwhelmed by the other person’s feelings; and

paying attention because we don’t empathize without focusing on our perceptions.

(p.244)

Although she doesn’t use the term Living Heritage, Jones is actually explaining the scientific foundation on which the role Living Heritage plays in daily life can be understood. She tells us, “A reflective capacity involves awareness about minds in a general sense: the knowledge that people have minds; that the contents of those minds, including perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and reasoning, can differ from person to person; that what we think and feel influences how we perceive and behave; and that the contents of minds can change.” (p.261)

Moreover, Jones states, “Having the ability to reflect on other people’s minds goes hand in hand with being able to reflect on your own mind as well. . . .  When you think about what you’re thinking or feeling, you actually see yourself from outside yourself, from a third-person perspective.” (p.261) This echoes Neal Kewistep’s comments at the ‘Gathering for miyo mahcihowin (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being)’ held in Saskatoon, 15 - 16 March 2018. In his presentation Kewistep suggested that, “if you can get people to appreciate their own culture and how they use it or its’ importance, you can get them to support others.” Neuroscientists now have a better understanding of how this works in humans; based on a better understanding of the complexity of mind-brain connections. Further Jones’ review of the literature suggests that, “The mind arises from brain (neural) activity, to be sure, but the mind also consists of input from the body and from our relationships - from the meeting of minds, you might say.” (p.29)

On the other hand, Jones also cautions us with regards to the negative side of empathy. Indeed our capacity for empathy varies considerably. Some individuals seem to have a lot more of it than others. Jones explains, “The closer we are to someone, or the more closely they resemble us, the more likely we are to empathize with them. . . . Racism, sexism, and all the other instance of unjust discrimination depend on this bias, on the failure of empathy to activate for people whom one group has designated as different and other.” (p.312)

Sara Konrath and Delphine Grynberg also discuss the negative side of empathy in their article The Positive (and Negative) Psychology of Empathy, (2013). The authors suggest that empathizing with people who are less than trustworthy, such as psychopaths and narcissists who can be quite charming but nevertheless act solely from self-interest can be problematic for those who tend to have high levels of empathy because such people can easily be taken advantage of and/or abused. In addition they found that empathizing with “antisocial and aggressive characters can increase one’s own aggressive and antisocial tendencies.” (p.16) Studies show that who we feel empathy for, reflects our own biases; people tend to feel empathy for “vulnerable, cute, attractive, similar, or close others, . . . “ (p.18) Some also argue empathy may potentially threaten the common good since we are more likely to protect those closest to us, if a trade-off becomes necessary. On the other hand, the authors acknowledge that “empathy can also motivate a variety of larger pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors with clear implications for the long-term common good.” (p.20)

Therefore, as we strive to address contemporary social concerns, the lessons learned from reading the novels of Jane Austin still apply. Jones reminds us that “Our mind-brains evolved when we lived in small groups, and they’re still meant to function in that kind of environment.” (p.314) Furthermore she says, “In Austen’s view, if you’re going to build a better world with better values, you have to start small, and at home, with families and communities. People need to think locally, and maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll eventually act responsibly, ethically, and globally.” (p.315) With this in mind, it is essential that we understand our own Living Heritage in order to understand others as well as nurture our very human capacity for mindreading!

 

References:

Jones, Wendy, Jane on the Brain: Exploring the Science of Social Intelligence with Jane Austen. New York: Pegasus Books Ltd., 2017.

Konrath, Sara and Delphine Grynberg, The Positive (and Negative) Psychology of Empathy, Nova Science Publishers, Inc., 2013. Accessed from https://www.ipearlab.org/publications.html July 2019.