Let's un-selfie today

In the age of social media, empathy seems to have taken a back seat

A mere minute or two into his speech in San Diego, announcing an immigration plan that could potentially separate families, Jeff Sessions was heckled by a protester asking him “do you have a soul?” Arguably a valid question for the US Attorney General, but maybe it’s something we ought to ask ourselves as well. How much empathy do we really have for issues that don’t connect to us personally?

There’s so much about individualism today — your apps, your own ideas, your style your opinion and your life. While it’s amazing how much importance we give ourselves every day, maybe it’s time we paused for just a minute. When was the last time you took a good look at your neighbour, made eye contact with the person at the coffee machine in the office, said hello to someone you cross every morning on your walk outdoors?

Human connections

Narcissism seems to be at an all-time high today with everyone and their best friend spending, quite literally, more time on that perfect ‘selfie’ than in conversation with each other. It’s those minutes spent looking for a hair out of place that make you lose out on life’s most significant moments. Human connections today are at an all-time low. Blame it on Steve Jobs, or Frank Canova if you want to be precise, but the sheen of smartphones is certainly just a little duller when you consider how much less we actually interact with each other. Not only do we lose out on feelings of happiness and positivity from like-minded people who ‘get you’, but we also lose out on understanding actual emotions with rather impersonal texts and emails.

More than an awareness of another person’s feelings, how often do we understand and share their pain? What makes us feel the way we do towards others, and what makes us react a certain way? Dr Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Cambridge, in his book Zero Degrees of Empathy, explains how modern neuroscience has actually helped connect why and how we respond to other people and what really goes on in our brains when we react to situations. Over a century of research later, functional MRI machines revealed the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is one of 10 brain areas in the neural circuit “responsible” for creating empathy.

It’s almost as if, when the going gets rough, some people instinctively seem to know what you need while others seem unable to offer the emotional support you require. Research as recently as in 2016, in the UK, does prove that lower levels of the hormone oxytocin could be responsible for low empathy in people. For all we know, our genes do influence our ability to empathise as well.

Varun Warrier, of the University of Cambridge, along with his colleagues collaborated with the genetics company 23andMe to collect saliva samples from 46,000 of the firm’s customers. All of these customers were also asked to complete an online ‘Empathy Quotient’ test designed a decade and a half ago by Dr Simon Baron-Cohen. What this proved was that while some people are more empathetic than others, there is actually a 10% variation in empathy due to genes. Contrary to popular belief though, women are more empathetic than men not due to genetics, but more cultural and social influences.

Whatever we try and blame our lack of empathy on, from phones and the internet to neuroscience and genetics, the fact remains that our reactions today reap others’ reactions towards us tomorrow. How we respond today could potentially isolate us enough that we have nobody left when we need somebody.

Maybe it’s time we un-‘selfie’d our lives. It’s time we broke it down into something simpler. Instead of waiting for a huge disaster that shakes up the community to get us to care, take one step at a time to change our contribution to what happens around us every day. Ultimately, it’s one smile today that spreads another five tomorrow.

  • Switch off: Put away the phone. Look up for a minute and make eye contact with people you meet. So much of our time is spent looking down at gadgets that we often tend to forget we have living people around us all day. Being physically present no longer means anything when you’re emotionally absent. Ask yourself, how many times do you look at your phone when you’re at the dinner table? Whether it’s a notification for a new message or a news alert, how much would it take to put your phone away before you sit down?
  • Take time off technology. Leave your phone behind when you head out for a walk. As disconcerting as it feels, there’s a certain sense of liberation involved in walking out without feeling the need to check your phone every minute. Shameer C, an accountant in a city office, talks about how he unknowingly left his phone behind when he went to work. “It was probably the most productive day I had had in a long time. I had nothing to check, it was scary at first but I realised people can contact me on the office landline in an emergency anyhow.”
  • Listen: Our attention span today is merely as long as a video advertisement holds our interest. Maybe it’s time to stop watching and start listening. The five-second rule certainly doesn’t apply here. Think back to the last conversation you had. Do you remember what concerns or feelings your friend expressed? Probably not. Expectations from basic interactions are now much higher, more because we expect to achieve much more in a shorter span of time than an actual conversation dictates.
  • Connect: Watching exchanges at a restaurant can get depressing. Parents keep texting while children glower, adults sit in silence when a waiter moves away either because they’re photographing their meal for social media updates or texting somebody else. While we think we’re ‘connecting’ with people online, we forget there are people waiting to connect right in front of us. Keeping a firm grip on how the world perceives us, ensures we reveal less of ourselves in reality.

Boston-based clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair believes that we’re losing our capacity to stay attuned to each other amid the constant interruption. “People get antsy,” says Steiner-Adair. “We’re losing the ability to be thoughtful and responsive to one another, to stay focused on another person over time. It’s: ‘I’m only on one screen — your face. That’s not stimulating enough.’”

Self detox

Alec Sloth’s distinctive ‘on-the-road’ photography ultimately led him to Instagram in 2013. Here, instead of the average ‘selfie’, Sloth went on to post a series of photographs he labelled ‘‘unselfies.’’ Here, he posted pictures of himself with his face concealed by mist, snow, and even a glass of water. The ultimate selfie irony, the urge to put up a picture of himself, as much as he undermines its’ value. What he wants to show and what he allows to be seen forces the viewer to look even closer.

While it’s difficult to imagine somebody else’s pain or grief when you’re in a happy place, it’s easier to just spend a minute listening. Put yourself in their shoes, if only for a minute, and suddenly it’ll be easier for you to understand prolonged silences and unanswered calls. The idea of regulating technology might seem odd at first, but before you know it, everyone at home will spend more time looking at each other, ultimately turning down the noise when they have company. Empathy could then be a new ‘cultural value’ complete with going green and plastic-free. And best of all, you’ll find you actually have a ‘soul’.

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