On empathy and the color red.

On empathy and the color red.

I can’t fly.

I try to feed my children every night, but I never vomit blood into their mouths.

When I try to hang upside down – like from monkey bars at a playground – I have to clench my muscles, and pretty soon I get dizzy. I couldn’t spend a whole day like that.

And, yes, sometimes I shout. Too often during the pandemic, I’ve shouted at my kids. But when I shout, I’m trying to make them stop hitting each other – I’m not trying to figure out where they are.

It’s pretty clear that I’m not a bat.

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Photograph by Anne Brooke, USFWS

Because I haven’t had these experiences, philosopher Thomas Nagel would argue that I can’t know how it feels to be a bat.

In so far as I can imagine [flitting through the dark, catching moths in my mouth], it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves.

But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.

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Perhaps I can’t know what it feels like for a bat to be a bat. And yet, I can empathize with a bat. I can imagine how it might feel to be trapped in a small room while a gamboling, wiry-limbed orc-thing tried to swat me with a broom.

It would be terrifying!

And that act of imagination – of empathy – is enough for me to want to protect bats’ habitats. To make space for them in our world. Sure, you could argue that bats are helpful for us – they’re pollinators, they eat pesky bugs – but empathy lets us care about the well-being of bats for their own sake.

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Literature exercises our minds: when we read, invent, and share stories, we build our capacity for empathy, becoming more generally aware of the world outside our own skulls.

Writing can be a radical act of love. Especially when we write from a perspective that differs from our own. The poet Ai said that “Whoever wants to speak in my poems is allowed to speak, regardless of sex, race, creed, or color.” Her poems often unfurl from the perspective of violent men, and yet she treats her protagonists with respect and kindness. Ai gives them more than they deserve: “I don’t know if I embrace them, but I love them.

Ai

That capacity for love, for empathy, will let us save the world. Although many of us haven’t personally experienced a lifetime of racist microaggressions or conflict with systemic oppression, we all need to understand how rotten it would feel. We need to understand that the pervasive stress seeps into a person’s bones, causing all manner of health problems. We need understand the urgency of building a world where all children feel safe.

And if we don’t understand – yet – maybe we need to read more.

Experiments suggest that reading any engaging literary fiction boosts our ability to empathize with others. Practice makes better: get outside your head for a while, it’ll be easier to do it again next time.

Of course, we’ll still need to make an effort to learn what others are going through. Thomas Nagel was able to ruminate so extensively about what it would feel like to live as a bat because we’ve learned about echolocation, about their feeding habits, about their family lives. If we want to be effective anti-racists, we need to learn about Black experiences in addition to developing our empathy more generally.

Luckily, there’s great literature with protagonists facing these struggles – maybe you could try How We Fight for Our Lives, Americanah, or The Sellout.

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As a bookish White person, it’s easy for me to empathize with the experiences of other bookish White people. In Search of Lost Time doesn’t tax my brain. Nor does White Noise. The characters in these books are a lot like me.

The cognitive distance between me and the protagonists of Americanah is bigger. Which is sad in and of itself – as high schoolers, these characters were playful, bookish, and trusting, no different from my friends or me. But then they were forced to endure hard times that I was sufficiently privileged to avoid. And so when I read about their lives, perched as I was atop my mountain of privilege, it was painful to watch Ifemelu and Obinze develop their self-protective emotional carapaces, armoring themselves against the injustice that ceaselessly buffets them.

Another reader might nod and think, I’ve been there. I had to exercise my imagination.

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In Being a Beast, Charles Foster describes his attempts to understand the lives of other animals. He spent time mimicking their behaviors – crawling naked across the dirt, eating worms, sleeping in an earthen burrow. He wanted a badger’s-eye view of the world.

Foster concluded that his project was a failure – other animals’ lives are just so different from ours.

And yet, as a direct consequence of his attempt at understanding, Foster changed his life. He began treating other animals with more kindness and respect. To me, this makes his project a success.

White people might never understand exactly how it feels to be Black in America. I’m sure I don’t. But we can all change the way we live. We can, for instance, resolve to spend more money on Black communities, and spend it on more services than just policing.

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Empathy is working when it forces us to act. After all, what we do matters more than what we purport to think.

It’s interesting to speculate what it would feel like to share another’s thoughts – in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Shorefall, the protagonists find a way to temporarily join minds. This overwhelming rush of empathy and love transforms them: “Every human being should feel obliged to try this once.

In the real world, we might never know exactly how the world feels to someone else. But Nagel wants to prove, with words, that he has understood another’s experience.

One might try, for example, to develop concepts that could be used to explain to a person blind from birth what it was like to see. One would reach a blank wall eventually, but it should be possible to devise a method of expressing in objective terms much more than we can at present, and with much greater precision.

The loose intermodal analogies – for example, “Red is like the sound of a trumpet” – which crop up in discussions of this subject are of little use. That should be clear to anyone who has both heard a trumpet and seen red.

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We associate red with many of our strongest emotions: anger, violence, love.

And we could tell many different “just so” stories to explain why we have these associations.

Like:

Red is an angry color because people’s faces flush red when they’re mad. Red blood flows when we’re hurt, or when we hurt another.

Or:

Red represents love because a red glow spreads over our partners’ necks and chests and earlobes as we kiss and caress and fumble together.

Or:

Red is mysterious because a red hue fills the sky at dawn and dusk, the liminal hours when we are closest to the spirit world.

These are all emergent associations – they’re unrelated to the original evolutionary incentive that let us see red. Each contributes to how we see red now, but none explains the underlying why.

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We humans are blue-green-red trichromatic – we can distinguish thousands of colors, but our brains do this by comparing the relative intensities of just three.

And we use the phrase “color blind” to describe the people and other animals who can’t distinguish red from green. But all humans are color blind – there are colors we can’t see. To us, a warm body looks identical to a cold wax replica. But their colors are different, as any bullfrog could tell you.

Photograph by Tim Mosenfelder, Getty Images

Our eyes lack the receptors – cone cells with a particular fold of opsin – that could distinguish infrared light from other wavelengths. We mistakenly assume these two singers have the same color skin.

When we look at flowers, we often fail to see the beautiful patterns that decorate their petals. These decorations are obvious to any bee, but we’re oblivious. Again, we’re missing the type of cone cells that would let us see. To fully appreciate flowers, we’d need receptors that distinguish ultraviolet light from blue.

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Most humans can see the color red because we’re descended from fruit eaters. To our bellies, a red berry is very different from a green berry. And so, over many generations, our ancestors who could see the difference were able to gather more nutritious berries than their neighbors. Because they had genes that let them see red, they were better able to survive, have children, and keep their children fed.

The genes for seeing red spread.

Now, several hundred thousand years later, this wavelength of light blares at us like a trumpet. Even though the our ancestors learned to cook food with fire, and switched from fruit gathering to hunting, and then built big grocery stores where the bright flashes of color are just advertisements for a new type of high-fructose-corn-syrup-flavored cereal, red still blares at us.

Once upon a time, we really needed to see ripe fruit. The color red became striking to us, wherever we saw it. And so we invented new associations – rage, or love – even though these are totally unrelated to the evolutionary pressures that gave us our red vision.

Similarly, empathy wasn’t “supposed” to let us build a better world. Evolution doesn’t care about fairness.

And yet. Even though I might never know exactly how it feels when you see the color red, I can still care how you’re treated. Maybe that’s enough.

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Header image: a greater short-nosed fruit bat, photograph by Anton 17.

On Constantine Cavafy’s ‘Body, Remember,’ and the mutability of memory.

On Constantine Cavafy’s ‘Body, Remember,’ and the mutability of memory.

Because we’d had a difficult class the week before, I arrived at jail with a set of risqué poetry to read.  We discussed poems like Allison Joseph’s “Flirtation,” Galway Kinnel’s “Last Gods,” and Jennifer Minniti-Shippey’s “Planning the Seduction of a Somewhat Famous Poet.”

Our most interesting conversation followed Constantine Cavafy’s “Body, Remember,” translated by Aliki Barnstone.  This is not just a gorgeous, sensual poem (although it is that).  Cavafy also conveys an intriguing idea about memory and recovery.

The poem opens with advice – we should keep in mind pleasures that we were privileged to experience.

“Rumpled Mattress” by Alex D. Stewart on Flickr.

Body, remember not only how much you were loved,

not only the beds on which you lay,

A narrative of past joy can cast a rosy glow onto the present.  Our gratitude should encompass more, though.  We should instruct our body to remember not only the actualized embraces,

but also those desires for you

that glowed plainly in the eyes,

and trembled in the voice – and some

chance obstacle made futile.

In addition to our triumphs, we have almost triumphs.  These could be many things.  On some evenings, perhaps our body entwines with another’s; other nights, a wistful parting smile might suggest how close we came to sharing that dance.  In another lifetime.  Another world, perhaps.

Missed Connection 1 by Cully on Flickr.

But we have the potential for so many glories.  In basketball, a last shot might come so close to winning the game.  If you’re struggling with addiction, there could’ve been a day when you very nearly turned down that shot.

Maybe you’ll succeed, maybe you won’t.  In the present, we try our best.  But our present slides inexorably into the past.  And then, although we can’t change what happened, the mutability of memory allows us to change how we feel.

Now that all of them belong to the past,

it almost seems as if you had yielded

to those desires – how they glowed,

remember, in the eyes gazing at you;

how they trembled in the voice, for you, remember, body.

Consciousness is such a strange contraption.  Our perception of the world exists only moment by moment.  The universe constantly sheds order, evolving into states that are ever more probable than the past, which causes time to seem to flow in only one direction. 

Brain nebula by Ivan on Flickr.

A sense of vertigo washes over me whenever I consider the “Boltzmann brain” hypothesis.  This is the speculation that a cloud of dust in outer space, if the molecules were arranged just right, could perceive itself as being identical to your present mind.  The dust cloud could imagine itself to be seeing the same sights as you see now, smelling the same smells, feeling the same textures of the world.  It could perceive itself to possess the same narrative history, a delusion of childhood in the past and goals for its future.

And then, with a wisp of solar wind, the molecules might be rearranged.  The Boltzmann brain would vanish.  The self-perceiving entity would end.

Within our minds, every moment’s now glides seamlessly into the now of the next moment, but it needn’t.  A self-perceiving entity could exist within a single instant.  And even for us humans – whose hippocampal projections allow us to re-experience the past or imagine the future – we would occasionally benefit by introducing intentional discontinuities to our recollection of the world.

Past success makes future success come easier.  If you remember that people have desired you before – even if this memory is mistaken – you’ll carry yourself in a way that makes you seem more desirable in the future.  If an addict remembers saying “no” to a shot – even if this memory is mistaken – it’ll be easier to say “no” next time. 

Our triumphs belong to the same past as our regrets, and we may choose what to remember.  If our life will be improved by the mistake, why not allow our minds the fantasy?  “It almost seems as if you had yielded to those desires.”  The glow, the gaze: remember, body.

In the short story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” Ted Chiang contrasts situations in which the mutability of memory improves the world with situations in which this mutability makes the world worse.  Memories that reinforce our empathy are the most important to preserve.

We all need to know that we are fallible.  Our brains are made of squishy goo.  The stuff isn’t special – if it spills from our skulls, it’ll stink of rancid fat.  Only the patterns are important.  Those patterns are made from the flow of salts and the gossamer tendrils of synapses; they’re not going to be perfect.

As long as we know that we’re fallible, though, it doesn’t help much to dwell on the details of each failure.  We need to retain enough to learn from our mistakes, but not so much that we can’t slough off shame and regret once these emotions have served their purpose.  As we live, we grow.  A perfect remembrance of the past would constrict the person we’re meant to be.

I imagine that Brett Kavanaugh ardently believes that he is not, and has never been, the sort of person who would assault a woman.  He surely believes that he would never thrust his bare penis into an unconsenting woman’s hand.  And I imagine that Brett Kavanaguh’s current behavior is improved by this belief.  In his personal life, this is the memory of himself that he should preserve, rather than the narrative that would probably be given by an immutable record of consensus reality.

The main problem, in Kavanagh’s case, is his elevation to a position of power.  In his personal life, he should preserve the mutable memories that help him to be good.  No matter how inaccurate they might be.

In public life, however, consensus reality matters.  Personally, I will have difficulty respecting the court rulings of a person who behaved this way.  Especially since his behavior toward women continued such that law professors would advise their female students to cultivate a particular “look” in order to clerk for Kavanaugh’s office.

The Supreme Court, in its current incarnation, is our nation’s final arbiter on many issues related to women’s rights.  Kavanaugh’s narrative introduces a cloud of suspicion over any ruling he makes on these issues – especially since he has faced no public reckoning for his past actions.

And, for someone with Kavanaugh’s history of substance abuse, it could be worthwhile to preserve a lingering memory of past sins.  I still think that the specific details – pinning a struggling woman to the bed, covering her mouth with his hand – would not be beneficial for him to preserve.  But I would hope that he remembers enough to be cognizant of his own potential to hurt people while intoxicated.

Episodic memories of the specific times when he assaulted people at high school and college parties probably aren’t necessary for him to be good, but he would benefit from general knowledge about his behavior after consuming alcohol.  When I discuss drug use with people in jail, I always let them know that I am in favor of legalization.  I think that people should be allowed to manipulate their own minds.

But certain people should not take certain drugs. 

Like most people in this country, I’ve occasionally been prescribed Vicodin.  And I was handed more at college parties.  But I never enjoyed the sensation of taking painkillers.

Some people really like opiates, though.  Sadly, those are the people who shouldn’t take them.

Brett Kavanaugh likes beer.  Sadly, he’s the sort of person who shouldn’t drink it.

Honestly, though, his life would not be that much worse without it.  Beer changes how your brain works in the now.  For an hour or two, your perception of the world is different.  Then that sensation, like any other, slides into the past.

But, whether you drink or don’t, you can still bask later in the rosy glow of (mis)remembrance.

On ‘The Overstory.’

On ‘The Overstory.’

We delude ourselves into thinking that the pace of life has increased in recent years.  National news is made by the minute as politicians announce their plans via live-televised pronouncement or mass-audience short text message.  Office workers carry powerful computers into their bedrooms, continuing to work until moments before sleep.

But our frenzy doesn’t match the actual pace of the world.  There’s a universe of our own creation zipping by far faster than the reaction time of any organism that relies on voltage waves propagating along its ion channels.  Fortunes are made by shortening the length of fiberoptic cable between supercomputer clusters and the stock exchange, improving response times by fractions of a second.  “Practice makes perfect,” and one reason the new chess and Go algorithms are so much better than human players is that they’ve played lifetimes of games against themselves since their creation.

640px-IFA_2010_Internationale_Funkausstellung_Berlin_18We can frantically press buttons or swipe our fingers across touch screens, but humans will never keep up with the speed of the algorithms that recommend our entertainment, curate our news, eavesdrop on our conversations, guess at our sexual predilections, condemn us to prison

And then there’s the world.  The living things that have been inhabiting our planet for billions of years – the integrated ecosystems they create, the climates they shape.  The natural world continues to march at the same stately pace as ever.  Trees siphon carbon from the air as they grasp for the sun, then fall and rot and cause the Earth itself to grow.  A single tree might live for hundreds or thousands of years.  The forests in which they are enmeshed might develop a personality over millions.

Trees do not have a neural network.  But neither do neurons.  When simple components band together and communicate, the result can be striking.  And, as our own brains clearly show, conscious.  The bees clustering beneath a branch do not seem particularly clever by most of our metrics, but the hive as a whole responds intelligently to external pressures.  Although each individual has no idea what the others are doing, they function as a unit.

Your neurons probably don’t understand what they’re doing.  But they communicate to the others, and that wide network of communication is enough.

Root_of_a_TreeTrees talk.  Their roots intertwine – they send chemical communiques through symbiotic networks of fungal mycelia akin to telephones.

Trees talk slowly, by our standards.  But we’ve already proven to ourselves that intelligence could operate over many orders of temporal magnitude – silicon-based AI is much speedier than the chemical communiques sent from neuron to neuron within our own brains.  If a forest thought on a timescale of days, months, or years, would we humans even notice?  Our concerns were bound up in the minute by minute exigencies of hunting for food, finding mates, and trying not to be mauled by lions.  Now, they’re bound up in the exigencies of making money.  Selecting which TV show to stream.  Scoping the latest developments of a congressional race that will determine whether two more years pass without the slightest attempt made to avoid global famine.

In The Overstory, Richard Powers tries to frame this timescale conflict such that we Homo sapiens might finally understand.  Early on, he presents a summary of his own book; fractal-like, this single paragraph encapsulates the entire 500 pages (or rather, thousands of years) of heartbreak.

image (2)He still binges on old-school reading.  At night, he pores over mind-bending epics that reveal the true scandals of time and matter.  Sweeping tales of generational spaceship arks.  Domed cities like giant terrariums.  Histories that split and bifurcate into countless parallel quantum worlds.  There’s a story he’s waiting for, long before he comes across it.  When he finds it at last, it stays with him forever, although he’ll never be able to find it again, in any database.  Aliens land on Earth.  They’re little runts, as alien races go.  But they metabolize like there’s no tomorrow.  They zip around like swarms of gnats, too fast to see – so fast that Earth seconds seem to them like years.  To them, humans are nothing but sculptures of immobile meat.  The foreigners try to communicate, but there’s no reply.  Finding no signs of intelligent life, they tuck into the frozen statues and start curing them like so much jerky, for the long ride home.

Several times while reading The Overstory, I felt a flush of shame at the thought of how much I personally consume.  Which means, obviously, that Powers was doing his work well – I should feel ashamed.    We are alive, brilliantly beautifully alive, here on a magnificent, temperate planet.  But most of us spend too little time feeling awe and too much feeling want.  “What if there was more?” repeated so often that we’ve approached a clear precipice of forever having less.

In Fruitful Labor, Mike Madison (whose every word – including the rueful realization that young people today can’t reasonably expect to follow in his footsteps – seems to come from a place of earned wisdom and integrity, a distinct contrast from Thoreau’s Walden, in my opinion) asks us to:

image (3)Consider the case of a foolish youth who, at age 21, inherits a fortune that he spends so recklessly that, by the age of 30, the fortune is dissipated and he finds himself destitute.  This is more or less the situation of the human species.  We have inherited great wealth in several forms: historic solar energy, either recent sunlight stored as biomass, or ancient sunlight stored as fossil fuels; the great diversity of plants and animals, organized into robust ecosystems; ancient aquifers; and the earth’s soil, which is the basis for all terrestrial life.  We might mention a fifth form of inherited wealth – antibiotics, that magic against many diseases – which we are rendering ineffective through misuse.  Of these forms of wealth that we are spending so recklessly, fossil fuels are primary, because it is their energy that drives the destruction of the other assets.

What we have purchased with the expenditure of this inheritance is an increase in the human population of the planet far above what the carrying capacity would be without the use of fossil fuels.  This level of population cannot be sustained, and so must decline.  The decline could be gradual and relatively painless, as we see in Japan, where the death rate slightly exceeds the birth rate.  Or the decline could be sudden and catastrophic, with unimaginable grief and misery.

In this context, the value of increased energy efficiency is that it delays the inevitable reckoning; that is, it buys us time.  We could use this time wisely, to decrease our populations in the Japanese style, and to conserve our soil, water, and biological resources.  A slower pace of climate change could allow biological and ecological adaptations.  At the same time we could develop and enhance our uses of geothermal, nuclear, and solar energies, and change our habits to be less materialistic.  A darker option is to use the advantages of increased energy efficiency to increase the human population even further, ensuring increasing planetary poverty and an even more grievous demise.  History does not inspire optimism; nonetheless, the ethical imperative remains to farm as efficiently as one is able.

The tragic side of this situation is not so much the fate of the humans; we are a flawed species unable to make good use of the wisdom available to us, and we have earned our unhappy destiny by our foolishness.  It is the other species on the planet, whose destinies are tied to ours, that suffer a tragic outcome.

Any individual among us could protest that “It’s not my fault!”  The Koch brothers did not invent the internal combustion engine – for all their efforts to confine us to a track toward destitution and demise, they didn’t set us off in that direction.  And it’s not as though contemporary humans are unique in reshaping our environment into an inhospitable place, pushing ourselves toward extinction.

Heck, you could argue that trees brought this upon themselves.  Plants caused climate change long before there was a glimmer of a chance that animals like us might ever exist.  The atmosphere of the Earth was like a gas chamber, stifling hot and full of carbon dioxide.  But then plants grew and filled the air with oxygen.  Animals could evolve … leading one day to our own species, which now kills most types of plants to clear space for a select few monocultures.

As Homo sapiens spread across the globe, we rapidly caused the extinction of nearly all mega-fauna on every continent we reached.  On Easter Island, humans caused their own demise by killing every tree – in Collapse, Jared Diamond writes that our species’ inability to notice long-term, gradual change made the environmental devastation possible (indeed, the same phenomenon explains why people aren’t as upset as they should be about climate change today):

image (4)We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity. 

Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site.  Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. 

Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago.  Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important.  At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance.  That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. 

No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

512px-Richard_Powers_(author)Throughout The Overstory, Powers summarizes research demonstrating all the ways that a forest is different from – more than – a collection of trees.  It’s like comparing a functioning brain with neuronal cells grown in a petri dish.  But we have cut down nearly all our world’s forests.  We can console ourselves that we still allow some trees to grow – timber crops to ensure that we’ll still have lumber for all those homes we’re building – but we’re close to losing forests without ever knowing quite what they are.

Powers is furious, and wants for you to change your life.

You’re a psychologist,” Mimi says to the recruit.  “How do we convince people that we’re right?”

The newest Cascadian [a group of environmentalists-cum-ecoterrorists / freedom fighters] takes the bait.  “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind.  The only thing that can do that is a good story.”