compassion

The only thing we have

Two political scientists suggest that the most powerful factor driving your partisan beliefs in the charged political landscape of the United States is fear - most notably, fear of the other side

This is a pretty depressing conclusion, because it implies that not only are we failing to appeal to anything more elevated in our humanity than a simplistic reaction to real (or perceived) threat, but also that people of both sides of the political spectrum are easily manipulable through appeals to fear, which form a disturbingly large fraction of the shrill social media shares that are becoming a common means of gathering information about the world. We're beyond preaching to the choir; we're howling to the other torch bearers in the pitchfork-weilding horde. 

Not you, of course, I'm sure you're entirely rational and right-thinking. Funny how everyone thinks that, even people whose world-views you would find odious. The trope of "everyone else is an idiot except me and my in-group" has become so common that I've begun to believe that it's also a powerful, manipulable state encouraged by those whose power is fed by partisan divisions. The more that you consider other people to be fools, the more fearful you are of the effects of their idiocy... and the more likely you are to stick to the ways of the people close to you, defending your shrinking piece of the turf from all comers. 

Easy for me to say. I struggle with the same feelings. It's a stretch for me to be inclusive in my thinking, even though I work with (and fundamentally trust) many people whose belief systems seem alien, even corrosive. 

When you seek consensus to manage a conflict, one of the first steps is to establish the many things you have in common with the other party. Sometimes in American politics, it feels as if we're living in entirely different worlds than our opponents. Is common ground shrinking? Or is no one looking for it any more? 

Of course, if you're going to fight your opponent to the death, there's no need to seek consensus. 

Someone gives you a calfskin wallet.

Kate Darling researches our empathic connections to robots. Among the studies she's run were scenarios in which people were allowed to play with cuddly dinosaur robots that acted like puppies - then told to dismember and destroy them. In the talk below, she discusses our empathy for objects that simulate being alive. 

There are some neat ideas in this lecture. People who are more empathic to humans show more empathy for a robot, even though they're equally aware that it's an inanimate object. It sounds obvious on its face, but the implication is their empathy is guiding their actions even in the face of obvious evidence. Their empathy is bypassing their cognitions. Perhaps the "decent" part of being human isn't our amazing cognitive capacity, but something more fundamental. 

Everything is in your head

I recently responded to an incident in which a large number of people were exposed to a substance that's essentially harmless, but not something you typically get on your skin. A significant number were reporting a burning sensation and other symptoms. Ultimately, their symptoms resolved and none required emergency care. 

I think their condition likely had two causes. First, fear and anxiety at having been exposed to a foreign substance caused them to pay close attention to the normal sensations coming from their bodies. Their perceptions were filtered through biased cognitive processes, with pain as the result. Second, the reactions of the people around them actually influenced their perceptions of their own bodies.

It's easy to dismiss mass psychogenic illness as "hysteria" but I think it's an indicator of the powerful role our innate social impulses play in our health. We gather data and form our experiences not only through our nervous system, but also through other people.

Someone asked me recently if I'd ever seen a connection between my demeanor on an emergency incident and the patient's outcome. "Almost every single call," I replied. Fear and anxiety are hidden amplifiers of patients' symptoms. While I never hesitate to perform whatever medical interventions are necessary, sometimes calm and compassion are the most powerful tools at my disposal.

It's as if we have a second, invisible nervous system that extends out from our bodies and connects with others. 

I'm not going all woo-woo hand-wavey here. I can't cure a developing heart attack with niceness. But take this example: in a heart attack, cardiac muscle tissue doesn't receive enough oxygen-rich blood, and becomes hypoxic. Eventually, deprived of oxygen, it will die. A fast-beating heart uses up more oxygen, rapidly exhausting the limited supply. If my demeanor helps ameliorate a measure of that anxiety, and slows the heart down a little, might it help preserve a little precious cardiac tissue? 

Maybe, maybe not. I can't find research that addresses the patient's anxiety level during the event and compares it to long-term survival. But that's just one of the ways I see a little human compassion having far-reaching effects in EMS. We spend a lot of time training people how to perform other critical skills. But no one ever trained me in basic techniques for demonstrating compassion and reducing anxiety in patients. It's time for that to change.