Liberal Hearts: Empathy, Creativity and the 21st-Century

In a splendid biography of Renaissance, creative genius, Leonardo Da Vinci, Walter Isaacson quotes Leonardo’s contemporary, ‘Vasari, saying, “He was so generous that he sheltered and fed all of his friends, rich and poor.”  He was not motivated by wealth or material possessions.  In his notebooks, he decried “men who desire nothing but material riches and are devoid of the desire for wisdom, which is the sustenance and truly dependable wealth of the mind.”  As a result, he spent more time pursuing wisdom than working on jobs that would make him money beyond what he needed to support his growing household retinue.  “He possessed nothing and worked little, but he always kept servants and horses” The horses brought him “much delight,” Vasari wrote, as did all animals. “Often when passing the place where birds were sold, he would take them with his own hand out of their cages, and having paid to those who sold them the price that was asked, he let them fly away into the air, restoring to them their lost liberty.”

If I were to beg you to try to understand how important empathy is to us now as a city, nation and species, the cynical crowd would probably laugh and say, “who is this guy.”  But something in the right hemisphere of our brain would make them think for a moment or two. 

Empathy comes with a heightened sense of morality, of justice, and often, of standing for something important.  The seeds of empathy are born within us, but they must be grown through experience and example.  Unlike physical growth, however, the emergence of empathy is easy to interrupt.  Simply being immersed in challenging environments, at an early age, for instance, often presents obstacles to its development.  And that’s a problem.

Without empathy, our relationships with others seem shallow and disconnected.  As the most social of animals, empathy is the way we connect – reflecting tens of thousands of years of interdependence in hunter-gatherer societies.  In short, empathy turns out to be a simple, but lofty acknowledgement of our membership in the human club.

Here are some questions?  Suppose it was up to us to make the world work?  It’s a good thing to be asking ourselves because we are the only ones that can.  It’s our world – and right now it doesn’t work very well.  Can we grow our ability to make the world work by growing ourselves?  If we can, what part of our selves do we wish to grow?  Is it the self that’s fascinated with getting ahead, beating the system or winning the game?  Or is it the one that realizes we are all in this together, the empathetic self that comes directly from our first two hundred thousand years as Homo sapiens? 

In a 1984 interview by Arianna Huffington, Jonas Salk, the world-renowned developer of a polio vaccine, said he believed “goodness and nobility” to be genetically inscribed in humans.  In other words, goodness and nobility are identifying traits of you and me when we have become the most authentic version of ourselves.  Salk and others, like Pico della Mirandola, the 15th-century humanist and author of Oration on the Dignity of Man, believed ultimately, goodness and nobility is a choice we are given.

As long ago as 1997, Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., a New York Times science editor, Harvard lecturer and author of multiple books on social and emotional development told the annual meeting of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), the nation’s oldest K-12 education group, that research studies have shown “emotional intelligence predicts about 80% of a person’s success in life, while IQ only predicts four to twenty percent.”   He further emphasized that educators needed to consider education differently for this intelligence because “different areas of the brain are involved.”  Empathy can be easily thought of as the essence of emotional intelligence.”

In his posthumously published, The Further Reaches of Human Nature, A. H. Maslow, the American “philosopher of science” examines a comparison of the characteristics of the psychologically healthy person, he calls “self-actualizing,” and those of the “creative person,” as described by the prominent researcher, Paul Torrance.  They are so close to identical as to add up to “a syndrome of psychological health,” according to Maslow.  In short, to be psychologically healthy is to be creative.  You can’t really have one without the other.

The same is true of empathy and the rest of the category labeled emotional intelligence or personal and social competence.  They too are descriptors of the psychologically healthy, creative person.  It’s really all the same phenomenon: our personal evolutionary process of becoming that which we are as our best, most authentic selves.  Engaging the process allows us to consistently experience more value from life and simultaneously to become increasingly more valuable to all with whom we interact – in family, work and community. It’s quite an extravagant reward for simply growing into the authentic version of ourselves we are intended to become.

So while we stand here in the midst of what appears to be a ridiculously chaotic world, where and how would we begin to demonstrate our most elevated possibilities?  As lofty as this question sounds, it may not be so wild as one might think.  The reason is we have learned more in the past two decades – about our selves and the brain we each possess – than we did in the preceding twenty thousand.  Critically, we learned from the work of such eminent neuroscientists as Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary, The divided brain and the making of the western world, that our developmental systems, i.e. our schools have ignored the nurture of the brain’s right hemisphere, it’s intuitive right half, where emotional growth and creativity centers reside.  In other words, engagement of our imagination and emotional intelligence –empathy and creativity – are both dependent upon nurture of the brain’s intuitive right hemisphere.

In defending themselves in a discussion that has continued for over half a century, our K – 12 education systems consistently reminds us they are not trained to deal with emotional or creative development, only cognitive growth centered in the brain’s rational, left hemisphere.  (No one has clarified for them that moral psychology has shown the left hemisphere, the rational brain centers, are actually subservient to the intuitive right hemisphere; that the sensitive and insightful, right hemisphere is the location of the brain’s chosen command centers.)  And what has not been openly discussed is that empathy, the critical exemplar of emotional intelligence, is the key to making the world work – for everyone.

While most of us have been led to believe empathy is merely the effort we are asked to make on behalf of our fellow citizens, it is in fact a great deal more than that.  As Leonardo Da Vinci illustrates empathy reaches all the way to our fellow creatures, such as caged birds, and beyond.  Empathy is the ability to connect with who and what we are – masters of the planet, yes, but also those responsible for its future, and that of all of its inhabitants.  The development of empathy is key to becoming fully human, of making the connections that allow us to see ourselves as what we truly are: the stewards and guardians of the natural world.  Only when we understand this will we come to know our authentic, empathetic selves.