Empathy and the Lizard Brain

The human capacity to injure other people has always been much greater than its ability to imagine other people. Or perhaps we should say, the human capacity to injure other people is very great precisely because our capacity to imagine other people is very small. — Elaine Scarry

Before humans developed empathy, we developed fight or flight instincts.

Our brains evolved to survive immediate threats prior to homo sapiens arriving on the scene.

And we’re really good at fighting and fleeing.

Rustle in the bushes? Get the f out of there!

Something goes bump in the night? RUN!

Stranger danger? Pump out some adrenaline in case you need to FIGHT!

The Lizard Brain, as Seth Godin calls it, is powerful. It’s served our species well.

The problem with the Lizard Brain is while it makes quick decisions, it doesn’t always make the best decisions. It boils everything down to a few panicky options.

Sometimes it makes more sense to cooperate than kill.

It can be more beneficial to love than fear.

Situations can have more reward than risk.

Enter the cerebral cortex. This is the part of our brain that evolved later. Empathy stems from the cerebral cortex, and it helps build the bonds that make a functioning society possible.

The cerebral cortex makes higher level decisions, but these decisions take time and effort. It requires cognitive resources, and we as a species are “cognitive misers” by nature.

Empathy is hard.

External pressures like deadlines, elections, financial constraints or rigid identities make empathy harder.

The trick is knowing when it makes sense to stand up and fight, and when it’s time to sit down and fight the Lizard Brain.