It’s probably been a while since you’ve heard someone say, “You know, he may have a point,” or “I see where she’s coming from, I never thought of it that way.” We are becoming an increasingly polarized society, digging in our heels with respect to our own beliefs, and closing ourselves off to any interaction with others whose beliefs may differ from our own.
Whether it’s left-wing versus right-wing, Democrats versus Republicans, or vegans versus carnivores, the ability to engage in interactive dialogue seems to be on the wane, and this is not a good thing. The ability to visit with the ideology of another person, especially when that ideology is contrary to our own, clearly offers a benefit in terms of expanding both our knowledge base. Just experiencing or attempting to understand the beliefs of another person allows us to refine our own framework for navigating the world in which we live.
The ability to participate in the viewpoint of another person is called cognitive empathy. Now, cognitive empathy in no way implies subscribing to another person’s ideas or beliefs, it simply means the ability to try on another person’s framework and experience how it feels.
Cognitive empathy is enhanced when there is opportunity for respectful social interaction that brings to the agora participants with diverse opinions. The actual brain anatomy that facilitates cognitive empathy is the prefrontal cortex, an area that becomes less accessible when challenged by stress, lack of restorative sleep, lack of nature exposure, and inflammation (hallmarks of disconnection syndrome). As such, so many of the characteristics of our modern world threaten our ability to fully connect with those around us.
We have so much to gain by simply experiencing the viewpoints of others. Even the act of engagement itself facilitates the process of cognitive empathy moving forward. Fanning the flames of our own unique ideology by locking ourselves into highly defined and polarized social media sites, for example, tends to lock us out of this important ability to share and participate in the knowledge and viewpoints of others.
As this video makes clear, “It’s easy to put people in boxes. There’s us and there’s them.”
But as you’ll see, we can celebrate how in so many ways we are alike. Why not celebrate our differences as well?