Empathy: A Hard Look at a Touchy-Feely Subject

How MDMA Affects Empathy

Scientific evidence is mounting that ecstasy isn’t just a party drug.

According to lore, in the early 1980s, an enterprising drug distributor in Los Angeles was trying to build a street market for the chemical compound MDMA. It seemed like a promising product— MDMA floods the brain with serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of happiness. Users reported feeling euphoric, appreciating lights and music in a new way, and a rush of emotional intimacy. MDMA was starting to catch on as a club drug, but if it was going to be big, it would need a catchier name.

With partygoers in mind, the dealer coined the name “Ecstasy.” “Empathy,” he reportedly said, “would be more appropriate, but how many people know what it means?”

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Shut Up and Listen

Understanding the cold, hard truths behind the concept of empathy

People are talking about empathy more than ever. A search of New York Times archives reveals that while the paper mentioned the term in only 18 articles in 1960, the count had risen to 241 by 2000. And in 2013, empathy was referenced 563 times. Last week’s Sunday Review section of The Times even included a piece on empathy and its connection to social status. And the Gray Lady isn’t the only one. News organizations ranging from the Harvard Business Review to The Huffington Post are enumerating the benefits of getting in touch with other people’s feelings and advising us on how to do so.

Whether this is a reaction to a perceived pandemic of self-centeredness, a side effect of the recent interest in holistic “wellness,” or simply a spontaneous collective desire to be better people, Americans are, it seems, interested in increasing their ability to share and understand the feelings of the other.

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The Empathy Mirror

Recent discoveries in neurofeedback can teach you to be less of a dick.

In 2004, a Jewish woman living in Tel Aviv wrote a letter to a Palestinian woman she had never met. “This, for me is one of the most difficult letters I will ever have to write,” she began. “My name is Robi Damelin. I am the mother of David who was killed by your son.” Over the course of the letter, Damelin explained the unbearable anguish of losing her son, a soldier who was hit by sniper fire at a military roadblock. She acknowledged the pain of the Palestinian woman, whose own son was now condemned to a long jail sentence, and expressed her fragile trust in dialogue and reconciliation. Concluding, she wrote, “I hope that you will show the letter to your son, and that maybe in the future we can meet. Let us put an end to the killing and look for a way through mutual understanding and empathy to live a normal life, free of violence.”

Though in overwhelming personal pain, Damelin was still able to find emotional common ground, and use it to create a connection with another parent, spanning one of the world’s most acrimonious political divides. Damelin now works with The Parents Circle, a support group of Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost family members to the ongoing conflict, but are still intent on working towards reconciliation and peace. The Parents Circle brings these families together in the hope that, united by grief, their similarities will outweigh their differences. Both Damelin’s letter and the efforts of The Parents Circle are examples of the potential of empathy.

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