The Illusion of Human Empathy

It is – to me – a mysterious thing, how much energy we allocate on forgetting the things we need to stop thinking about, just to be able to go on living.

You did many things today. Brushed your teeth. Maybe said hi to a neighbor. Had a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch. Flipped off the light at night… Tomorrow, you’ll remember almost none of what you did or of what has happened to you. These memory bytes of trivial things are only meant to last just long enough to be useful for what we are doing at a specific time. They are not stored for longer than a few minutes.

The way our long term memory operates is slightly more bizarre. We store certain chunks of data, like pictures, feelings, tastes, sounds,… of an event, but we do it in a very subjective way. That is why a smell, a sound, a song, … anything can bring us back to a place and time we’d ‘forgotten’ about for many years. Suddenly very clear images come rushing back to the surface, as if they had been hiding for us. Simultaneously other people who were present in the same moment remember nothing when they get a whiff of the same smell, or hear the same song. That is because our personalities and life experiences let us interpret the memory in our own way, like a sequence of emotional construction blocks, and this is how they become imaginary truths.

It hurts, doesn’t it? How certain ancient memories tend to come back unsolicited as a freight train in your mind. You break out in a sweat. Your heart starts pounding in your throat. You feel like you’re going to faint. You can barely manage to handle the embarrassing thoughts that rush through your mind, when an upsetting subconscious memory hits you out of the blue.

Of course, the idea that we can remember something clearly out of our childhood is a bit irrational to begin with. The instant something significant happens to us, we immediately develop a narrative  of that defining moment. By retelling the memory to ourselves, the story gradually becomes different from what actually happened. Still, at the same time it grows to be more vivid in our head, and so it is the stories that we tell ourselves, and others, not the real series of events, that end up forming the memory. It goes without saying that this is not always a good thing.

My brother and I were talking about an event from our childhood the other day, and we ended up arguing over the different elements of the story. Our view on what had happened was to a certain degree the same, but we couldn’t agree on the details. Even when we both had been there, we had a largely different context in mind. We obviously had not the same recollections of the event. Even so, my brother and I were convinced that how we had perceived it was how it truly happened. To me it was clear that I was more sensitive to what had happened than my brother was. To me it was evident that my brother was oblivious to the many unsettling aspects of the memory. To him it was an event like any other. To me that moment had somewhat outlined the rest of my life.

Our memory is an entangled group of connections that we’ve linked to each other by details that we associate with specific events, ideas and emotions. Instead of just trying to remember one event, we make the experience into a story, which makes it easier to remember, but also prone to be modified along the way. How you construct that specific story of a particular memory will be totally different than how anyone else would write it. Imagine how we, as human beings, never will be able to grasp how somebody else is feeling, when you count the thousands of little memories that you might have shared with them, but perceive totally different.

Yes, the conclusion is that we are alone. Nobody gets us. Friendship and love are illusions that help us get through the day. Any affinity between people is based on our deception of what reality is, of how things are, as everybody has their own special awareness of every single thing that is being said and is being done. We could be engaging in a sincere conversation, and all participants will have a tendency to interpret what is being said in another way. As we spend more time with people, we think we are getting to know them and they are getting to know us, but what actually happens is that we get used to the other’s insanity.

Because, if we could read each other’s minds, we would deem everybody to be crazy. That’s why we should see it as a blessing to not become conscious how another person is thinking, how he or she is seeing things.

We would run away from virtually everybody, if we would catch just a glimpse of their fundamental madness.


© 2017 – David Lee Kollberg

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