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Bar News - September 17, 2014

Opinion: Art Appreciation: A Training Regimen for Your Compassion


A group of researchers based in Toronto recently measured the brain functioning of subjects who were being called upon to exercise their “mirror systems,” the property of human consciousness that makes it mimic what it sees (i.e., if you see someone doing a certain act, then the part of your brain that controls that same act automatically springs into motion) (see someone smiling? you yourself will want to smile, too). And they found that those who felt they had power over others had less active mirror systems than those who felt the opposite. They cared less, when they saw others in pain.

Older studies had already established a factual correlation between having power and lacking empathy, but none had ever gone this extra step and shown its physiological basis. And it’s easy to see why evolution favored this arrangement. When one hungry caveman saw another hungry caveman running like blazes past his cave, he might have found it useful to get a head start himself, away from the saber-tooth tiger sure to follow; whereas a well-fed caveman might have chosen instead to stand his ground and clobber said tiger over its head.

But cavemen didn’t have lawyers to contend with: no judges, no prosecutors, no senior partners, all of whom are called upon to exercise their better angels on a daily basis – and who could find their ability to do so compromised by this evolutionary stumbling block.

Thankfully, these same researchers also showed that this effect is reversible. If you make these same people feel less powerful, then their mirror functions become stronger. So, one way to help our powerful people continue to show kindness to those around them would be to deprive them of whatever makes them powerful: take back their robes, their corner offices, their ability to issue orders.

Some might protest.

There’s another way too, however, that’s well sanctioned by history and practice. This new scientific truth comes as no surprise, after all. We have long known and worried about the tendency of the powerful to care less about others. And it flares up now and then as a serious subject for art.

Some works discuss it directly, examining poverty in documentary fashion. Modern books like those of Barbara Ehrenreich tend to be a bit preachy for my taste, but I treasure a pair of older studies. James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with photographs by Walker Evans, is that writer’s description of the lives and circumstances of Appalachian farmers during the Great Depression. He stresses the humanity that lies behind their poverty and makes it impossible to view the faces that Evans has captured with anything less than wonder and awe. Or, try George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris, which describes his own life in penury during that same time period. Agee was a sentimental type; Orwell was not. And his prose is as lean as Agee’s is lush.

You can turn to a slew of classic films on this topic, too, from Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang, to John Ford’s version of John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, to Preston Sturges’s wholly light-hearted Sullivan’s Travels. Or you can simply cut to the chase, and cite William Shakespeare. Here is Lear on the heath, refusing to take shelter from the pouring rain that has opened over his head:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!

Now, people exercise their muscles all the time; they run marathons, climb rocks, and spend hours at the gym to stay fit. Like Shakespeare’s king, though, they are often too willing to let their hearts grow soft.

Great art in all its variety can make you feel emotions you would not otherwise feel; it can make you practice what it’s like to feel great joy or suffer great loss, help you process both of those experiences, and help you reach beyond them to acceptance and understanding. And it does these things best when it’s challenging. Just like exercise.

So partners, judges, and prosecutors: go to your local art museum, find a painting you can’t understand, and give it some serious thought. Your mirror system will thank you.

Michael Davidow is a staff attorney at the NH Public Defender office in Nashua and the author of Split Thirty, a novel about politics and advertising. The author’s opinions are his own and do not represent the opinions of his employer, or the NH Bar Association.

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