Brain Jolt: Empathy & Honesty Reconsidered

Three weeks ago, my new car took a smack to the righthand passenger side, thankfully empty. Totaled? Did it matter? A car is a thing. I walked away.

The following hours passed procedurally—insurance conversations, a tow truck haul, the arrival of my rental car, and my automatic pilot duty to reach work to fulfill a deadline.

I went through the motions but without razor-sharp clarity. Yet my system remained in a certain overdrive.

The power of the word STOP

Noticing my vulnerability, a wise colleague suggested that I stop by a clinic. STOP. Now that’s a darn great verb.

The doctor checked my body for soreness and my brain for concussion. On detecting my Alabama accent, he regaled me with a couple of anecdotes about the delightful time he experienced while training in Charleston, South Carolina, quite the lady by the sea.

But on a serious note, he warned me that a few days of rest were essential because my brain had experienced a jolt. Prescription:

  • Minimize activity on gadgets
  • Do not read much, especially work-related documents or unpleasant topics
  • Listen to music
  • Watch a comedy
  • Engage in real conversations—listen to human voices—rather than staring at a constant text storm

What’s up with my brain?

After resting a few days, I awoke early one morning, pondering the brain—among the most complex organs in our body, “with 100 billion nerves that communicate in trillions of connections called synapses,” according to WebMD.

What did I really understand about this headful of miracles? So I took a small voyage of discovery via a quiz posted last year on WebMD: “How well do you know your brain?”

How did I score? “Not bad.” However, the grade would have vexed my professors of general-ed “baby bio” courses. Clearly, I had a bit to review.

Although an on/off practitioner of yoga since college, I finally sought consistency. Six months ago, I rooted in a daily practice (a.m. and p.m.) followed by a few minutes of meditation. However, on the day of my accident, I rushed out the door without pausing for this routine, diverted by having slept through my alarm.

Again, I return to the cautionary STOP. Would grounding my being for a few extra minutes have prevented the accident?

The doctor’s instructions spurred two questions:

  • Do we follow this advice for only a short time after a potentially threatening event?
  • Or do we consider such wisdom as a daily application?

The myths of life/work balance and multitasking

For two weeks, I slowed down my internet activity, taking a Twitter vacation and almost disappearing from Facebook and its political fallout—but dropped in on LinkedIn where I regularly engage colleagues and school friends from days of yore. However, detaching periodically from the life/work email streams proved challenging.

In 2011, I read the article “Who’s the Boss, You or Your Gadget?” in the New York Times. This passage addresses the constant contact with work via smart phones, text messaging, and social media: “There’s a palpable sense ‘that home has invaded work and work has invaded home, and the boundary is likely never to be restored,’ says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.”

For many, “life/work balance” is an empty phrase. Psychologists have long dismissed the notion of multitasking.

Imagine how much a general invasion has amped up in the past six years. Now we binge-watch hot series via gadget streaming, and presidential policies blast us in tweets.

Did empathy go down a rabbit hole?

The debate about gadgets and their effect on empathy continues. In 2014—appropriately on February 14—an article in Wired gave me pause. “How Gadgets Ruin Relationships and Corrupt Emotions.” A salient point on “cell-fishness” follows: “But this is about more than an issue of gadget etiquette or a lack of consideration for others. It’s about connection. While our electronic gadgetry is keeping us more connected in some ways, it is a shallow connection — not the deep emotional engagement needed for any kind of meaningful relationship.”

About six months ago, an article appeared in TechCrunch“The New Age of Empathy.” It has a decidedly different take on empathy: “The best books, the books that stay with us, are tinged with both comedy and sorrow, humor and anger. We remember things that make us feel. The internet, in its petulant and infantile glory, is slowly moving toward that ideal.” The article also underlines several studies that the internet can stimulate brain activity and that time spent online has little impact on empathy.

However, the piece ends on a question mark: “In the end, this new era of empathy might be a mirage, a calm before the dystopian storm. Or it could be a signpost aiming us forward, unto higher heights and better worlds. The answer is within us and how we choose to react in this moment. We are the ones who take the darkened hill and shout ‘Excelsior’ [‘always upward’ in Latin]. The internet is the lantern in our hands.”


What’s honesty anyway?

Lantern? What popped into my mind was the cynical, albeit grumpy, Greek philosopher Diogenes (c. 404-323 BCE). He’s the fabled fellow who wandered around the marketplace, thrusting a light in the faces of passersby in search of an “honest man.” In modern terms, that might translate to a true (or authentic) human being. (What pesky comment would Diogenes have delivered in the face of “alternative facts”?)

Admittedly, this dude had guts. When Alexander the Great (tutored by Aristotle) showed up in Corinth, he curiously sought out Diogenes, who reclined in the sunlight. After introducing himself, Alexander asked whether he might offer a favor.

Diogenes did not miss a beat, “Yes. Get out of my sunlight.”

Alexander was all praise: “If I were not Alexander, I would wish to be Diogenes.”

Diogenes did not miss a beat: “If I were not Diogenes, I would also wish to be Diogenes.”

Credit: Diogenes with his Lantern by Giuseppe Antonio Petrini (U.S. public domain)



  1. Scribbleheart

    What a great post – it felt like you were speaking directly to me (except I never tweet – I’ll leave that to the president…). Too many gadgets, too many arguments with strangers on Facebook, too much fake news: my answer was to plunge into a 700-page novel and to hell with social media! Except for a 15-minute catch-up each day 😉 So glad your fender-bender only opened your mind! And tant pis for the vehicle! Cars are just gadgets.

  2. Karen Lin

    Boy that prescription sounds harsh! No reading? Ugh! It’s interesting that all the fun things in the brain needed a rest. So sorry this happened to you. This peace was very interesting to me in several ways the two ways empathy could go in our world of technology. As to multitasking: I did some research for an article I was writing on it… and studies define two types switch-tasking (which is a myth, two things that require your undivided attention – driving and texting) which one finds can’t be done without a significant lag between the two while switching making focusing on one thing at a time more efficient in the long run and, of course, safer. The other is simultasking – which involves at least one activity that doesn’t require 100% attention. Folding clothes as you watch TV… which can be efficient. Women on the whole were found to be between multitasking in general… one theory is that women long ago when roles were well defined would have conversations as washing the clothes in the lakes or picking the vegies… while men were off paying careful attention to the buffalo before chasing it down. Interesting theories… but in the end… driving while doing anything else (even talking on a hands-free phone… which similarly divides attention) is DANGEROUS and often NOT victim free. hope you rest up and are 100% soon, Catherine.

  3. liz Hamrick on Dec. 26, 201

    Can’t imagine you being still, even for a minute and resting! So sorry about your car! I have been thinking lately about taking a break from the computer. Wonder if it would help my state of mind, and help my forgetful brain to function better, after some rest? Sometimes, I look at it just like another job to do each day!

  4. Bea dM

    I hope you’ve quite recovered. Thanks for all the good links. I’ve been trying to resist the onslaught of media a gadgets for years – with alternate results. It is indeed an uphill battle if we expect to continue functioning effectively in our jobs. Somewhere inside us, we all know that the extremes of our online existences – tweeting and even FB – are damaging our much desired work/life balance. The prescription to avoid “unpleasant topics” is probably the hardest nowadays.

    1. Catherine Hamrick

      It is hard to check out–because we must stay aware of the world. Wish I could drop in for dinner to see the perspective from your vantage point. Odd times. So good to hear from you! Best, ch

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