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Does Technology Reveal a Hidden Imperative Toward Empathy?

There is increasing evidence that more is involved than smart phones, PCs, and other technological marvels. Hidden factors rooted in our genetic heritage may be at work.
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What's driving kids toward their fanatical electronic networking? There is increasing evidence that more is involved than smart phones, PCs, and other technological marvels. Hidden factors rooted in our genetic heritage may be at work. "Humans form social networks because th e benefits of a connected life outweigh the costs," says Nicholas Christakis, professor of sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and professor of medicine and medical sociology at Harvard Medical School.

Christakis and James Fowler, associate professor at University of California-San Diego in the Department of Political Science, are coauthors of the recent book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. They have shown that cooperative behavior is contagious, and that it spreads downstream from a single individual in a cascade of influence that involves dozens more individuals, reaching at least "three degrees of separation." Their research shows that the initiating influence can involve a variety of behaviors, emotions and ideas, including kindness, happiness, and generosity.

Seen from this perspective, it isn't the electronic gizmos and doodads that have caused an obsession with networking in our kids; rather, the gadgets may simply make it possible for them to live out their underlying genetic predispositions for cooperation and empathy.

The ultimate incentive for kids' interconnected, empathic way of relating to one another may be that it, well, feels good. Beginning in the late 1980s, reports of the "helper's high" began to surface -- a feeling, following selfless service to others, of exhilaration and a burst of energy followed by a period of calm and serenity. , The feeling was similar to that following intense physical exercise. Researcher Allan Luks studied over 3,000 Americans involved in volunteer services and found that the feeling lasted several weeks, and that the euphoric sensation returned when they remembered the action. The helper's high is accompanied by positive changes in the body's immune function and a lower level of stress hormones. As Ralph Chislett, a sixteen-year-old whose volunteerism involved delivering supplies to a post-ER recovery unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, said, "Volunteering helps you become a better person. You get a good feeling when you're helping people because you're making a difference in their lives." Steve Culbertson, president of Youth Service America, a volunteer resource center in Washington, D.C., said, "It gets under your skin. The real big secret to service to others is the majority of the benefits accrue to you. It just becomes who you are. It's not something you pick or choose; it's just part of your nature and makeup."

Although not all teen volunteerism is altruistic -- some schools make volunteer work a requirement for graduation -- today's teens are nonetheless volunteering more than any other generation in history. According to Independent Sector, a coalition of not-for-profit organizations and foundations based in Washington, D.C., 59 percent of teens volunteer an average of 3.5 hours per week. Annually, that's 13.3 million volunteers totaling 2.4 billion hours at a total economic value of $7.7 billion.

It may be no accident that the most plugged-in generation in history is also the most volunteer-prone. The empathic urge may underlie both areas of behavior. In fact, electronic connectivity and volunteerism have proved to be inseparable. Disaster relief efforts following the Haitian earthquake in January 2010 were largely made possible by an unprecedented mobile electronic communications effort. When one clinic texted that it needed fuel for its generator, the Red Cross responded in 20 minutes. Translators volunteered their efforts electronically from faraway locations without ever setting sight on Haiti. Within a few days a map was constructed via satellite pictures by a firm in Southhampton, UK, showing every one of the 5,000 collapsed buildings in Port-au-Prince. A Craig's List-style "we need, we have" website was set up to help anyone who needed services, and an online database was constructed to monitor the capacity of hospitals in real time. The Haitian tragedy showed that empathy, charity, and electronic communications are natural allies.

Plugged In -- To What?

For decades a realization has been growing, fed from a variety of sources, that there may be a collective level of intelligence that transcends individual minds. This idea is rooted in antiquity. The Upanishads, India's sacred scriptures that date to the middle of the first millennium BCE, proclaim tat tvam asi, "thou art that": the human and the divine are one. Similarly from the Christian tradition, "The kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21, KJV). The esoteric sides of all the major religions recognize that the individual consciousness is subsumed and nourished by an infinite, absolute, divine, or cosmic source, and is ultimately one with it -- the scala naturae or the Great Chain of Being. It follows that, at some level, all individual minds are united and one within the boundless All. The goal within the great wisdom traditions is to realize our essential unity with one another, and our inner divinity or cosmic consciousness, and to enable this awareness to make a difference in how we live our life.

For a century we have witnessed a steady outpouring of books that, in one way or another, affirm the recognition that consciousness is larger than the individual mind. Examples include pioneering works such as R. M. Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness, Emerson's essays on the oversoul and transcendentalism, William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, Arthur Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being, and C. G. Jung's The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. More recent contributions include Erwin Schrodinger's My View of the World and What Is Mind? and Mind and Matter, Ken Wilbur's The Spectrum of Consciousness, Peter Russell's The Global Brain, Nick Herbert's Elemental Mind, Huston Smith's Beyond the Post-Modern Mind, David Bohm's Wholeness and the Implicate Order, and David Darling's Soul Search.

An overlooked influence in the recognition of collective consciousness is the development within the social sciences of dialogue and group process as ways of promoting consensus, creativity, and problem solving. A variety of terms are being used to describe these exercises -- "developing group synergy," "unleashing collective creativity," and "developing team coordination." Organizations are discovering that when individuals unite in a shared intention, something mysterious happens: a group intelligence emerges that transcends that of the individuals involved, a theme developed by James Surowiecki in his courageous book The Wisdom of Crowds. As psychologist and entrepreneur Carol Frenier says, "In these group experiences, people have access to a kind of knowing that's bigger than what we normally experience with each other. You feel the presence of the sacred, and you sense that everybody else in the group is also feeling that. There's a sense of openness and awareness of something larger than yourself. Your ability to communicate seems broader. What is astounding to people is how much creativity comes forth in a setting like that. You have a sense that the whole group is creating together, and you don't quite exactly know how."