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How to Develop Empathy In the Age of Information Overload?

With emotionally charged news all around us, we must relearn how to listen and respond to people who are telling us their stories.

by Tamar Moshkovitz

We’ve seen too much that we’ve lost our ability to be Human.

Where were you for the past two days?

Oh well, I went home for the weekend. My grandmother is quite unwell she’s had a stroke. Her left side is paralysed and she can barely open her mouth to get sounds out.

Hmm….Oh! How is she now?

This is the example of a conversation I had with several friends of mine in college.

If you’re wondering why this exchange is such an anomaly. Then you’re reading this like any other article or piece you would read.

But you need to know what you’re doing wrong.

Information Overload

We are people who are constantly plagued with information, stories, little pieces created to catch our attention. We are people who are accustomed to using our phone every few hours for updates, notifications from newspapers, messages from people across social media.

I am sure this has served to be addicting for most of us. Because the information that is shared with us is designed to be addictive. Most of it is click baits for an audience that didn’t even read before the invention of their smartphones.

But as adults, we have trained our brain to ignore and tune out all this information. To numb our minds to the constant influx of little stories streaming in every single second from across the globe.

Except what we have actually done is switched off the only power our species can claim to possess — our Brain. While we think we are tuning out only inconsequential information. Our brain has become so accustomed to receiving highly impactful emotionally charged news on a daily basis. That it only responds to news, which would have been considered heartbreaking or traumatic or scandalous.

Our brain, responds to painful stories the same way people once responded to gossip exchanged over a cup of coffee.

Think back to an instant when you came across any revolting story on the internet whether its a rape in the neighbourhood or a fire in the Amazon. Did it really impact you?

Did the pain feel deep or personal or like a distant memory of a dead relative from 20 years ago?

Our brain is overwhelmed by the sensory overload it experiences when it bombarded with information that may not always be relevant. In a bid to stay in control, it begins behaving as a gatekeeper grouping all information that sounds similar and treating it the same way irrespective of the source.

Why is this Dangerous?

Our brain behaves very similarly to an anesthetised person lying in the operation theatre. The person has no idea that his body has been cut open. He feels no pain or sensation. Which may be good for the patient but terrible for the body, if it remains in that state forever. That is the current condition of our brain.

Humans thrive on connection and support as a community. The absence of empathy when you listen to a story breaks the very connection that keeps our society going. If we do not tune in and listen to the stories around us we have nothing to help us create attachments. We are no different from robots enslaved to work in the social wheel.

My exchange, in the beginning, is a clear example of the anaesthetised brain.

We have forgotten how to sit in the driver’s seat.

How do we cure this?

It’s quite simple actually. We keep running through our lives too quickly for us to even catch our breaths. While we may say that we don’t have the time for every story. Our brains do have the capacity to assimilate our reality. If we only choose to train and focus it. This training is quite easy. Once you listen to someone speak pause and hear their words in your mind. When you understand the weight of their words. Become aware, focus and then respond to the best of your abilities.

Let’s just take the example of the above conversation.

I request you to read that dialogue again.

“Oh well, I went home for the weekend. My grandmother is quite unwell she’s had a stroke. Her left side is paralysed and she can barely open her mouth to get sounds out.”

Now Pause.

Step out of the third person.

Become the friend who I had this conversation with.

Now become the person who is experiencing it.

You are the grandchild.

You are standing in a room looking at your own grandmother.

She is paralysed. She cannot walk. She cannot move. She cannot eat. She cannot speak.

Do you feel the pain? Or why the response of so many of my friends was inappropriate? Apathetic almost indifferent?

It is essential to have a brain that has a filter. But I request you to not shut out every story like a little 60-word piece that you come across on your phone screen each day. That you can swipe up and bear no connection or attachment to it.

Listen to the people around you. Tune in. You don’t have to help. But maybe truly listen for a moment.

So that the next time a person in pain or tells you about someone they love in pain or sickness or happiness. You know how to respond and be a human being.

Rather than a high functioning brain with more cognitive power than anything on this planet, that still responds like a robot in a data-based society.

Even animals feel more deeply for their kin. Let us be that kin if not more.


How to Develop Empathy In the Age of Information Overload? was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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