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It’s probably been a while since you’ve heard someone say, “You know, he may have a point,” or “I see where she’s coming from, I never thought of it that way.” We are becoming an increasingly polarized society, digging in our heels with respect to our own beliefs, and closing ourselves off to any interaction with others whose beliefs may differ from our own.
It seems that the ability to engage in respectful, curious interactive dialogue is becoming rare, and this is not a good thing. The ability to inquire into the views of another person, especially when those views are contrary to our own, almost always offers a benefit in terms of expanding our understanding of the world around us. Even attempting to understand the beliefs of another person helps us refine our own framework for navigating the world in which we live.
The ability to participate in the viewpoint of another person is called cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy in no way implies subscribing to another person’s ideas or beliefs... it simply means we "try on" another person’s framework and experience how it feels.
Cognitive empathy is enhanced when there is opportunity for respectful social interaction with participants who have diverse opinions. The brain anatomy that facilitates cognitive empathy is the prefrontal cortex, an area that becomes less accessible when it's challenged by stress, lack of restorative sleep, lack of time in nature and inflammation (hallmarks of disconnection syndrome). Because of this, many of our modern lifestyles threaten our abilities to fully connect with people around us.
We have so much to gain by simply experiencing the viewpoints of others. Even the act of engagement itself facilitates the process of cognitive empathy moving forward. Fanning the flames of our own unique ideology by locking ourselves into highly defined and polarized social media sites, for example, tends to lock us out of this important ability to share and participate in the knowledge and viewpoints of others.
This video illustrates how we can start to inquire about people differently. We can celebrate how in so many ways we are alike. Why not celebrate our differences, too?
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