When I was younger I thought often about the idea of a communism of pain. If all humans were somehow linked to the extent that pain could spread itself out among many, what would be the net effect at the individual level? How much pain – in terms of an impossible-to-quantify objective amount – is out there in the world? Would the extreme suffering of the few spread out to a chronic, if manageable, level of pain for the rest of us? Or would it, distributed amongst the billions of humans on the planet, amount to almost nothing in a single one?
Of course, I understand that pain is a biological imperative, our bodies’ way of telling us that something is wrong and that we should stop whatever we are doing that is causing it. But from a purely sociological (or maybe political) perspective, what would be the result of averaging it out? Perhaps equal distribution wouldn’t be optimal – after all, communism in theory espouses taking from each according to his ability, and giving to each according to his need. Varying pain thresholds might in some way be taken into account. Or perhaps those most in a position to inflict pain could be those who felt it most deeply. (No pain, no gain, as it were.)
Actual sharing of pain through embedded receptors or similar technological enhancements is more in the realm of science fiction or post/transhumanism than reality at present. But empathetic pain-sharing does in fact exist. Recent research has indicated that the same areas of the brain are activated in those observing someone in pain as the actual sufferer. In both cases, our anterior insular cortex, the area that monitors how we feel about things inside our bodies, and the anterior singular cortex, the part of the brain that processes emotions and attention, are engaged. Moreover, the empathetic response is greater the higher the level of affection for, or perceived identification with, the sufferer.
Pain expert Sean Mackey theorizes that pain empathy played a role in mammalian evolution by signalling those in distress so a pack could stick together, heal together, and prosper. Noted primatologist Frans de Waal would agree. He studies bonobos, the great apes scientists now believe are as closely related to humans as chimpanzees. He has concluded, after studying bonobos extensively, that empathy is a much more basic instinct than many consider it to be, and much less intellectual. Instead of a fairness rationalization, or a sense that one can imagine himself in another’s position, he believes that empathy is much deeper, and less complex. His theory explains why infants show empathetic responses to fellow children crying, but only learn theory of mind, or the more intellectual basis for understanding others, around age four. Incidentally, a physical basis for empathy also explains the contagious nature of yawning, as he has explored in other research.
Bonobos are also noted for their very sexy way of solving all kinds of problems, and for generally displaying much more cooperative and less competitive behaviour than that of chimpanzees. This is significant because the narrative of competition has coloured much of the modern period’s image of itself, and its image of the way early humans lived – nasty, brutish, and short, as Hobbes once wrote. De Waal locates the competitiveness myth around the time of the Industrial Revolution, as a necessary backbone for the proto-capitalist system that was then forming, and which has now come to dominate global economics and politics.
The political bent of the concept might be significant. A growing number of studies has pointed to those on the more liberal left end of the political spectrum being more open-minded and thus more empathetic than their more conservative counterparts. Tolerance, inclusiveness, and a passion for social justice have recently been linked with both political liberalism and high levels of empathy. (One might ask if this implies that communism is a political representation of empathy, which could set off hours of debate, I’m sure.)
Given the general trend toward a more liberal way of thinking and behaving over the past hundred or so years, and the ever-expanding list of encounters with “others” that telecommunications, air travel, and globalization has allowed us, is it possible that humans are in fact more empathetic today than they were, say, when Victoria ruled England? Or when Arthur did? Would the apparent recent setback of declining empathy and rising conservatism then be a blip, or a reversal?
And if we are more empathetic now, does that mean we inflict less pain on others than in the past? Sadly, I believe conflicts arising out of urbanization, a skyrocketing global population, and scarce resources – coupled with the arrival every year of new ways to maim and torture others – would signal otherwise. After all, it appears that humans also share enjoyment of schadenfreude, the pleasure in seeing others’ misfortune (apparently as much as a good meal). Similar to the way being in a group can magnify feelings of competitiveness, it can also augment satisfaction in seeing rivals fail. This enjoyment also carries a political twist: in one study, Democrats were found to be secretly happy when reading about the recession, thinking it might benefit the party at the next election. And the stronger the political identification, the stronger the sense of schadenfreude.
It seems, then, that we are hardwired both for empathy towards those in pain, and a delicious satisfaction with seeing it. Perhaps a communism of pain would therefore make us more sensitive to the suffering of others, but all the more likely to enjoy it.