Perhaps empathy can be best understood by sitting in a busy restaurant, and observing other diners in this social environment. Notice how people vary in their ability to communicate with their companions. Some show a warmth and ease with each other, others may exhibit difficulty in conversing, and there may even be a coldness, with no sense of connection at all. Silence between a couple can be uncomfortable, even frosty, or it can be a comfortable and relaxed quiet atmosphere between friends or lovers at ease with one another. It is easy to see whether there is empathy present, or not. The body language, posture and voices tell us clearly all we need to know.
Recent research has shown a steep decline in empathy, coinciding with the increasing use of social media for so much of our communication. There is a huge difference between communicating with someone face to face or posting on-line. When we consider the astonishing fact that 55% of the impact of a communication is created through eye contact and body language, and 35% through the voice (tone, speed, volume), and only 10% of meaning is conveyed through the actual words used, we can begin to realise how impoverished are our communications on social media. Added to which, we experience in face to face contact the element of touch, which may be just a hand-shake, or the warmth of a hug, or perhaps a reassuring touch of the hand or arm, and also that indefinable but often important element we describe as personal chemistry.
If our communication skills are to develop, or at least remain effective, they need to be practised, and if we are doing most of our communicating on-line, this is not happening. Eminent neuro-scientists are telling us that the internet is changing our brains, and we can actually view brain scans which show this to be the case. One striking and alarming feature is the shrinking in children’s brains of the part of the brain concerned with empathy.
Furthermore, when we are lacking in communication skills and the ability to feel empathy, we will experience discomfort and stress when we have to communicate face-to-face, or even to speak on the telephone. Unsurprisingly, we will want to return as soon as possible to the comfort zone of the one dimensional world of social media.
So perhaps we should be considering whether the obsessive use of this form of interacting with others could explain the lack of interest or desire to make music with others, for empathy is a vital component in this very special kind of music-making.
I remember, many years ago, the Director of the National Youth Orchestra saying to me that, for him, the most thrilling experience during the week of rehearsals before a performance, was the moment, on the second or third day, when this huge group of young musicians, gathered together from all over the country and unknown to each other before the course began, suddenly became an orchestra, playing as one wonderful entity. That is true empathy, experienced at a deep and profound level, and one which we musicians are privileged to be able to experience when we make music with others. It is truly life-enhancing.