May 26, 2013 ~ Imagination as a ‘Bicycle for Our Minds’

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” ~Michelangelo

“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Sunday, May 26, 2013 ~ Imagination as a ‘Bicycle for Our Minds’

Imaginative Empathy

Perspective and role taking of others.
Also called cognitive empathy.
This is based on the sense of self-awareness, when we recognize ourselves as separate beings.


“…it’s the most remarkable tool that we have ever come up with. It’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.” ~ Steve Jobs

8 Definitions of Empathy

(from The Social Neuroscience of Empathy, These Things Called Empathy
Daniel Batson)

The term empathy is currently applied to more than a half-dozen phenomena.

1. Knowing another persons internal state, Including thoughts and feelings
2. Adopting the posture or matching the neural responses of an observed other
3. Coming to feel as another person feels
4. Intuiting or projecting oneself into another’s situation
5. Imagining how another is thinking and feeling
6. Imagining how one would think and feel in the other’s place
7. Feeling distress at witnessing another person’s suffering
8. Feeling for another person who is suffering  (empathic concern)  An other-oriented emotional response elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of someone in need. Includes feeling sympathy, compassion, tenderness and the like (i.e. feeling for the other, and not feeling as the other)”

Steve Jobs, “Bicycle for our Minds.”

I once heard an anecdote by Miki Kashtan who is from Israel originally, and spoke of her experience visiting one of the Nazi concentration camps.  She and her companions wandered the ground in solitary contemplation and then reunited, at the end of their trip there, to attempt to place themselves in the proverbial boots of those Nazi officers who had guarded the camp (and discuss what Universal Human Needs, such as for resiliency amidst trying circumstances, in loyally fulfilling a task which had been framed in patriotic terms, etc. may have been in play as each contemplated their roles).  This seemed rather insightful, as I recalled a book I had read — by historian Claudia Koonz and titled Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics — which depicted the high burnout rate of camp guards (and how wives and children were often brought in to buttress their endurance).  I found this feat of imaginative empathy quite astonishing, at the time, and it has animated, even challenged, greater imaginative elasticity.

Of course, the same could be viewed from a lens other than that of Needs Consciousness:

The Woman Who Saw Banality in Evil

Listening to both a 60 Minutes and NPR  interview of Jessica Buchanan recounting her capture in Somalia and later rescue by Seal Team Six, she refers to a moment when — after her initial kidnapping — one of her captors asked her to duck her head so that he might snap a photo with his phone of the sunset.  As per the 60 Minutes interview, “Kidnapped aid worker Jessica Buchanan tells Scott Pelley that being taken hostage was like entering a ‘weird parallel universe.’ She describes the beginning of her 93-day ordeal including a bizarre exchange with a kidnapper about a sunset..”  In both interviews, Jessica, perhaps quite understandably, finds this request surreal and the beginning of a nonsensical nightmare.  As with the Nazi concentration camp anecdote above, however, by utilizing the NVC framework of universal human needs, we can apprehend her captor’s attending to his appreciation of nature or “beauty” by wishing to capture the sunset in a photo, in spite of however tragic his other choices/strategies seemed (likely the kidnapping itself was a tactical effort to further his sense of empowerment and efficacy, in a hardened world of cruelty).  This framing offers a subtle shift with which the common ground of our shared humanity can be seen, despite the enemy images that are often perpetuated due to our own lack of safety, whether emotional or physical, and the myriad of divisive circumstances we too often encounter.  By identifying the universal human need — in this case for ‘beauty’ — and recognize that it is something we too share (a tendency to pause to take a photo of nature’s beauty), we can imaginatively find an empathic window into the humanity of another with whom we feel dismay, even alarm.  Noting, perhaps, ‘there but for the grace of God, go I’ (with the humility of never knowing for certain how we too might take root in as barren a terrain as war-torn Somalia or Nazi Germany).  The capacity of imaginative empathy to elevate beyond the customary gravitational pull and see some broader portrait of humanity.

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s 2008 Harvard Commencement

Excerpt:  Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”― Albert Einstein

Steve Jobs: Secrets of Life

Mercy Street (Lyrics)

Looking down on empty streets, all she can see
Are the dreams all made solid
Are the dreams all made real

All of the buildings, all of those cars
Were once just a dream
In somebody’s head

She pictures the broken glass, she pictures the steam
She pictures a soul
With no leak at the seam…

Listening to Steve Jobs (beneath), I was reminded of a time more than a year ago when I received a phone call alerting me that someone attending the group had lost her father.  Initially, I felt overwhelmed.  I was running on fumes, had already prepared a lesson plan, and felt emotionally drained by the prospect of how to best handle the situation at hand.  Then I conjured up a memory of being 17 and away from home for the first time at a huge university campus when I received a phone call on the morning of my first day of classes that a beloved aunt had died tragically in a car accident.  I returned back to my dorm room, visibly shaken, and a couple of older students who I was temporarily housed with warned me against allowing this to impact my education negatively, advising I attend class, which I did.  Upon approaching the professor of a huge lecture hall, to say I would miss class due to a funeral, I was told to get the notes from another student.  I recognized that the lack of a place to be alone and mourn or to receive support from familiar intimates had set a kind of ‘stiff-upper-lip’ tone where I would bristle and shrug off the impact of this death.  Attempting to imaginatively walk in the moccasins of another helped increase my psychic bandwidth enough that I was able to create a group exercise meant to honor the state of grief being processed.

Given that it’s Memorial Day weekend it’s worth noting that perhaps it is our own mortality that is the most poignant cautionary tale of our finite bandwidth, a reminder to be discerning about that which we give our energy to…

Leif Parsons

Steve Jobs: How to Live Before You Die

Text of Steve JobsCommencement address (2005)

Stanford Report, June 14, 2005


My third story is about death.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary… (continues)

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