What is it that causes us to respond at a gut level to other people? How do we understand immediately and instinctively the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of others? Consciousness means many things. In this post, I will focus on one of those things, which I call “empathy on steroids.”
There is growing confirmation in neuroscience that there are neurons in our brains that cause us to mirror what we observe in others. The interaction of these neurons helps explain how and why we can read other people’s thinking as well as feel empathy for them. These special neurons are a key to how human beings survive and thrive in a complex social world.
Says one researcher, “We don’t have to think about what other people are doing or feeling, we simply know.” We are able to be neurologically aware of others. We are conscious of them. We have consciousness.
Neuroscientist Jeanette Norden at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine said that consciousness involves awareness, attention, and self-reference. In a lecture Norden recommended the work of Robert Kegan. His 40-year work at Harvard focused on the evolution of consciousness.
His theory is our growth in consciousness moves through five stages. This expansive growth involves changing our ways of relating. As we grow in consciousness, we become more aware of our feelings. As we stretch in consciousness, we gain understanding of how we connect with others. It is our awareness of others and our capacity to relate to others at a deeper level and in longer-term relationships that provide an environment for transformational dialog.
Steve Thomason created a wonderful cartoon interpretation of Kegan’s five stages in his “Thketch of Kegan’s 5 Orders” on YouTube. More than 30,000 people have found this interpretation worth viewing. Check it out.
We can increase our levels of consciousness. We can do this by paying less attention to being right and more attention to experiencing life with curiosity and wonder. We can surround ourselves with a variety of viewpoints. We can avoid knee-jerk responses to challenges. We can also change our habitual responses. True, the number of neurons in our brains rarely increases, but we can change the wiring.
Here are some self-check questions.
• Do I make instant judgments about what seems disagreeable to me?
• Am I impatient to get beyond the discomfort of disagreeable situations?
• Or, am I willing to change that way of thinking if it seems that it would be better
if I did?
Have you experienced a relationship in which you not only felt open and very close to someone who seemed to feel the same way about you, but also as a result of that relationship, you felt your life changed for the better? If so, maybe you experienced a #5 level of consciousness.
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