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  • Writer's pictureDr. Emi Garzitto

Quick Fire Neural Pathways – Helping Our Brains Wire for Compassion

A fourteen-year-old girl, “Wendy” has been shunned by her social circle for having slandered another high profile fifteen-year-old girl. “Samantha”. Samantha has rallied all of her friends and has now started a social media campaign that essentially humiliates Wendy. She has posted false information about Wendy and numerous other girls have picked up the slander.

“Jeffrey” has begun to chronicle his growing drug use online. A concerned student alerts a trusted counsellor.

Cara and Julie were best friends and actively spent a great deal of time working together, hanging out and connecting. Cara began spending time with another group of girls so Julie began a social media campaign defaming her character and posting photos and personal secrets that put Cara in a bad light.

So here is another thing that needs our attention as we work with the evolving brains of our digital learners. Just as the culture of hypertext, Google, Tumblr and Instagrams weakens neural connections required to think deeply and concentrate for longer periods of time, the same skillset required in our moral learning is affected.

The same practice of digging into an idea with depth, checking with multiple perspectives, moving past frustration, listening, doing, redoing, undoing and doing again in order to develop a complex understanding of a subject - this the same practice one needs to develop empathy and compassion.

Compassion requires you to think about others beyond what you see at face value. I repeatedly tell my students that they are more than this one experience, or event or circumstance. Just like you need the practice of digging deeper and asking more and more questions, in order to develop depth of understanding, the same applies for compassion.

Without the practice of slogging through the emotional muck that being in conflict with those you care about, and coming out on the other side, alive and often with an even stronger relationship, it becomes easy to think that the immediate moment is what will exist forever and ever.

The social wrangling and maneuvering has not changed but the means from which to hurt back have radically changed. Now, teens can publicly strip and defame character in a virtual environment. A student’s social status can change in the blink of an eye. The work of trying to hash out difficult feelings is painful.

And increasingly, when we are working with students to sort through these feelings and experiences they are more likely to feel that any conflict means that a relationship is permanently doomed.

The idea that these feelings of hurt or pain are normal and part of learning how to work with others often comes as a surprise. Part of our new administration/counselling journey is encouraging the idea that we can “fix” the problem by talking it out and acknowledging the harm and working at finding ways to repair harm.

This is a practice that requires repeated training and drilling before it becomes a habit. As young beings get less and less exposure to personal and interpersonal conflict, we need to artificially implant it back into our curriculums. The neural pathways designed to help our brains wire for compassion are worth preserving, and for now, we need to add it with purpose, into our curriculum spaces.

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