Have you ever been upset with someone, frustrated because they didn’t understand what you needed from them, only to have them say, “I’m not psychic you know!” The message, of course, is that we can’t read each other’s minds, so how can we possibly know what another person feels or needs?
But the reality is that we really don’t have to be psychic to know some basic things about other people; we just have to pay attention.
In case you’ve never seen The Mentalist, it’s about Patrick Jane, a man who at one time pretended to be a psychic. In reality, he just has very keen powers of observation and a lot of chutzpah. His arrogance as a fake psychic caused his family to be murdered, however, so he stopped pretending, and went to work for the police, helping them solve criminal cases.
Of course, The Mentalist is a fictional TV show, but it’s fascinating to watch as the character explains what he knows about a suspect or a witness, just from observing or talking with them. Body language, clothes, nervous habits, accents, the things we surround ourselves with – they tell our story, if anyone takes the time to read it. Patrick Jane does that – he questions things that seem out of place; he uses his senses; he looks for what people value, he empathizes.
If only we were all TV characters like the Mentalist! We might understand so much more about each other. Don’t despair, though, there’s an app for that. Cognitive psychologists have been developing wearable gadgets that can monitor emotional ups and downs by measuring things such as heart rate and electrical changes in the skin. Depending on the device, they send messages about your emotional state to you or to other people. This is not as creepy as it sounds. Worn by children with autism, they can provide valuable messages to parents and caregivers so that the adults can respond to a child’s behaviors appropriately, even if the child isn’t able to express what he or she is feeling. The devices are also useful as biofeedback tools so that you can learn to recognize and manage your own moods and emotions.
Would feedback like that help us understand each other better? If you’re wearing a wristband that sends me messages when you’re feeling low, would I eventually learn to recognize those moods without the technology? Or would I become dependent on the technology and no more sensitive than I was before?
Humans are hard-wired for empathy – somewhat. We learn it as children by watching the adults around us, and from stories we read and hear. But we need to keep practicing it. Even as adults, we can improve our emotional intelligence. Before we can truly understand others’ emotions, we have to start with ourselves – staying connected to our emotions instead of suppressing them, learning how to reduce stress and being okay with strong feelings. Then we can expand that intelligence to include others – communicating better by staying focused on the person we’re with, making eye contact, paying attention to nonverbal cues (like the Mentalist!)
Daniel Goleman says that, “A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain.” How you turn your attention to someone may not matter in the end. Staying tuned in emotionally with the people we love makes our relationships stronger, whether it comes from a gadget, a mindfulness practice, or even psychic ability.