Imagine a dark room, people pressed in all around, the acoustics of the auditorium raining sound down everywhere, even inside of you. Imagine the giant, thumping sounds of a heartbeat: ba-bum, ba-bum, ba-bum. Imagine the iambic pulse overtaking your whole body, starting with your ears and working down into your throat, the base of your neck, then into your chest—ending, finally, by eclipsing the own beating of your heart so that this other heartbeat is the only thing you can hear and feel.
Still with me?
When Summer Ash played her heartbeat to a packed auditorium for a live Radiolab podcast, she and the producers expected the audience to be surprised at the strength of her heartbeat, at her story of how even without a microphone amplifying the sound, someone can hear her heartbeat sitting across from her, can even see its incessant, strident rhythm flutter the thin fabric of her shirt. There might be tears, or perhaps some gasps. What they didn’t expect was for dozens of audience members to faint, to lean over their knees and vomit onto their shoes. At the end of the taping, producers had to ask themselves: what the fuck?
Neurological, bodily empathy: that’s what’s the fuck. Psychiatrist Rachel Yehuda explained it as such: sometimes a person’s empathy extends beyond her brain, beyond the fuzzy feelings place that makes us say aww or ugh or gross. It overflows that sensory receptor and floods into the body, where, predictably, it makes itself known. “They have activated their parasympathetic nervous system in response to hearing the heartbeat,” she explained. It explains why some people (ahem, me) faint at the sight of blood. Our bodies are flooded with empathy too big to sustain.
“It could be some kind of an empathy response,” Yehuda said. “If you hear somebody’s heart beating, and you’re aware that’s what you’re hearing, it might arouse a tremendous connection within you, of hearing the very source of their life. And it can really be a lot to take in, and you feel a little faint, or emotional.”
So, the short, nonscientific answer: some people—approximately two to four percent of the population—are so empathetic their bodies are moved to answer back to another person’s.
This idea is not new; it has its roots in insects, which use chemical cues to attune themselves to one another. This is how bees recognize their sisters in the hive. It happens with larger creatures too; it’s how sharks and bears sniff out blood to find prey, or a ready-to-mate female attracts and equally eager partner. As living creatures, we need to connect to others to fuel some sort of biological need inside of ourselves.
Well, for everyone except Gryllacridids.
These, Jeffrey Lockwood explains in his essay “The Nature of Violence,” are a cross between a cricket and a grasshopper, and naturally violent creatures. He identifies them as “nonsocial insects,” which is why they have no compunction for killing. “While the young may aggregate in tight groups, presumably to pool their defenses against larger predators, adult gryllacridids lead isolated lives, seeking one another’s company only for mating,” said Lockwood.
I read this essay one morning before teaching my college composition class, and looking around the room at my students filing in, I watched as they sat at their desks and took out their phones, or continued looking at them, for the many who managed to navigate the tables and chairs with their eyes glued to their screens. Barely anyone spoke to one another, and while that could have been the result of a 9:00 am start time, I wondered: are human beings becoming nonsocial creatures? Are we becoming gryllacridids?
No way, my students might respond. They’re using their phones to connect—to text their friends, to Facebook stalk their crushes, to Tweet and Tindr and Pin. But how much of that socializing extends into real life interactions? Reading Lockwood’s article, I was reminded of Phoebe Prince, the fifteen-year-old Massachusetts high school freshmen who hung herself in 2010. For months she’d received nasty texts and Facebook messages, which, coupled with a history of depression, led to her suicide. One of the most disturbing details was that even after her death, people left cruel, hateful messages on her Facebook memorial page; the bullying never ceased, even after she took her own life.
It’s all too easy to send a cruel message when you can’t see the recipient’s face as she reads it. Louis CK explains this in his standup, where he says kids have to be mean to each other, in person, in order to learn how awful it is to make another person feel bad. But our society has made it easy, and often desirable, to isolate and disconnect; to reach each other through screens, rather than face-to-face.
This is not news to anyone. But between listening to the Radiolab podcast and reading Lockwood’s essay, I began to wonder: is this why people faint hearing another person’s heartbeat? Because it’s special, and these days, rare, to connect with someone on such a visceral level? Maybe it doesn’t mean we’re evolutionarily adapted; maybe, we’re just out of practice in the art of being human.
Gryllacridids are such nonsocial creatures that in the laboratory where Lockwood studied them, they had to be kept in separate cages so that they didn’t kill each other. It seems dramatic, like something out of Lord of the Flies, but then I think about each of us holed up in our own apartments, our faces lit up in the dark by the blue of our multiple screens, and I wonder if maybe it’s not so theatrical after all.
Lockwood says about humans that “as empathetic creatures we cannot stop ourselves from imagining the pain of other sentient beings,” and to that I would add also their joy, their wonder, their fear. It’s why before Summer Ash’s heartbeat caused people to faint and vomit, there was most likely the quiet hush of the audience as the lights fell in the auditorium; together, they felt a collective anticipation and magic. It’s why the time my one friend caught the giggles during a choral concert, the rest of us followed suit, much to the ire of our director. I hope this trait isn’t going away in human beings. I hope we aren’t becoming gryllacridids. Reaching out and making connections—not online, but in person—is not just important; it’s vital to sustaining our humanity.
As I claimed before, I am one of the two to four percent. I faint when I see blood, and there was the one time I keeled over when my brother stubbed his toe and ripped off the nail. This trait runs in my family; a favorite story is the time my cousin broke her arm on a playground, and both her mother and our grandmother fainted trying to calm her down and assess the damage. Good thing there was room for three in the ambulance.
I’ve recently started fainting whenever I visit the doctor’s office, which is both awkward and inconvenient, for my physician and me. I’d like to think my fainting belies my empathetic nature—super attuned to the nurse’s stress, or maybe even as meta as commiserating with my own poor veins being pricked, or my blood gushing forth into the world. Maybe I’m a highly adapted being, a superhero who feels all the feelings.
Or maybe (okay, fine—most likely), I should remember to eat breakfast before my appointments. I should remember to breathe deeply, to close my eyes, to go to a happy place. But then I wonder if it’s not really about being squeamish, but rather about craving a personal interaction that’s beginning to feel rare these days. Maybe it’s my empathy after all, reaching out to make that connection between the doctor and me. Maybe the actual truth is I just really like the tiny can of apple juice the nurse brings me after I faint, complete with a tiny straw, so I can sip it as I lay on my side and the doctor holds a cool, damp cloth to my forehead and rubs circles on my back as I come to. Maybe I’m not becoming a gryllacridid after all.