You Can’t Choreograph Empathy
by

In the mellifluous and colorful ballet Coppélia, a magical inventor named Dr. Coppélius makes a pretty wooden doll so life-like a young villager forsakes his true love for the doll instead. Coppélia sits lifelessly on the balcony but seems so real her maker forgets she’s a doll. He winds her up to dance and she jerks about stiffly.

The good doctor desperately wants her to be human but needs a human to sacrifice.

And so it is with Hillary’s not so magical inventors. Her campaign dresses her in gingham for Iowa and choreographs the scripted shedding of sad tears for mom and tears of joy for granddaughter.

But Hillary fails to move, neither evoking nor evincing empathy.

They wind her up to dance with Ellen DeGeneres but she’s more wooden than Coppélia. Even her kowtowing audiences like the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank are not moved ( “The Clinton Campaign Puts the ‘Moron’ Into Oxymoron.” “Hillary Clinton’s Hypocrisy.”)

Fear not a sudden transformation of the wooden candidate into a charismatic one as the only thing more hopeless than Dr. Coppelius’s wish is for Hillary to relate to others.

How is this so? Her inability to dance is biologically linked to the fact that she is empathically challenged, which also means she is incapable of (successfully) faking it. No matter the human script.

Scientists have been investigating dance and empathy for years and it seems that both are involved in a biological tango right inside our head.

Shall we dance?…

… When we watch films of ballet or sports, the same areas in the brain are activated as those used to execute the movements. When watching motion, the brain “moves” along every step of the way, so much so that it stimulates physiological responses — such as increased oxygen consumption.

It explains why some people even have heart attacks while watching an emotional, high-stakes game.

This is why mentally “going through the motions” is almost as good as rehearsing to improve a dancer’s performance. Or an athlete’s.

But not maladroit politicians.

How does the brain do this? With specialized cells, aptly called mirror neurons, that mimic the actions of others. This has been demonstrated in “point-light” experiments, in which subjects watched films of people dancing, cycling, running, etc., in a dark room with tiny lights attached to their shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees and ankles.

The people watching could easily identify the actions of the “performers,” as well as their intentions, emotions, beliefs, genders, and personalities — from the point lights alone! This sharpened perception of human movement, the ability to read body language — and to perceive and express our own — is known as social intelligence.

Reading body language gives us the capacity to navigate our social world which means you can figure out how others feel, where they’re “coming from,” as well as their intentions. Good, bad, or indifferent.

To mirror others, say neuroscientists, is to empathize because it uses the same mental rehearsal of the body language of others that allows us to put ourselves in, ahem, someone else’s shoes.

Some are spectacularly incapable of doing so. Hillary. While others can really “feel your pain.” Bill, of course.

Empathizing enables us to recognize your spouse from a distance just by their gait and to acquire his or her mannerisms. And it is why yawning is contagious.

So, if empathy is the great imitator and lubricant of social life, it must naturally lead to fluid movements. More to the point, it means you’ve probably also got rhythm, in which case you have the graceful social movements of an extrovert and you easily take to the dance floor, like Bill.

And it practically guarantees that the socially inept introvert will be the one to jerk about to the music. Like Hillary.

Those of us with rhythm tend to also harbor an internal metronome that “moves” us to synchronize our gestures with subtle rhythms we hear and to the beat of our dance partner. In Hillary’s case, there is a good chance you won’t catch her yawning when baby Charlotte does.

As you’ve figured by now, empathy is as physiological as having a stomach. But it is also a partnership of nature (essential bits of brain that are pre-wired) and nurture (children need to be shown what empathy is all about).

So we don’t need Hillary to submit herself to neurological scans and psychological testing. We just know. Our social intelligence allows us to read her just like a point-light experiment.

If only her Dr. Coppéliuses knew that her dance card will never fill up. No matter the “human” sacrifice.

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