Friday, September 7, 2012

Empathy, Education, and Musical Chairs

by Nadine Dolby — September 04, 2012

This is a commentary on new research on empathy in neuroscience and related fields, and implications for education. 

"Let's play musical chairs!" The young, inexperienced teacher of my daughter's Saturday morning dance class was clearly having great difficulty getting a room full of four and five year old children to listen, never mind follow her dance moves.  Musical chairs, I assumed, was the first thought that came to her--a way to get the children focused on one activity, or at least in the same part of the room.

My then four-year-old daughter stopped, looked at me, and asked, "What's musical chairs, Mommy?"  "Well," I said, "it's a game children play at parties or in school. All the children run around a line of chairs as the teacher plays music, and then when the music stops, the children sit down in a chair. The trick of the game is that there is always one less chair than there are children, so each time, one child does not get a chair. Whoever is left at the end is the winner."

My daughter thought about this for a moment, and replied, "So what's the point of the game Mom: is it fun?"

 It was then my turn to think. No, I thought, it is not fun. The child who fails to get a chair inevitably collapses in tears.  No, there was no point---at least not a good one. Quickly, I scurried across the room to the dance instructor, explained that my daughter would not be playing musical chairs, and tried to suggest that perhaps a more inclusive, cooperative game might be a better way to restore some peace to the room.

"Musical chairs," of course, is one of thousands of games, diversions, and unquestioned ways of life that are so deeply embedded in our culture that is difficult to see them clearly. While it was beyond my daughter's comprehension to understand the larger place of "musical chairs" in the world of children and childhood games, here are a few of its lessons:  humans are inherently competitive by nature;  you need to fight for everything you get;  there is scarcity in the world; and only the strongest and most ruthless will triumph. Anyone (including me) who remembers being pushed out of a chair and onto the floor by a bigger, older child knows that Social Darwinism is at the core of this seemingly innocent game.

I can imagine that the other parents at the dance class might have two reactions to my analysis of musical chairs, either that I am reading too much into a game, or well, yes, that is true, but that's how we are as humans, the world will always be that way, and children need to learn that early, even if it comes with a few tears and bumps.

As it turns out, however, recent scientific advancements in the field of neuroscience are showing that actually, these parents--and everyone else who believes that people are only inherently competitive--are wrong.  Instead, human brains are actually primed for both competition and cooperation: which side of us emerges as more dominant is dependent on our culture.  Our brains are not separate from the world around us and how we are taught to interact with others: instead, our brains are embodied in that world. The fairly new discovery of "mirror neurons" (Iacoboni, 2006; Ramachandran, 2006 ) furthermore begins to strongly indicate that as humans we are naturally able to empathize with others. This empathy is there in all of us from birth, just waiting for our culture to nurture it.  Empathy, it appears, is not just a moral or ethical good: it is a biological part of every person, and as research also demonstrates, of virtually every animal also -- even mice demonstrate empathy.

But of course, right now, our culture does not nurture empathy and cooperation. Instead, in schools, our homes, in the media, and in every aspect of our lives, we value competition. From the earliest lessons of musical chairs, to the fierce competition brought on by excessive testing, to battles for college admission, jobs, and the greatly diminished access to the "American Dream" we teach our children that this is just how humans are.  The consequences of accepting that all of this is "natural" has been devastating for our planet.  As George Lakoff (2008) points out:

Economic man produced global warming and chemical chickens. The unbounded pursuit of self-interest that was supposed to be moral, which was supposed to produce plenty for all, is bringing death to our earth. If it continues, half the species on the planet will die within a century. Economic man was an idea--a claim about human nature. Empathy and real reason, as we shall see, reveal its fallacies. They also reveal how ideas can be destructive (p. 121).

Multiple fields of scientific research, including neuroscience, primatology, evolutionary biology, cognitive ethology (the study of animal behavior in naturalistic settings), social psychology, and subfields in philosophy have produced enough evidence over the past two decades to confirm that our greatest hope for the future rests in understanding the real possibilities of human biology, and beginning to translate these findings into our culture (de Waal, 2009). As educators and educational researchers, that means that we need to resist the current threats to education, while proactively building new realities: ones grounded in an understanding that a more peaceful, cooperative, humane, empathic world can emerge if we nurture it in ourselves and our children.

In The End of Growth (2011) Richard Heinberg underscores that the old ways of thinking about how we as humans structure our world must end. This is not a choice, but a mathematical necessity, as the world's resources are finite. Questioning and eliminating games such as musical chairs from our children's lives may seem silly -- too minor to have any impact on the future of the planet. But "musical chairs" is not allowed in my daughter's Montessori school, and for good reason: only practices (that includes games, toys, etc.) that lead to the development of a peaceful, empathic child are allowed. I would suggest that we need seriously to consider the daily practices of our own, grown-up lives, and ask the same question. I think we will find much to get rid of, and many more joyful, cooperative, productive ways to fill our days, and remake our world.


de Waal, F. (2009). The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society. New York, NY:Harmony Books.

Heinberg, R. (2011). The End of Growth: Adapting to our new economic reality. Vancouver: New Society Publishers.

Lakoff, G. (2008). The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-century Politics with an 18th-century Brain. New York: Viking.

Ramachandran, V.S. (2006). Mirror Neurons and the Brain in the Vat. Edge, January 10. Retrieved on August 4, 2011 at

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 04, 2012 ID Number: 16861, Date Accessed: 9/7/2012 12:53:57 PM

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