A Heart to Heart Conversation on Empathy

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March 24, 2014

By Elif M. Gokcigdem

Ever since I heard Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, a Nobel Laureate in the field of Genetics, describe how his heart skipped a beat at the very moment of his discovery, my heart has been telling me that there is more to what took place at that split-second than what meets the eye.

What would make a Nobel Laureate’s heart skip a beat? After explaining the amazing story behind his discovery, Dr. Yamanaka’s tone of voice slightly changed as if imparting a secret. He paused for a moment. Clearly emotional, but with the caution of a scientist facing an unsolved mystery, he put it as objectively as possible: “I saw those skin cells that were converted into heart cells, and they were beating like a heart… and, my own heart synchronized…” With an affirmative nod, he continued: “I remember that moment.”

Dr. Yamanaka was referring to his experiment to reverse-engineer mature skin cells into acting like stem cells, which are pluripotent, having the potential to become any cell to form any organ in our bodies. Imagine, just a drop of your blood could give you a new heart or a new liver. On this journey, mature skin cells plus a combination of 4 factors (the Yamanaka Factors) soon start beating, as they have just become heart cells. This confirmed Dr. Yamanaka’s theory that contrary to existing thinking at the time, not only stem cells but also mature skin cells can be engineered backwards to become pluripotent.

I find this discovery extraordinary, not only because it will lead to many medical treatments, but also because it simply touches my heart. This discovery makes me feel like I have just witnessed an extraordinary moment of empathic connection between a fully formed human heart, peering into and synchronizing with its microscopic origins and potential.

“There is a road from one heart to another,” my grandmother would say, reflecting a wisdom that has been passed through generations. This invisible highway of empathy between hearts has been traveled by many wise men and women before. People with such abilities, regardless of their religious or cultural affiliations, often shared a unified view of the world where no one and nothing is left out, not even a single heart cell.

In a way, this invisible highway connects our hearts to the rest of the Universe like a thread that runs through everything in existence. This makes me ponder the immense potential we each carry within ourselves. Just like the cells that we are made of, which required a mixture of proteins to be reprogrammed to unleash their true potential, we can also realize our true capacity when it comes to being one with the variety within and beyond ourselves, through empathy and love.

Recently, I have been reading about how scientists can now view where on our brain the emotion of empathy appears and I cannot help but wonder how a heart-on-empathy would look like. A timeless voice on humanity and love, Rumi said: when brain tries to understand love, it looks like a donkey struggling to get out of a mud pool. The more he struggles to get out, the deeper he sinks. Your heart is the only guide when it comes to love.*

There is certainly more to a human heart than what meets the eye. Perhaps one day we will have the scientific capability to truly comprehend all of the visible and invisible attributes of a human heart; how it can cover the entire Universe when it comes to harboring love and empathy, and how two hearts sometimes can beat as one, or how small and confined the heart can feel when it is crowded with thoughts and feelings that blur its real potential.

We are hard-wired to feel empathy, which is mostly described as an inherent ability to think or feel like another. However, empathy can be many things. If it is not to feel understanding and compassion for another, it is a survival tool that has become an integral part of our nature. We use the soft, nurturing side of empathy to care for our newborn and our elderly, to tell compelling stories to transfer our knowledge and wisdom, to create and enjoy art, and to remain social beings by trying to understand and relate to others.

We also use empathy when hunting, not only for food and animals, but also for ideas in the business world. It is a way for us to stay ahead of the game by thinking like another to predict the next steps ahead. Empathy is something that we do every day without even realizing it. Empathy is a tool that when used for the greater good can provide us with creative thinking skills that might lead us to new scientific discoveries, better designed products that are good for us and also for our environment, or might lead us to positive behavior change which might simply enable us to be better friends, parents, and global citizens.

Dr. Yamanaka’s discovery of pluripotent cells therefore gives me hope, albeit based on a metaphorical quest. If we are wise enough, and nurture our inherent ability to practice empathy systematically, I believe in my heart that the goodness that can come out of it can also be pluripotent.

*I am grateful to Mr. Kabir Helminski for providing me with the proper translation of this Rumi poem:

“…When faced with Love itself

When faced with Love itself

I’m ashamed of my explanations.

Whatever the tongue can make clear,

Love’s silence is better.

And though the pen wanted badly to write,

when it came to Love its nib split apart.

When it was the turn of the Intellect

To unfold the meaning of Love,

It stumbled like a donkey in the mud.

In the end only Love

Could explain itself

And what it is to be a lover.”


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