How the Expansion of Population and the Connectivity of Global Mass Media Has Led to the Death of Empathy and The Rise of Separatism
‘And The Lord said: Behold, the people is one, and they all have one language, and now nothing will be restrained from them. Let us go down, and there confound their language.’ Genesis 11:1-6
I have always thought that horror is a genre that has been misrepresented. It has been mocked, ridiculed, generally regarded as the stomping ground for frightened thirteen-year-olds at their first sleepover, and for pizza-devouring millennials to laugh at in their dark, television-lit dens. Yet, the idea of horror itself is one that is psychologically more fascinating, and difficult to understand, than any other genre of film. Do we watch them to engage our death drive, to facilitate our ultimate and never-ending need for violence as a result of our own sadomasochistic desire for destruction? Do we watch them to expose ourselves to our worst fears, to desensitise ourselves, so that nothing in the real world can ever frighten or break us more than the things we watch glibly, popcorn halfway suspended to the mouth? Do we watch it to prepare ourselves subconsciously, to know what to do (or what not to do, looking at you, every white male father in every horror film ever) when the apocalypse hits? Do we do it just to set our hearts racing—begging the question of why our desire for adrenaline exists in the first place?
I have always thought that horror is a genre that has been misrepresented. It has been mocked, ridiculed, generally regarded as the stomping ground for frightened thirteen year olds at their first sleepover, and for pizza-devouring millennials to laugh at in their dark, television-lit dens. Yet, the idea of horror itself is one that is psychologically more fascinating, and difficult to understand, than any other genre of film. Dowe watch them to engage our death drive, to facilitate our ultimate and never-ending need for violence as a result of our own sadomasochistic desire for destruction? Do we watch them to expose ourselves to our worst fears, to desensitise ourselves, so that nothing in the real world can ever frighten or break us more than the things we watch glibly, popcorn halfway suspended to the mouth? Do we watch it to prepare ourselves subconsciously, to know what to do (or what not to do, looking at you, every white male father in every horror film ever) when the apocalypse hits? Do we do it just to set our hearts racing—begging the question of why our desire for adrenaline exists in the first place?
Furthermore, horror films themselves begin to subtly explore topics normally handled ham-fistedly in normal films; take Jennfier Kent’s the Babadook, which uses the figure of the Babadook to explore the fear and psychosis that grief, trauma, and post-partum depression in the mother-child relationship can take on in our lives. Or Ari Aster’s Hereditary, where again family trauma and female madness is heightened and exacerbated by supernatural events, or his 2019 gem Midsommar, in which he uses the stress and absurdity of a drug-fuelled pagan cult’s summer rituals to explore the complexities of dying relationships, emotional dependence, grief, the loneliness of the modern age, gaslighting and female pain. Aster explores what horror means to us ourselves, to the body and the mind, delves into cult psychology, into the reality behind western ideas of kindness and morality. Or Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body, which discusses violation, sexism, misogyny and the fetishization of teenage girls better than any other non-horror film I have seen (if you have five minutes, watch the dressing table scene on YouTube. The derangement in her eyes is heart-wrenching and speaks to an almost universal female experience of performative womanhood and beauty, and the feeling of utter purposelessness that invades us when it is not achieved).
The failings of mainstream opinion to regard horror with the value it is due has enough in it for another article in itself, so I will cut myself short and return to my original point: the potential of horror in deciphering psychology, and the ability of some horror producers to understand and examine the human brain, has been unmined in its potential, left relegated to half-empty stock and reduced prices in Sainsburys, a two shelf corner in Waterstones with the small, bedraggled ‘Horror Writing’ sign clinging precariously to its place.
I was reading the second of David Wong’s horror trilogy, This Book is Full of Spiders. Wong’s series is as famous for its existential terror and philosophical discussion as it is for its bizarre humour and copious gore, but a section profoundly changed me upon coming across it, half hidden amongst the vivid description of flesh-eating brain spiders. Speaking to Doctor/Priest Albert Marconi, the protagonist, David, receives this enlightenment;
‘A hundred and fifty. That’s how many other humans we can recognise before we max out our connections. With some variability among individuals of course. That is our maximum capacity for sympathy… you see the problem right away; everything we do requires cooperation in groups larger than a hundred and fifty. Governments, corporations, society as a whole. And we are physically incapable of handling it.’ (This Book is Full of Spiders, David Wong, Titan Books, 2012, pg 360-362).
If you look up Babel Threshold as a psychological concept, which I immediately did, unable to believe due to my own prejudice (read above) that this was created in a horror novel, you will get nothing apart from a wattpad link with a brief copy of that section of the book. Nothing else. No discussions on it, no further information, even though in that small section I found an idea that explained to me the sheer bleak and brutal reality of our every day: separatism, coldness, destruction and death and inhumanity on a scale perhaps otherwise indecipherable to the human brain.
Wong based his brief theory of the Babel Threshold on the studies of British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. Dunbar studied primates, specifically the size of their neocortex (the part of the mammalian brain involved in functions such as sensory perception, language, social skills, spatial and deduction) in relation to their sociability. He suggested a simple correlation; the larger the neocortex, the more ability the primate has to socialise. The more relationships it can maintain, the larger and more complex the communities it functions in. For example, a primate with a smaller neocortex, such as a lemur or a bush baby, would have more basic social communities, would have a smaller ability to socialise and engage in a higher number of dependent or developed relationships, and would be less able to empathise and connect with members of its species. A primate with a larger neocortex, such as a chimpanzee, bonobo or gorilla, would be able to have larger communities, create emotional relationships and connections with more members in that species, and would have more complex interactions. They would be able to adapt more to the demands of those relationships; for example, there is a theory of ‘Machiavellian Intelligence’, which suggests that the benefits of complex social skills, such as subterfuge, lying, flattery, etc, fuelled the development of larger primate brains. (I can’t imagine how large Dick Cheney’s brain must have been). A new study by Richard Byrne and Nadia Corp, psychologists at St. Andrews, suggests the larger the primate, the better its ability to deceive and behave in a ‘sneaking’ manner, such as feigning disinterest in food so others would be less likely to take it. (Oh I just do not fancy any of the Peshwari naan… dad’s eyes have turned away go go go).
As humans are primates, and we too have a neocortex, it is only reasonable to further extend that calculation of social ability to us. Dunbar proposed that the average number or complex, emotional empathetic, sympathetic relationships humans can maintain is around 150. This of course depends on the individual—Dunbar suggested a range between 100 to 250—but as Marconi quotes in Wong’s novel: ‘This is our maximum capacity for sympathy.’
150 people. That is what our brains can handle. That is as many people we can truly develop an empathetic connection with. Even that is truly difficult to maintain; Dunbar suggests to cohabit in communities of 150 successfully, without degradation, 42% of each primates’ time had to be dedicated toward one another and social activity. Often, only those under extreme survival pressure (subsistence villages, nomadic tribes, minorities, other groups formed under intense environmental and economic compulsion) have and can successfully maintained their bonds. After 150, psychologically we cannot take it. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Tipping Point, studied the Gore-Tex company, and their discovery that if more than 150 people were working in a building, different social problems would arise that would lead to arguments, separatism, cliques, infighting and general lack of production. We cannot get things done in groups of more than 150, we cannot survive in them, because we are physically incapable of sustaining that many bonds. Of course, there are also problems of consumerist, classist society and innate privilege to acknowledge, but think of this perhaps as the reason people behave horribly to service members. How people can ignore deep poverty or treat humans like they are not. And why, more than ever this, is becoming a firmer reality of our lives, as expected as rain on the day you’re wearing white.
“Unlike the environment, and the tribes of other primates, that are pleased and live for the sake of living itself, for food, sustainability, for their children, we are always hungry. Always searching.“
Humans have always existed in communities, since our Palaeolithic days, but those communities, by and large, have always been small. Small and strong; villages and towns rarely comprised over 150- individuals, and if they did, they were split into sections not much bigger which, crucially, did not interact with each other. Within those communities, there was no way of constant, continuous communication with more than 150 people. Letters were unreliable, and there was nothing akin to the 24/7, there-in-seconds delivery that phones and internet afford us. When groups larger than 150 began to exist, we see the rise of war, of domination, of slavery; especially as communication technology grew, facilitating larger interaction between humans. Letters and information sources became more reliable, mirroring the beginnings of colonial expansion.
This advent strengthened in the Victorian era with the telegram, telephone and the developing postal system facilitated by the railways. It is no coincidence that alongside this there blooms expansionism, theories of eugenics, slum conditions, poverty, sterilisation and genocide. People began to be put in semi-reliable, semi-constant contact with others around the world in larger numbers than their brains could psychologically cope with. With the rise of the newspaper and reliable global media, humans were forced to understand that there was humanity out there in warm desert sands and in swampy forests and on grey-scaled sea cliffs that numbered way beyond their psychological understanding, their 150 group. They no longer existed in those small, understandable patches. They never would again.
They now existed as global citizens, constantly in tune with and aware of the world around them. With this rise of global awareness, the inability of one to live life in the psychologically desirable median of 150, we see the rise of factionalism, wars I and II, the Spanish civil war, the nuclear brinkmanship and massacres of the supposedly Cold War, (is anyone seeing a pattern in the number of time war is repeated here?). We see fascism, separatism, us versus them mentalities. We see unimaginable cruelty on a globalised, industrial scale.
As a case study to help our understanding, we can look at the rise of nationalism, specifically through the lens of Benedict Anderson’s seminal book Imagined Communities. Anderson suggests that nationalism was a cooperative effort by both the government and the people of a country or ‘nation’, to establish a sense of imagined community. If they identified the characteristics, history, the folklore of that nation, they all had a tie to it, and became in a sense, in a community with thousands, even millions, of people. This community was not real, but their sense of shared background, this possession of a united set of qualities and characteristics intrinsically linked to the place of their birth, helped them find real belonging and unity.
Anderson suggests we can date this rise in nationalism, this need to belong to an imagined community, to the growing sense of lack of individualism and connection fostered by global news network, around the mid-1750s. What I propose, and what Wong theorised, is that that coincides with the time where our brains were beginning to be exposed to communities of larger than 150. We begin to have less space in our minds for more people to form relationships with, and thus we begin to simplify a multitude of individuals who share the same characteristics; place of birth, race, religion, gender, political beliefs, hair colour, anything. To cope with these new, unimaginable quantities of people, our brain distils hundreds, thousands, even millions of people who share one of these random characteristics into one individual, who can then take one place in our limited memory.
This distillation into stereotypes of communities is endemic-we all have it, in one way or another. Mine is Southern White Americans. There are 65,641,536 white Americans in the Southern States of the US. They cannot all be the way I carelessly regard them: racist, confederate flag-waving, bible- carrying, anti-abortion men in white linen plantation suits who share photos of guns with the caption ‘what my daughter’s first boyfriend will see when he knocks on the door’ (because of course her virginity is as much his possession as his candlesticks and cargo shorts) and women in Daughters of America flouncy church clothes who cross the street when they see someone of a different race. I know a few Southerners; a family I met were some of the nicest people I’ve ever been lucky enough to encounter. One of them is one of my best friends, both in university and of all time. Yet I still hold that stereotype in my mind, however unconsciously, because my brain cannot physically empathise with, individualise and understand 65,641,536 people. I’m Welsh; there is a longstanding, shared hatred among the Welsh for the English. My best friend and the person I live with is from Cambridge. Another best friend, who I tell all my secrets to and have already listed as a bridesmaid in the event I get married, is from Devon. Both as south, English English as you get, and I love them both to distraction; but I will still shake my fist and chat with my fellow Welsh about how the Saes are all awful. Some of this is humour of course, but we have to discuss the fact that there are 55,620,000 English people in the world; they can’t all behave like the stereotype I possess. Yet it remains.
As the world gets bigger, as there are more and more people we have to understand and recognise as existing, the more we distil, the bigger and more harmful these stereotypes become. It becomes sympathy or the lack of it. When you believe a community that could be numbering in the tens of millions, or even billions, can be represented by the shadow person of a statistic, it is that much more easier to behave in a way that is cruel. Those billions stop being individual people, people you can sympathise with, care for, empathise with, and become a mass. They stop being human. No more moral duty to not do inhuman things to them.
We can see this effect everywhere, currently and throughout history. The Jewish people in Nazi Germany ceased to be people, ceased to be neighbours and individuals and beings with unique positive and negative qualities. They possessed a shared religion, and such they were distilled into one, non-sympathetic cutout for the brains of the masses to understand. What happened to them wasn’t happening to individuals, individuals the non-Jewish could empathise with, could relate to, could see outside of their Jewishness; it was happening to a singular idea. This is why the world can turn its back on Mexican children in concentration camps, being separated from their mothers, attacked and lonely and dying, being treated in a way that is absolutely incompatible with our idea of humanity. The human brain cannot comprehend them as individuals, and distils them into a mass with which we struggle to maintain sympathy. It is how we treat groups who cannot fit into our sphere of sympathy, who exceed our 150, who don’t look/sound/think like the people we share traits and ideas with: as ants. As insects. Inhumanly. It has led to a rise of separatism, us versus them, it has led to every form of prejudice we can understand. And most crucially; arguably, it can never be solved.
This is why the problems we face always seem to slink their way out of our solution’s grasp; it is because for anything cohesive to be achieved we have to work in a global sense, in communities much larger than 150 people, and we physically and psychologically cannot handle it. And the kicker is—we cannot regress. We cannot turn back the mass-media, global clock and untangle our economics, social lives and expectations from a globally connected market. We cannot go back to those communes. We cannot function, cannot truly thrive in a community outside of 150; but we can never shrink back. The problems we face now; climate change, late stage capitalism, brinkmanship and destruction, can be solved one of two ways. Firstly, we could retreat back into middle-ages or even Palaeolithic subsistence communes and villages, and work in grass roots, ground level repair, living as successful communities of less than 150, therefore being productive and fulfilled. However, due to unprecedented population growth, the exploitation and unfair distribution of the world’s resources, the expectation of consumerism as well as the positives of global communication and trade, this is improbable at best, most likely impossible. Secondly, we could work together on a global scale to overcome the hold and exploitation of the planet 100 corporations have, find new solutions for a global government and work on creating a balance and equal distribution of resources, ideas which would mean that all people, governments, countries and interests would experience reward and hardship equally.
If that sounds naïve to you, you are most probably, psychologically right; our brains seem incapable of handling this kind of behaviour, explainable not only by our individualistic survival-of-the-fittest mindframe installed in us by capitalistic interests, but by our base, physical inability to cooperate productively with so many people. Maybe there was a chance once, before individualism flourished and our brain chemistry changed to put our needs above all else, but perhaps now, it is too late. Maybe Wong and Marconi were right to term it the Babel Threshold; unlike the environment, and the tribes of other primates, that are pleased and live for the sake of living itself, for food, sustainability, for their children, we are always hungry. Always searching. We reached for more, we reached for greatness and knowledge and material and money, and we are all sent crumbling down. Different languages, different ideas, different people. Unable to be united again.
So, I will leave you with a sobering thought; maybe from our inception, we have been doomed to fail. Our lack of power in our separatism, and our inability to find cooperation may be the reason, above all else, that humanity is incapable of survival. The planet, its coordinated, self-sufficient, interlocking and interdependent myriad of states, will live on. Maybe it is time to question whether humans physically, psychologically can.
[Image: close-up of Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’]