It’s late summer – that time of year that’s still hot (especially in Sacramento and the Central Valley). Air conditioners are working at max capacity, and fire season is kicking in at high gear. But I notice that the sun is setting just a little bit earlier, the shadows just the slightest bit longer. Summer is winding down.
As I’ve been noticing these subtle changes, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve most appreciated about my time at the beach. I love surfing, boogie boarding, and swimming anyplace where there’s water. I love to go beachcombing for shells and sea glass, and recently I discovered a beach where you can find tons of sand dollars. I love going to outdoor concerts, or just listening to the random person on the beach with their guitar, or ukulele, or mandolin, or whatever instrument suits their fancy.
But to me, the absolute best is watching the sea life. Give me a towel and a pair of binoculars, and I get into that space where I lose time, sitting on the beach for hours.
There’s been an abundance of wildlife this season. Today, for example, a sea lion swam by, not twenty feet away, as I was teaching my daughter how to stand up on a surfboard. A few days ago, an otter floated by on its back, licking its paws and grooming itself. Lately, we’ve seen flocks of literally hundreds of pelicans nose-diving into the water, going in for the kill.
And we’ve seen dolphins. Lots and lots of dolphins. Usually a dolphin sighting is an occasional treat, but this year I’ve seen them almost every day, identifiable by their graceful surface break and curved dorsal fin. They’ve come very close to shore, and usually they’re swimming in small groups. What took my breath away, though, was the day the dolphins breached the surface, playfully leaping in the air. They are absolutely amazing creatures. In fact, I feel like, in some ways, I can relate to them – especially as a queer person. And I find them to be incredibly inspiring.
OK, you’re probably thinking. This is probably another one of those random tangents that will eventually connect back (sort of) to LGBTQ issues. But this is really a stretch! Something in the ocean water is eating away at her brain cells.
Hang in there, my friends. I really do think I have a point here.
One of the things that fascinates me about dolphins is their sensitivity. On one level, this sensitivity is physical – while they seem to lack a sense of smell, they have an acute sense of vision, their hearing is leaps and bounds above what humans are capable of, and they have a highly developed skin sensitivity. But what I find even more interesting is their emotional sensitivity – what most of us would label as “empathy” or “altruism.” For example, dolphins will stay with animals that are hurt or sick, and, in at least one case, they have been observed to help guide injured animals to safety. Earlier this year, a group of dolphins were observed forming a life raft in order to rescue an injured member of their pod. They will swim in circles around people in the water to protect them from shark attacks. There is even evidence to suggest that dolphins experience grief, mourning the loss of their loved one. They are the caretakers – the “deep feelers,” if you will – of the ocean world.
Although I haven’t seen clear-cut research that supports this idea, I have a sense that people who get into social justice work – especially those of us who claim “marginalized group” membership – have a similar kind of dolphin emotionality. If you think about it, people who engage in any kind of human (or animal) rights work need to be able to feel (not just understand, but feel) the pain of others in order to be motivated to do the hard work of eliminating that pain (and the injustices that cause it). Of course, most people are equipped with some kind of empathy sensor – otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to connect with and form relationships with others. However, some people can watch the news, get mildly upset at what they see, and then turn off the TV and sleep soundly at night. I’m not one of those people (and, I suspect, many other people who engage in social justice work aren’t either). We are emotionally sensitive. We feel the pain of others deeply in our bones. And that sensitivity, for many of us, is the gateway into activism.
It’s been well-documented that people who lack power in any given situation tend to be more sensitive, and possibly more empathic. But a recent study by Sukvinder Obhi of Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, reveals a possible biological mechanism behind these highly empathic responses. That mechanism revolves around what’s called the mirror system, a constellation of neurons that fire when you engage in a behavior or when you observe someone else engaging in that same behavior. For example, if I watch someone do a belly flop into the pool, I inadvertently cringe, almost as if I had been the one to smack my chest flat against the water. It’s like the brain is putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, imagining that you, not the other person, is engaging in the behavior. It’s thought that some people on the autism spectrum have an impaired mirror system. It’s also thought that people with antisocial personality disorder (and possibly narcissistic personality disorder) lack a mirror system altogether. But Obhi’s research focused more on people in positions of power, compared to people who lack power. Feeling powerless, according to his research, appears to increase neuronal firing within the mirror system – correlating with a heightened sense of empathy. In constrast, being in a position of power tends to block the mirror system – mirror neurons within that system appear to fire less frequently when people are enjoying a sense of power – and their sense of empathy gets kicked to the curb.
Do people who are members of historically marginalized groups, because of their chronically powerless status, have a more active mirror system in the brain? Do dolphins, for that matter (regardless of whether they enjoy power or not) have mirror neurons that function in a similar way? I have no idea. But the similarities in empathic responses are striking, in my opinion.
Incidentally, I also learned from reading up on dolphins that they can recover quite handily from shark bites. Perhaps resiliency is another characteristic that marginalized folks share with them – for many of us have had the experience of being bitten by the proverbial shark.