The scientific evidence is clear: Human actions are changing the earth in ways that make our planet less hospitable to human life. Yet, despite sound evidence, people, corporations, and governments are often reluctant to make the changes needed to end fossil fuel use; recycle all wastes, and safeguard a diversity of plant and animal ecosystems.
As Gus Speth (former Dean, Yale School of Forestry) admits: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystems collapse and climate change. I thought that with thirty years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy… to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation and we… scientists, don´t know how to do that.”
Rational persuasion isn’t enough.
Empathy and Environmental Compassion
Recent research confirms that empathy and compassion for the earth are stronger predictors of environmental compassion than objective facts (Berenguer). When people identify with the pain and suffering of animals, they are more likely to support environmental causes and change their patterns of consumption (Swim and Bloodhart).
When pairing these findings with the discussion of motor mimicry in my last post, a tantalizing possibility appears: Might the human capacity for motor mimicry serve to enhance empathy, not only with human others, but with non-human others as well?
Motor Mimicry of Non-Human Others
As noted, the human capacity for motor mimicry is both innate and trainable: it is itself an activity through which we build our brains (Acharya). Sharing in movement patterns opens a conduit for sharing of emotions – what researchers call ‘emotional contagion’ – which leads to feelings of attachment and understanding, thus promoting empathy and compassion among people (Prochazkova and Kret; Kampfe and Kanske).
Yet, as evidenced in children’s play, theatrical productions, yoga, and tai chi, as well as in dance traditions across cultures, this ability to imitate the movement of others is not limited to other humans. Animals, plants, and natural phenomena, including mountains, beaches, and streams may also animate a human capacity for motor mimicry, thereby promoting the feelings of empathy, attachment, and joy such mimicry affords.
By this account, humans have a built-in resource for boosting their affinity with the natural world. By allowing themselves to be moved by the movements of natural phenomena, humans can cultivate action-able empathy for the earth.
Indigenous Dances and Eco-Awareness
Indigenous cultures around the world offer abundant evidence of this dynamic. In case after case, Indigenous peoples who perceive the earth as sacred engage in dances that mimic the movements of animals, plants, and natural phenomena. The deer dance of the Mexican Yaqui; the Eagle dance of the Cherokee; the Corn dance of the Pueblo Indians; the Bear dance of the Iroquois; the Giraffe dance of the Jul’hoansi people in the Kalahari comprise a short list.
As Rulan Tangen, artistic director of the indigenous dance company Dancing Earth, says: “[D]ances are rituals through which we invoke our relations with each other and with the earth, depict heroic struggles and sweet courtships. We welcome plants and animals and celebrate [them] as part of our beings, as food sources and guides; we note changes in the sky and seasons and keep dancing our rhythms and breath to renew the earth, in an unending dance of life” (Murphy, JS, Univ. of Minnesota Press ).
Relations of Respect and Reciprocity
The sense of reciprocity such dances create occurs by way of motor mimicry. To learn a dance, humans give themselves to an animal, plant, or non-human other. They pay attention. For example, by making movements that imitate where, when, and why an animal moves, a dancer comes to understand how that animal eats, mates, fights, migrates, and raises its young.
To the degree humans activate their motor mimicry, the animal gives back – sharing its qualities of perseverance or patience, speed or slyness – and in certain circumstances, its life. Through such dances, the rhythms of the natural world – seasons, life cycles, directions – come to organize a person’s behavior, priming her to make decisions that support the health of elements that support her.
As dance scholar Ananya Chatterjea writes, the dancers are “charged to become attuned to their natural reciprocity with the earth, breathing in the oxygen produced by plants, and returning the carbon dioxide that plants need.” Dance is “an interactive community practice” (Murphy, JS, Univ. of Minnesota Press ).
A sensory awareness of these relationships of reciprocity finds expression in empathy for the earth. As Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II, a leader in the Indigenous resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline, explains: “We protect the relatives that we have and these relatives are the plant life, the animal life, the water. We don’t think of them as resources. We think of them as actual beings who are precious to us” (Bonelli, et al.)
Dancing with the Earth
Next time you walk in the woods, study the trunk of a tree as it reaches upward, and notice your spine lengthen. As you watch its branches sway in the breeze, take a breath, and sense the response in your own movement making. As you see a bird soaring in the sky, feel how hard it is not to open your chest and stretch your arms.
As you give yourself to the movement patterns of the natural world, such moments of exchange may produce joy. And with that joy comes an awareness of what has value – and what is worth saving.
Acharya S, Shukla S. 2021. Mirror neurons: Enigma of the metaphysical modular brain. J Nat Sci Biol Med. Jul;3(2):118-24. doi: 10.4103/0976-9668.101878. PMID: 23225972; PMCID: PMC3510904.
Berenguer, J. 2007. The Effect of Empathy in Proenvironmental Attitudes and Behaviors. Environment and Behavior, 39(2), 269–283.
Bonelli, Cristobal & Roca-Servat, Denisse & Mesquita, Mourik. 2016. The Many Natures of Water in Latin-American Neo-Extractivist Conflicts. Alternautas (Re)Searching Development: The Abya Yala Chapter, Volume 3, Issue 2, December.
Jaffe, Sarah. Standing Firm at Standing Rock, September 18, 2016. https://billmoyers.com/story/standing-firm-standing-rock-pipeline-protesters-will-not-moved/
Kampfe, Maike Salazar, Phillip Kanske. 2023. Front. Mimicry and Affective Disorders. Psychiatry, 25 January, Sec. Social Neuroscience, Volume 13 – 2022.
Murphy, Jacquline Shea. 2022. Dancing Indigenous Worlds. Minneapolis: the University of Minnesota Press.
Prochazkova, Eliska & Mariska E. Kret. 2017. Connecting minds and sharing emotions through mimicry: A neurocognitive model of emotional contagion, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, Volume 80, 2017, Pages 99-114.
Swim, Janet K. & Brittany Bloodhart. 2015. Portraying the Perils to Polar Bears: The Role of Empathic and Objective Perspective-taking Toward Animals in Climate Change Communication, Environmental Communication, 9:4, 446-468.