It is suggested that the human brain is only capable of maintaining meaningful relationships with a limited amount of people. Anyone outside of our personal monkeysphere are just one-dimensioned characters who we cannot conceptualize as people. This basically goes for the rest of the 99.99 % of the world’s population that are not included in our own social sphere. Meaning, we do not have the physiological ability to actually emphasize with the entire population of the world. Sure, you may sympathize with people who are going through a hard time and feel bad for them. But, in order to share mirrored empathy with people they must be considered as more than just a faceless mass.
Now, this may seem a bit odd to you, you may even argue and say “that is not true, I am nice to strangers all the time”. Well, the thing is that you are not nice to strangers because of whom they are but rather because of the conflicting feeling you would otherwise get in you heart if you were to be an asshole.
However, when it comes to, say your sister, you are being nice out of love and compassion, in other words your kindness is based on who she is. Even if you are a kind person, at some point you would be willing to screw someone outside your monkeysphere over in order to either favour yourself or someone inside the sphere. This is the main point of the monkeysphere-theory. It is therefore utterly important to keep in mind the significant difference between sympathizing and empathizing.
In the 1990s Robin Dunbar became known for explicating Dunbar’s number, a theory proposing the idea of . In his research, Dunbar found a strong correlation between the size of a primate’s brain and its social circle, the bigger the brain the bigger the circle and vice versa. As far as for human beings, according to Dunbar, we are only able to maintain a social relationship with approximately 150 people. Any number larger than this, calls for a comprehensive set of rules to sustain a well structured and unified group. The idea of the monkeysphere originates from Dunbar’s number and has gotten its name from his early research on the grooming of monkeys and how it correlates to the size of their little societies. What does this have to do with humans and how is it relevant to our society? One may ask.
Suppose you are having dinner with a friend, or even a date if you are lucky enough, and once you get the check you see that they forgot to charge you for something. At this point, you are probably celebrating the fact that you get to pay less for the dinner and are in a hurry to get out of there before they catch you, without considering the loss for the restaurant. Now, say the restaurant belonged to one of your close friends. In this case, reckon you are somewhat loyal; you would probably tell your friend and pay for whatever it was that they forgot.
In order to try to exemplify this further, picture a big news agency, say, Dagens Nyheter, and then picture the articles of Brandon Stanton, creator of “Humans of New York”. They both report on the exact same war, and the exact same occurrences. How is it that we feel more touched by the stories of Stanton, rather than by an article in DN? Well, the big difference is that although news agencies report horrific superventions, they are often speaking of thousands of people as a faceless mass. Stanton, on the other hand, shares the story of one single person at a time. He makes it easier for our primate brain to empathize with people in hard times, to actually mirror another person’s feelings as our own. But again, there is a problem here; reading more than just a few of Stanton’s articles will eventually leave the same effect on us as the articles by DN. Basically, we have a limited capital of caring emotions to invest.
At this point one cannot help but wonder; is our society eternally doomed to injustice?
As the world’s population continues to grow, socio-economical and humanitarian differences will therefore probably increase with it. In order to reach an infrangible peace, based on Dunbar’s adduced evidence, we must be able to think of all people as people. According to Dunbar, this is only possible if our brains grow into a size big enough for us to care for billions of people exactly the same. Who knows, maybe evolution will lead us into looking like mushroom-heads, with gigantic brains, spreading love all around us.