4 minutes of silence can boost your empathy for others. Watch as refugees try it out.

We could all benefit from breaking down some of the walls in our lives.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a place on Earth with more wall-based symbolism than Berlin, Germany.

But there, in the heart of Germany's capital city, strangers sat across from one another, staring into each other's eyes. To the uninitiated, it may look as though you've witnessed some sort of icy standoff. The truth, however, couldn't be more different.

This was about tearing down walls between people.


Image from Amnesty Poland.

Amnesty International recently released a video in which they show strangers breaking down barriers with the help of eye contact.

The refugee crisis is a contentious issue worldwide. Reasonable people can disagree about the right path forward in finding homes for people displaced by conflict or economic crisis. What's sometimes missing from this conversation, it seems, is empathy.

But what if we could inject some empathy into that debate? And what if it was as easy as making eye contact?

Refugees sat across from Europeans. In many cases, the two parties didn't even share a language; all they had was eye contact. The organization's theory? That it should be enough.

Image from Amnesty Poland.

The video's a powerful look at what it means to share in our common humanity. The eye contact bit? That comes from psychologist Arthur Aron.

Aron's 1997 study, "The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness," put forth the idea that a bond between two strangers can be created quickly through physical proximity and an exchange of specific personal information. In additional studies, Aron found that closeness and bonding can sometimes develop even more strongly through sustained eye contact

In the nearly 20 years since publishing, Aron's work — which has often been presented in a sort of "here's how to fall in love in less than an hour" type of way — has seen a bit of an online resurgence and for good reason: It seems to work. Pretty neat, right?

Image from Amnesty Poland.

Refugees and borders aside, there are some related studies that have concluded roughly the same thing: Simply existing and interacting with other people can help you empathize with them.

For example, a 1997 study by Gregory Herek of the University of California at Davis suggests that straight people who personally know gay people are more likely to be accepting of gay and lesbian men and women. Further, the more gay people they know, the more likely they are to be cool about everything.

Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images.

Basically, these studies confirm the old adage: It's hard to hate what you know.

If you personally know someone from a misunderstood group of people — whether that's based on refugee status, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or other often generalized factors — it's a whole lot harder to make sweeping statements about that group.

We've all got walls of our own that we wrestle with every day. What's important is that we're always working to tear them down.

So while you and I may not have been in that room in Berlin, there are almost certainly situations in which we, as a society, can benefit from making use of these same tactics in our own lives.

You can watch Amnesty International's video, "Look Beyond Borders," below.


Clarification 11/02/2017: This post was updated to clarify that Aron's 1997 publication did not explicitly discuss his research into eye contact.

More


Climate change is happening because the earth is warming at an accelerated rate, a significant portion of that acceleration is due to human activity, and not taking measures to mitigate it will have disastrous consequences for life as we know it.

In other words: Earth is heating up, it's kinda our fault, and if we don't fix it, we're screwed.

This is the consensus of the vast majority of the world's scientists who study such things for a living. Case closed. End of story.

How do we know this to be true? Because pretty much every reputable scientific organization on the planet has examined and endorsed these conclusions. Thousands of climate studies have been done, and multiple peer-reviewed studies have been done on those studies, showing that somewhere between 84 and 97 percent of active climate science experts support these conclusions. In fact, the majority of those studies put the consensus well above 90%.

Keep Reading Show less
Nature

As a child, Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia's parents didn't ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Instead, her father would ask, "Are you going to be a doctor? Are you going to be an engineer? Or are you going to be an entrepreneur?"

Little did he know that she would successfully become all three: an award-winning biomedical and mechanical engineer who performs cutting-edge medical research and has started multiple companies.

Bhatia holds an M.D. from Harvard University, an M.S. in mechanical engineering from MIT, and a PhD in biomedical engineering from MIT. Bhatia, a Wilson professor of engineering at MIT, is currently serving as director of the Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine, where she's working on nanotechnology targeting enzymes in cancer cells. This would allow cancer screenings to be done with a simple urine test.

Bhatia owes much of her impressive career to her family. Her parents were refugees who met in graduate school in India; in fact, she says her mom was the first woman to earn an MBA in the country. The couple immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s, started a family, and worked hard to give their two daughters the best opportunities.

"They made enormous sacrifices to pick a town with great public schools and really push us to excel the whole way," Bhatia says. "They really believed in us, but they expected excellence. The story I like to tell about my dad is like, if you brought home a 96 on a math test, the response would be, 'What'd you get wrong?'"

Keep Reading Show less
Packard Foundation
True

I live in a family with various food intolerances. Thankfully, none of them are super serious, but we are familiar with the challenges of finding alternatives to certain foods, constantly checking labels, and asking restaurants about their ingredients.

In our family, if someone accidentally eats something they shouldn't, it's mainly a bit of inconvenient discomfort. For those with truly life-threatening food allergies, the stakes are much higher.

I can't imagine the ongoing stress of deadly allergy, especially for parents trying to keep their little ones safe.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Amy Johnson

The first day of school can be both exciting and scary at the same time — especially if it's your first day ever, as was the case for a nervous four-year-old in Wisconsin. But with a little help from a kind bus driver, he was able to get over his fear.

Axel was "super excited" waiting for the bus in Augusta with his mom, Amy Johnson, until it came time to actually get on.

"He was all smiles when he saw me around the corner and I started to slow down and that's when you could see his face start to change," his bus driver, Isabel "Izzy" Lane, told WEAU.

The scared boy wouldn't get on the bus without help from his mom, so she picked him up and carried him aboard, trying to give him a pep talk.

"He started to cling to me and I told him, 'Buddy, you got this and will have so much fun!'" Johnson told Fox 7.

Keep Reading Show less
Most Shared