In 2004, a Jewish woman living in Tel Aviv wrote a letter to a Palestinian woman she had never met. “This, for me is one of the most difficult letters I will ever have to write,” she began. “My name is Robi Damelin. I am the mother of David who was killed by your son.” Over the course of the letter, Damelin explained the unbearable anguish of losing her son, a soldier who was hit by sniper fire at a military roadblock. She acknowledged the pain of the Palestinian woman, whose own son was now condemned to a long jail sentence, and expressed her fragile trust in dialogue and reconciliation. Concluding, she wrote, “I hope that you will show the letter to your son, and that maybe in the future we can meet. Let us put an end to the killing and look for a way through mutual understanding and empathy to live a normal life, free of violence.”
Though in overwhelming personal pain, Damelin was still able to find emotional common ground, and use it to create a connection with another parent, spanning one of the world’s most acrimonious political divides. Damelin now works with The Parents Circle, a support group of Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost family members to the ongoing conflict, but are still intent on working towards reconciliation and peace. The Parents Circle brings these families together in the hope that, united by grief, their similarities will outweigh their differences. Both Damelin’s letter and the efforts of The Parents Circle are examples of the potential of empathy.
Even though we’ve learned a lot about how the brain works in recent years, empathy has largely remained a great white whale. Recent experiments by Brazilian neuroscientist Jorge Moll, however, are making headway in the field. Moll and his team have developed a system that lets people observe their own brains at work, on a screen in real time, while they imagine situations that, in most healthy people, evoke feelings of tenderness and warmth. This process, called neurofeedback, allows people participating in the experiment to practice activating the parts of the brain that correspond with empathy.
Subjects that got this neurofeedback consistently generated more of the kind of brain activity connected with feelings of empathy.
Most scientists describe empathy as the process of recognizing what someone else is feeling, then experiencing that same feeling and producing the appropriate emotional response. For example, if we see someone trip and fall, we recognize that they feel pain and embarrassment, and we help them up. Damelin’s letter is a model of heroic empathy, but cultivating everyday empathy can improve your love life, make you a more effective leader at work, and help you develop more rewarding relationships.
Empathy has been difficult for neuroscientists to analyze because it’s the product of many parts of the brain acting with one another in mysterious ways. Simon Baron-Cohen, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Oxford, has identified ten separate regions of the brain, each with its own special function, that comprise the “empathy circuit.” One critical part of this circuit is called the medial prefrontal cortex, or MPFC, which plays a role in comparing one’s own perspective to that of others. Other parts of the empathy circuit correlate with social judgments (the orbitofrontal cortex), awareness of the intentions and goals of others (the frontal operculum), recognizing emotion (the inferior frontal gyrus), and processing sensory stimuli (the somatosensory cortex). But knowing which brain areas are associated with which individual functions still doesn’t present a clear picture of how these areas work, much less interact with one another.
Moll and his colleagues came up with a clever workaround. They asked 25 volunteers to think about episodes from their past that evoked feelings of tenderness and affection—the so-called “affiliative emotions” that are critical to empathy. They also asked each to recall an episode that evoked feelings of pride, and then one that was emotionally neutral.
The researchers took detailed, 3D images of the participants’ brains while they recalled each episode, and then fed those images into an algorithm called a support vector machine, or SVM. SVMs are powerful learning models designed to find patterns in large, complex data sets such as automatic face recognition and forecasting stock market movement. By utilizing images of brains focused on a range of tender, prideful, and neutral thoughts, the SVM was able to identify patterns of brain activity that corresponded to more empathetic states—patterns that would be impossible to spot without this technology.
Once the SVM had recognized what an empathetic state usually looks like, the researchers could then show people in real time exactly how their own brains compared to the identified ideal. To achieve this, the scientists devised a simple visual code. If an individual’s brain matched the archetype of empathy, they saw a perfectly smooth outline of a circle on the screen. If an individual’s brain activity deviated from this archetype, the circle’s circumference would take on a distinctly wavy outline.
As subjects recalled events that should elicit feelings of tenderness, they could look at the circle on the screen, and by focusing on their affiliative emotions, try to maintain a smooth outline. But what exactly the participants were doing with their minds while trying to keep the circle smooth remains unclear. Participants had to, without knowing how, simply try, like flexing a muscle they didn’t know they had. It worked: Subjects that got this neurofeedback (as opposed to those of a control group) consistently generated more of the kind of brain activity connected with feelings of empathy. In other words, they could voluntarily exercise the brain patterns that underlie empathy.
This kind of research is expensive. So, while we won’t be seeing retail neurofeedback machines any time soon, these experiments do give us new insight into the neuroscience of empathy and possible future therapies. They also provide an exciting example of the way high-tech algorithms and neuroscience might collaborate in the future to study and support the best of our human qualities. If we make that our goal, we might be able to better help each other through everyday struggles, and possibly even find ways of fostering connection in the most challenging of global conflicts.
Give me some insight into the initial design process at Nike.
Within Nike’s Innovation Kitchen we have the Nike Sports Research Lab. That’s where the designers and the engineers, partner with the scientists, biomechanists, physiologists and perception experts and they begin to obsess the detail of every athlete in every sport. But what they’re doing… This is a little bit of our secret science… They’re looking for a sweet spot. And that sweet spot is when there’s an insight, when there’s a design and when there’s a science. That overlap creates a sweet spot that is Nike at its best – that’s Nike accelerating innovation. And when we hit that, the whole world knows.
As the Senior Director of Footwear Innovation, what exactly is your role?
My role at Nike is to set the future vision. Speaking about how we’re working in the future, technology is moving so quick. You can’t focus on the technology; you have to focus on the athlete. My role is to really set that vision, ‘we’re working on this for this reason and why, and this is what we’re going to deliver and this is the plan we’re going to execute to get there.’ And bringing in all the disciplines of design – the makers, the engineers, the scientists – to get them behind this vision and let them run free and bring it to life.
Despite Flyknit technology being relatively new, athletes have wanted a sock-like fit for some time now. Prior to Flyknit, what are some examples from Nike’s past that led to the development of the technology?
It’s something we’ve been doing for decades, athletes have been asking for a sock-like fit in their performance shoes literally for decades; it’s not new. By applying the best technologies and the best materials of the time, we’ve been answering that call. Bill Bowerman in ’76 substituted nylon for the conventional leather – to strip away what the athlete didn’t need to try and make athletes better.
Bruce Kilgore in 1985 said ‘If they want a sock, let’s give them a sock.’ Only a minimal strap and a very minimal outsole were used to try and make athletes better. Again, pushing the limits of footwear innovation to accelerate athletes. The Nike Sock Racer accelerated an athlete to win the marathon in Boston; again an example of Nike looking for that sweet spot.
In 2000… As we start to learn more, we understand more of the needs of the athlete. They want a sock-like fit but it’s not a complete sock, there’s a zonal aspect to the need. The Nike Air Presto gave marathon runners the zonal breathability around the toe box, the stability and containment around the mid foot, and the structure and support around the heel counter. Again, a great example of insight, design and science creating that sweet spot for Nike.
In 2012, everything changed with Flyknit.
We now had the best materials and the best technologies, and these materials we could micro-engineer to a level that we could give static properties a dynamic function; that sweet spot got a whole lot bigger. The designers, the engineers and the scientists had every stitch as a detail, and every detail could be obsessed for every athlete in every sport.
I think all of these things that we can now do we’ve wanted to do for years, we just didn’t have the technology to do it. Now that we have the ability to stitch-by-stitch go into that obsessive, pixilated detail, it’s going to be a hard technology to beat.
How does the yarn differ from Flyknit to Flyknit?
If you look at the yarn and the texture of the yarn we used in the Nike Flyknit Racer, it’s obviously designed for breathability and movement. There’s no way we could use the same yarn on a football boot; there’s no way we could use the same yarn for Kobe. Also, with Kobe, he really challenged us with the durability aspect that we had to do different things with our yarns, we had to develop our yarns further, both from a breathability-movement standpoint but also from a durability standpoint; what you make durable on one side you have to have formfitting on the other.
When designing and/or innovating, identifying a problem or finding something that can be improved upon must be a crucial step in the process.
Otherwise we’re running around with a bunch of solutions looking for problems. Especially because we’ve got more makers than we have scientists; we need to make sure we get that balance right. If we start with the athlete and hear not just what they’re saying but listening to the stuff that’s unsaid, and watching for the things that are not obviously said, then we can work out ‘Ok, this is the problem today, but the way things are tracking, this is going to be a problem in the future.’ A lot of innovations we’re tracking against are ones that the athletes aren’t aware of; we’re solving problems that don’t exist yet.
One of the balances in my role in innovation is working out how do we solve for the problems of today, will that problem still exist in six years time, and what are some of the new problems that may exist that we haven’t imagined yet.
After speaking with Paul, it was clear that his mindset is focused on the future. After all, that is his sole purpose at Nike: solving problems that don’t exist yet. Our conversation led to an informal chat about the future, in general. With Nike recently announcing that it would shutter its wearable-hardware efforts, the sportswear company has decided that only software has a future in Nike’s technology vision. It’s turning away from hardware and realigning its focus exclusively on fitness and athletic software, a strategic shift that will undoubtedly benefit the company in the long run.
As Nike redirects its wearable efforts toward software, it’s avoiding the competition from a horde of new devices that will further crowd the market, namely the Apple “iWatch” and devices running Google’s recently unveiled Android Wear operating system.
The obvious question is then, how does the sportswear company’s increased software efforts affect the future of footwear innovation? It seems to me that it’s only a matter of time before a Flyknit-printer (for lack of a better term) is in each of our closets. We would then simply purchase the blueprints for the latest Nike silhouette, upload them onto whatever software the company has supplied, choose the color and type of threads we’d like to use, and then sit in the comfort of our homes while the latest and greatest footwear is produced right in front of our eyes.
The next question then becomes, how long until that becomes a reality? I asked Paul, “how long until we have a Flyknit-printer?” He smiled and said, “Some people say Nike will be a software company in 20 years.”