“Gaia’s Heartbeat: practicing empathy for the Mother of us all” by Brandon Sanders

This essay was first published at the SolSeed blog.

According to James Lovelock’s popular Gaia hypothesis, all life on Earth, in combination with the geochemical cycles it interacts with, can be treated as a single living organism called Gaia. Humanity has an obligation to care for Gaia, but it is hard to empathize with Gaia because her rhythms are so much slower than ours that we can’t directly perceive them. Our core brain doesn’t care for those it does not empathize with. To powerfully motivate our core brain to care for Gaia, we’ve created a music video to help us empathize with her. The music video speeds up Gaia’s rhythms to match the rhythms of our hearts beating and our bodies breathing, so that our core brain can perceive Gaia as an immediate living being. We hope that regularly watching the video will increase our motivation to take care of Gaia.


The cells in my body don’t know who I am and they don’t care about me. And yet, by each cell doing its own little thing in its own little context, this miraculous thing called me emerges! Just like our body is composed of cells with many different forms and functions, so too there is a body of all life, composed of living organisms of many different species, of which we are a part. The body of all Earthly life has many names. Gaia is the most common and popular of these names.

One of our obligations as a species is to help Gaia flourish. Our role in Gaia is not one of special rights and privileges, but rather one of great purpose and responsibility. Evolving humanity was expensive. It took eons for Gaia to develop the biosphere and to deposit vast stores of fossil fuels. In the millennia of our infancy, we have caused the extinction of myriad other species and consumed Gaia’s densest reserves of concentrated energy. It will take a lot of doing to become worthy of our price, and it is past time to get started.

It is hard to fully embrace the needs of Gaia because it is usually only the rational parts of our brains that perceive those needs. These newly evolved outer layers of our brain have little power to shape our behavior when our rational interests conflict with the subconscious desires of our core brain, which evolved much earlier. The core brain is far more powerful in shaping our behavior, and empathy is the key to recruiting our core brain to take on responsibility for Gaia’s needs.

Empathy is the innate mechanism through which we understand and value the needs of others. When we see another human being or even a nonhuman animal in distress, we feel the distress ourselves. Our response is not an intellectual derivation created by the new rational parts of our brain. Our response is a visceral emotion arising from our core brain that evolved long, long ago.

The closer we are to the other, the more empathy for them we feel. This holds true for many types of closeness: genetic relatedness, romantic involvement, friendship, or even physical proximity. We feel more empathy for someone who is right next to us than we do for someone we glimpse from several hundred yards away. We also feel closer and show more empathy to those we spend the most time with. By extension, we feel more empathy for others who remind us of those we spend the most time with.

Unfortunately for Gaia, she is so large and her rhythms so slow it is hard for us to identify with her. When we can shrink her down to a size we can identify with, amazing things happen. The first image of the whole earth taken by Apollo 8 from space did much to shrink Gaia down to a scale we could identify with. This famous “Earthrise” photo was even selected by the editors of Time magazine for the central image on the cover of their book “100 Photographs That Changed the World,” because of the impact it had in giving rise to the modern environmental movement.

1024px-NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-EarthriseWe made a music video called Gaia’s Heartbeat to speed up Gaia’s rhythms to a rate that would cause our core brain to implicitly recognize a living being. Our goal with the video was to create the immediate, visceral recognition of “living being” we get when we see the rising and falling of the side of a horse as it breathes.

Will watching this video actually lead us to act as better caretakers of Gaia? We think it’s a strong hypothesis and we hope it’s true, but it needs to be tested so we can learn more about how best to motivate ourselves to meet our responsibilities as part of Gaia’s body. We need your help to study this important question! Contact us if you’re interested in joining the experiment.

The Author


Brandon CS Sanders is a contributing member of the SolSeed Movement.  His interests include cosmic and earth centered spirituality, fruits of religious practice, humanity’s obligations to the earth, and fostering nurturing community.


15 Comments on ““Gaia’s Heartbeat: practicing empathy for the Mother of us all” by Brandon Sanders

    • I prefer to refer to the non-symbolic parts of cognition as the “core” rather than the “subconscious” in order to better align our terminology with reality. The core brain regions tend to be closer to the spinal cord and are physically in the “core” of the brain. What’s more, they are the more powerful, more “in-charge” parts of our brain.

      There are many results in social psychology demonstrating that core cognition determines most of what we do(1). In fact, the symbolic reasoning parts of our brain that we tend to think of as operating the rest of our brain are often in the role of confabulator. In this role the clever reasoning parts of our brain provide a running commentary of why we are doing the things we are doing. This steady stream of post-hoc explanations perpetuates the illusion that our symbolic brain is operating the rest of us rather than serving as apologist and occasional planning assistant for the non-verbal modules that are actually in charge.

      I did a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence at the University of Rochester. During that time I encountered a large split within the AI community. There are those referred to as the GOFAI … the Good Old Fashioned AI practitioners who focus on reproducing symbolic reasoning without first reproducing the physically embodied parts of cognition. In contrast, there is a second camp who believe that the non-conscious parts of cognition are actually the hard parts. According to the second “embodied” group of AI researchers, Chess and other symbolic problems are trivial when compared with, for example, locomotion and recognizing objects.

      I fall into the second camp, and even go further in believing that any sort of valuable symbolic reasoning is actually grounded in direct non-symbolic perceptions. I love science and all of the wonderful endowments of humanity that our symbolic reasoning have given rise to. That said, the word subconscious seems to imply subservience and inferiority. It implies that the symbolic reasoning is the powerful part when I believe the opposite to be true.

      So I think “core brain” is a better symbol (evocative of truer perceptions) than subconscious is. I also prefer core to base for similar reasons.


      1 – Reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behavior, but emotion (a major part of the elephant) does most of the work.

      Haidt, Jonathan (2006-12-26). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (p. 13). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

      • Interesting. You’ll get no argument from me about which part of the mind is the stronger part. I’ve mostly seen “UNconscious” rather than “sub-” is psychological literature today, perhaps in part for the reason you point out.

        FYI “core cognition” is already a term in psychology, referring to domains of intuitive ontology that are basic to virtually all other forms of object processing, such as intuitive physics (a.k.a. folk physics), intuitive psychology (a.k.a. folk psychology, theory of mind), intuitive biology, intuitive numeracy, etc. These realms of core cognition are also called core domains. They are basically nature’s first-draft rule sets for how we deal with objects we encounter. They are revisable through learning though never erased, and tend to resurface when mental resources are taxed.

        • Ahh terminology. Thanks for the heads-up RE “core cognition”. I guess I need to take more care in coining terms lest my unconsidered appropriation of existing terms create confusion galore 😉 A quick search turns up the “central core” of the brain being used to refer to the medula, pons, reticular formation, thalamus, and cerebellum. Since I was including the limbic system my use of “core brain” is just confusing/wrong … sigh. I so liked the term the way I was using it!


  1. Core brain is an incorrect term to use for what I’m talking about (thanks BT for help here). I’m still not a huge fan of “unconscious” because it is the negative of conscious rather than being a thing of its own. Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider (our conscious mind) on an elephant (our unconscious mind). I like the metaphor a lot and use it frequently. That said, I wish there was also a non-metaphorical term for the elephant part that gives it proper respect. Any ideas?

    • As you know, Haidt uses the term “Adaptive Unconscious”. Many Jungian’s use “Creative Unconscious”. It doesn’t solve the problem of how an Un-Something can be a Thing, but the adjectives do give the term a positive connotation, I think. (Tidbit: Jung’s concept of the Unconscious was influenced by Jacob Boehme and other’s German mystics’ concept of the Ungrund, the Groundlessness or Abyss, which is the negative aspect of God.)

  2. Hmm, adaptive and creative are both nice!

    Daniel Kahneman calls the two systems the “automatic system” and the “effortful system”. He doesn’t explicitly call them “fast brain” and “slow brain”, but the title of his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” embodies that distinction.

    I think I might try on “fast brain” for a while. What think ye of that label?


    Kahneman, Daniel (2011-10-25). Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 14). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

    • Funny how the comments have taken off on an incidental terminology tangent 🙂

      Jon Haidt just replied to an email query with: “implicit, automatic, intuitive, pattern-matching?”

      I still like “fast” because it is short and tastes positive to my own “fast brain”, but I like “intuitive brain” almost as well.

      • You’re in contact with Haidt? Woah-ho, nice! I’ve read both Haidt and Kahnemann. System 1 and System 2 are the latter’s official designations from Thinking Fast and Slow, but I doubt that conjures the flavor you’re looking for. 😦

    • I’d say I’m a Haidt fan-boy more than anything. I’ve emailed him a few times and he’s always graciously responded.

      Kahnemann says he uses System 1 and System 2 rather than the longer ‘automatic system’ and ‘effortful system’ in order to use less of the reader’s working memory. It feels to me like the ‘system’ is a throwaway word and we really have to store/work with just the 1 & 2. I can see why they don’t take much symbolic memory. From that standpoint it might be hard to do better than system 1 and system 2 except that they have no mnemonic utility.

      So among the words with mnemonic value, I think maybe ‘quick’ is better than ‘fast’ because it is more of an onomatopoeia, at least when I pronounce them both. Quick is about as short as can be while faaaaast kind of drags out.

  3. Hey, out of all these comments we forgot to say “Great video!”!.

    so I will. Great video!

    Hope to cross paths with you more in the future. Helping us all see that we are like cells in the larger body of life is crucial to building a better world, and it is art (like this video), not just logic, that is needed to get us there.

    Together in the Great Work – Jon Cleland Host

  4. So Brandon, what’s up with the title for this post? I thought you told me that Gaia isn’t our “mother” at all, that it’s better to view ourselves as cells in her body, as stated in the Gaia’s Heartbeat video.

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