Love thy twin as thyself

I can’t stop thinking about Tatiana and Krista Hogan. They are the adorable four year-old twin girls who were featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine the week before last. For those of you who didn’t see this magazine cover – here it is:

Right. So now you understand why they are on the front cover. These girls are one of a handful of living craniopagus conjoined twins (craniopagus means joined at the head).  The article about these girls is absolutely fascinating as it explores these girls’ particular condition in which their separate brains have a physical link between them. This link is referred to by some doctors as a thalamic bridge, because it is believed that it links the thalamus of each girls brain. As Susan Dominus, the article’s author, explains it:

The thalamus is a kind of switchboard, a two-lobed organ that filters most sensory input and has long been thought to be essential in the neural loops that create consciousness. Because the thalamus functions as a relay station, the girls’ doctors believe it is entirely possible that the sensory input that one girl receives could somehow cross that bridge into the brain of the other. One girl drinks, another girl feels it.

Much of the article gives concrete examples (either directly observed or retold by family members) of how this shared consciousness works. For example:

Krista likes ketchup, and Tatiana does not, something the family discovered when Tatiana tried to scrape the condiment off her own tongue, even when she was not eating it.

Wow.  You can also watch this video, which shows how one girl can ‘see’ what the other twin is looking at, even with her eyes covered.  The article also discusses how the girls can literally feel each other’s pain:

…an early video shows one girl being pricked for a blood test as the other starts to cry, her face a perfect mirror image of her sister’s. A pacifier in one mouth seemed to soothe both crying babies.

And it is this last aspect of their shared consciousness that I would like to focus on in this post.  Even though the girls can feel each other’s pain, they still do what any normal siblings do: occasionally beat the crap out of each other:

On the rare occasions when the girls do fight, it’s painful to watch: they reach their fingers into each other’s mouths and eyes, scratching, slapping, hands simultaneously flying to their own cheeks to soothe the pain.

We are taught – either through religious or secular moral guidance – that cultivating our sense of empathy and compassion is the key to bringing about a world free of violence. Karen Armstrong’s latest book is entirely dedicated to this subject, and her “Charter for Compassion” states:

Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

On a more personal level, as parents we are constantly enjoining our children to ‘think about how others feel’, or to ‘put yourself in another’s shoes’ – lessons that we hope will prevent our children from causing physical or emotional harm to others. Yet in the case of the Hogan girls – who know exactly how the other feels – they still sometimes cause each other harm.  What does this tell us about human nature and what it would really take to bring peace on earth?

It seems to me that the most basic conclusion we can reach is that empathy alone is insufficient to prevent violent acts. Just feeling the pain you are causing is not enough to prevent violence. What else might be required?

Well, if we think about the Hogan twins age, it’s not that hard to find the answer to this question. These girls are only four, and given their unique condition, they are developmentally closer to the age of three. As a mother of three young children, I am well aware that young children lack at least two other relevant cognitive capabilities: understanding consequences and self-discipline.

Understanding Consequences

Although my children are now 9, 7 and 7, it still never ceases to amaze me how often they act without thinking about the consequences of their actions.  Several times a day I find myself saying things that I shouldn’t have to say, such as:  “If you decide to have a toilet paper fight in the bath, it will dissolve into a disgusting mess” or “If you decide to pour paint on the floor and then step in it, you will track paint all down the stairs and cause your parents to have a conniption fit”. I am quite sure that there is something similar at work with Krista and Tatiana: they get angry at each other and hit, not thinking about the resultant pain each will feel from her own blows.  Which brings me to the second point:


Even when young children understand the consequences of their actions, they frequently are unable to control themselves sufficiently to avoid acting in a way that will generate a undesireable consequence.  For example, sometimes my twin sons still get so angry at each other that they clock each other, even though they know they should use words, and even though they know they will get in trouble.

Actually, if you think about it, most adults aren’t so great at self-discipline or understanding consequences either. Sometimes I just have to stay up late and watch an entire True Blood episode, even though I know I will be tired and cranky the next day.  Sometimes financial institutions allow too many people to get sub-prime adjustable-rate mortgages, without considering the consequences.

So what lessons can we learn from this analysis? I’m sure there are many, but the one that strikes me the most is that the path of peace requires both the heart (our ability to feel and engage with another human’s pain) and the mind (the logical skill to accurately evaluate potential consequences and act appropriately).  This is an important lesson given that I frequently find that in faith communities there is a certain degree of antipathy towards ‘mind’ and ‘reason’ – a sense that true spirituality is an affair purely of the heart.  Yet, it seems that the truth is actually closer to what Henri Nouwen describes as the ‘prayer of heart in mind’ in his book Reaching Out:

If prayer were just an intelligent exercise of our mind, we would soon become stranded in fruitless and trivial inner debates with God. If, on the other hand, prayer would involve only our heart, we might soon think that good prayers consist in good feelings. But the prayer of the heart in the most profound sense unites mind and heart in the intimacy of the divine love.

Or, as Jesus put it:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.

So, with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength and all my mind, I am grateful for the blessing of Krista and Tatiana Hogan’s remarkable lives, with all that they can teach us.

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1 Response to Love thy twin as thyself

  1. Pingback: Reflections on my Williams College 20th Reunion | Seeing Faith

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