Saturday, July 17, 2010

Worldwide Empathy?

This is awesome.
I just came across this neat pictorial representation of Jeremy Rifkin presenting The Empathic Civilization. Since I'm a visual thinker, I really appreciated the animations. It's the perfect intro for understanding the mirror neuron process.

As I mentioned previously, Empathy is a neurological process. It is not an abstract, or "psychological imagination" based concept. We are hardwired to be group animals that communicate emotionally. We have the capacity to intimately communicate with each other, as well as other beings. 

If you don't have access to this stream of information, social interactions can be very cognitively demanding. 

Many people are unclear as to the difference in meaning between Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion.

I'll start with Compassion. Compassion is more of an intellectual exercise, that leads to the path of understanding another's situation by realizing the steps that led to that situation. You can technically have compassion for anyone, or anything. It takes work. That's why there aren't a lot of compassionate people these days. Nobody believes they have the time to contemplate the life history of others.

I like this explanation from a psychologist that writes about "America's continuing Empathy Deficit disorder".
Empathy vs. Sympathy
To clarify, empathy is different from sympathy. Sympathy reflects understanding another person's situation - but viewed through your own lens. That is, it's based on your version of what the other person is dealing with. ("Yeah, I can sympathize with your problem with your elderly mother, because I have my own problems with mine ..."). A narcissist can be sympathetic in this way.
Such a self-centered focus is similar to what some people think love is when they're really enthralled with their own feeling of being "in love," rather than loving the reality of who their partner is, as I wrote about in a previous post.
In contrast, empathy is what you feel only when you can step outside of yourself and enter the internal world of the other person. There -- but without abandoning or losing your own perspective -- you can experience the other's emotions, conflicts, or aspirations from within the vantage point of that person's world. That's not telepathy. Research shows that it's a hard-wired capacity in all of us. And that kind of connection builds healthy, mutual relationships -- an essential part of mental health.
However, the mind cannot be of the kind that experiences empathy continuously and frequently. In order for the group to function as a whole and operate defensively, there needed to be a "shut-off" switch that turned the experience of empathy down, or removed the experience of empathy completely from consciousness. In order to kill, we needed to remove ourselves from the sensation of being killed. (Otherwise we would all be acting like Deanna Troi from Star Trek, and having dramatic freak outs.)

That "shut-off" switch, is Identification.

Human minds come pre-prepared to accept the differentiation between Self and Other. There are "cognitive containers" that grasp and hold onto what the Self is, and what is related to the self. You can find this in the self reference effect, and in many aspects of human behaviour, information related to the self is favoured in an irrational way. (For example, the digits of your SIN number can influence what you are willing to pay for things.)

Human brains are filled with information that "anchors" a sense of identity, even if we are unaware of it, because it is not something that is chosen with free will.

This is a very old system, since we have inherited the mental framework built ontop of eons of primate socialization. Chimpanzees also form strong concepts of identity. I once read that a larger group of Chimps split into two separate "tribes". After they had been separated for some time, they came into contact with each other again. Instead of greeting their old companions with friendly behaviour, they were very wary of each other. One chimpanzee however, wanted to socialize. The chimp reached out to an old friend, and touched their shoulder. The other chimp recoiled at the touched, appeared disgusted, and retreated. He then proceeded to take some leaves and vigorously scrub the area where the other chimpanzee had touched him, as if he was trying to "decontaminate" the cooties from the now estranged tribe. (But, they don't seem to be "racist" against this albino chimpanzee!)

The concept of Identity being such a strong force, seems nearly crazy, and unbelievable at first. One of the scientists who discovered mirror neurons in action even said: "It took us several years to believe what we were seeing."But with more and more research being done with mirror neurons, it seems Identity is actually a biological process, not an arbitrarily chosen personal philosophy. The mirror neurons "learn" from experience what we consider to be our Identity, and then they form a cognitive framework around that, determining when and with whom empathy can be experienced.

Mirror neurons not only influence our thoughts, they determine what thoughts we are able to have.

For example, there is a significant difference in mirror neuron activity when people view the motor actions of another race. 

This explains how Natzi's were able to have a normal and loving family life, and then go to work and sadistically murder small children. They had dehumanized Jewish people completely, to the state that they were not capable of having an emotional empathetic response during those callous and unbelievably demented acts. The "empathy switch" was working for their families, and children who they saw as German, but not for Jewish children. The murdering of children to them, would have felt as benign as dismantling a mannequin. Therefor, not many questioned these acts. They didn't "feel bad about it", so found these acts to be applicable to their moral framework. Hitler did not send out an "evil wave" and brainwash an entire country. What he did, through propaganda that influences the mind, was to systematically rewire the brains of the German people to feel nothing for Jewish people. Or, if anything, a searing hatred and disgust that justified their actions.

Genocide is the dark side of empathy. I am currently reading "The Lucifer Effect" by Philip Zimbardo, the guy who designed the Stanford Prison experiment, causing a bunch of college students to have mental breakdowns. I'll probably write more about the evil half of empathy later.

But what is the good news?

The Good news, is that Identity is very flexible, as the video explains. We can "trick" our minds into accepting the identity characteristics of citizen, family member, job position, music taste, into our Identity repertoire.

In theory then, it is possible that we can extend our concept of empathy to include the entire human race. But this must be done through culture, art, and experience. Simply saying "I am a citizen of the world, one of 6 billion other citizens of the world" does not create an identity framework for empathy. Humans are reactive, intuition and emotion based creatures. Words and facts, do not chance minds. Identity is centered in the landscape of the "right brain", a place where associations instead of logic, proliferate.

Narcissism, and being highly self absorbed, creates an Identity that is highly ego/self based. When one views the world as existing "around" and apart from the self (somewhat like how autistic people are forced to see the world), instead of having an identity that incorporates a surrounding community and network, the brain forms an Identity that is highly deficient in Empathy. Seeing as how our society is becoming ultra individualistic with the use of social networking websites, children being brought up today are being taught that they are a unique being and everything is being connected TO them, instead of WITH THEM. (The terrifying consequences of this could be an entire generation full of thoughtless narcissists.)

Personally, I was not sure if I experienced Empathy, or not. I am constantly glued into my own perspective- I can't even experience two emotions at once, let alone process the feelings of another person simultaneously. When I was about 12 and came across the concept of Empathy, I was confused, and scared because I didn't experience that. (Nobody had mentioned anything about mild autism at that point.) I was worried that other people would consider me a cold monster, even though in different ways I cared for other people and the rest of the world deeply.

Now I realize that I do in fact have Empathy, but it is locked away behind a door, and difficult to reach in the maze of my mind. I can find this in my consciousness while watching movies sometimes, but this process becomes extremely overwhelming and my own emotions "drown", because of my hyper-focused conscious experience. It's as if I start to disappear, and I am being "absorbed" by the experiences of the other person. If I am in this "room" it is not possible to speak, or interact properly with the other person, because I can not reach the place where language is. I get thrown into "The Pit"- the place where primitive emotions reside. In that place, I become disoriented and lose control of my consciousness. It doesn't matter what type of emotion it is, whether it is anxiety or sadness, or the intensity. When my consciousness is hyper-focused on The Pit, it is not a pleasant experience. So I imagine that I might have "blocked it off" behind a door, a long time ago, in order to have the ability to interact with the rest of the world properly. So for most of the time, I don't have this automatic social information that everyone takes for granted. I have to use a lot more of my cognitive energy to figure out what is going on.

For many autistic spectrum people, this is also their experience, going strongly against the ridiculous stereotype that "autistic people do not experience any emotions." The empathy is simply too overwhelming, and takes the center stage drowning out other multiple cognitive processes. So those processes are sectioned off, and blocked out. Here is an article that discusses that theory. Recent research suggests that there is a functioning mirror neuron system in Autistics, but the information is not being processed and handled by the brain properly. Other studies claim the mirror neurons are firing, but delayed, sending confusing information to the brain. One researcher describes it as: These children are really not unemotional, they do want to interact, it’s just difficult for them,” says Markram, “It’s quite sad because these are quite capable people but the world is just too intense, so they have to withdraw.”

Psychopaths/narcissists are the very opposite. Psychopaths can often be experts at figuring out the mental states of others, and have superior mimicking and social skills. Many are said to appear "charming". But this emotional information is not attached to their emotional experience. It is if they are watching other people behind a thick glass wall. They can understand very well the feelings of others, but they are never touched by them.

Psychopaths, science seems to be telling us, have unique brain abnormalities, and appear to be born rather than made. But most psychopaths do not become serial killers. (Many probably become lawyers, or politicians.) The psychopathic brain, PLUS childhood abuse, appears to be the recipe for serial-killing.

Narcissists however, are created. And consequently, they can in theory change and grow to experience Empathy, if they want to.

Autistic people on the other hand, are in a fog, struggling to see the people on the other side, off in the distance. Sometimes the fog breaks, and Empathy shines through. But most of the time it is obscured and distorted.

Besides the feeling of Empathy, mirror neurons have been implicated in many different cognitive processes, giving us a new picture of how the "scaffolding of the brain" is developed.

For more information on mirror neurons and Empathy, I suggest reading "Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect to Others" and "The Age of Empathy: Natures Lessons for a Kinder Society".


  1. Hi. I'm "another1" on wrongplanet. I've been enjoying reading your blog, but found the animation accompanying this one to be unwatchable - it jumps around too quickly, and I find myself unable to process either the animation or the narration. Unfortunately, even scrolling so the animation is out of sight didn't help - the narrator talks so fast, I find myself having a difficult time processing what he says. I realize you didn't produce it, so you can't change it, so I'm not quite sure why I'm bringing it to your attention. LOL. A bit dissapointed, I guess - the "Smile or Die" animation is SOOOOOOOOOOO good, and I'm willing to bet the info in this one is just as good. ohwell.

  2. Don't call D dramatic