Sunday, October 19, 2014

TED Talk on Empathy

From a reader:

I recently viewed this Ted Talk about empathy, and as a person who has never truly experienced it, the presentation was rather interesting. What I found especially fascinating was the role of mirror neurons in the empathetic process. Could it be that sociopaths cannot utilize (or do not possess) mirror neurons, thus making us physiologically incapable of empathizing with others? 

Another point mentioned was the tie between empathy, religion, and the development of society. Rifkin states that empaths are able to relate to those of their own religion and nationality. As an atheist (and someone who exhibits most of the "sociopathic characteristics" that are generally recognized in psychology), I personally cannot see why religion might create stronger empathetic bonds between people. As a Mormon, have you ever noticed yourself favoring those who share your religious beliefs, and perhaps even relating to them to a higher degree?

The speaker brought up the earthquake in Haiti, which was actually the event that caused me to question if I was a sociopath. While I saw others crying about the event on social media and even in public, I didn't have any sympathy for those who experienced the earthquake, and my callousness made me look like an outsider in a crowd of extremely emotional people. 

In the presentation, there is also a constant theme of civilization only being possible with empathy. If so, why are there so many sociopaths taking the highest positions in society almost seamlessly? Why are empaths so proud of their ability to have others influence them so greatly?

I'd love to know your thoughts on the matter. 

M.E.: I have never really felt myself feeling closer to other Mormons, maybe because I'm not enough like them to feel like one of them. In fact I remember vividly one instance in which I visited a Temple open house and was surrounded by thousands of little redheaded Mormon children and almost had a panic attack because I got it in my head that I would stick out more there than usual -- that I would be outed. I remember (also vividly) the first time that I felt patriotism, in my early 20s. Not surprisingly, it was while playing a Sousa march accompanied by 250 blaring other musicians. (I say not surprisingly because I often feel like I can get in touch with emotions via music that are otherwise not as available to me.)

The fetish that empaths have with empathy is one of the great mysteries to me. Only a few psychologists and other researchers question it's presumed dominance and importance in society, culture, and human interrelations. I have often pointed out, to those who might be interested, what I find to be the limitations and or quirks of empathy. A favorite recent examples is the story of the Norwegian child bride. I don't want to ruin the effect for anybody, who should experience it for themselves, but you can read about it here.

Still I think it's interesting what an uproar it created. And you think of how many times a similar situation happens elsewhere and how little we care. But that's empathy for you.

34 comments:

  1. what does anyone think society would look like without empathy?

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    1. do you think it would be harder to have your needs fulfilled

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    2. "you're a cop"

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    3. man, sorry. harping on other people's spelling and grammar is dick-head behavior... spell however the fuck you want, its all good.

      what do you mean by having your needs fulfilled in the comment above? do you mean that empaths fulfill a socio need that can't be fulfilled another way...like that socio's need empaths? i'll bite.

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    4. well I suppose it could be an exchange but a sociopath would probably want things to be more one sided, I think that would be harder if people didn't have a desire to help others on there own

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    5. From my experience, the "empathically challenged," when they manage to get together, like any other couple, work out a "contract." In that case, the "contract" is usually more openly negotiated since they don't have the emotional empathy to help navigate the relationship. Presumably, since the relationships are as stable as any other, they both (and they, in the case of my poly friends) get more out of the "deal" than they put into it.

      The trick is finding the right person -

      I suppose it's a testament to my "perspective," but I read the child bride story and mostly I shrugged and thought, "well, this will end in tears." I don't feel the need to "viral" the video along. The end was a bit of an eye-rolling twist though.

      Happy Monday!

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    6. I snort laughed when I saw the guy with his child bride :P....my reactions that I normally get admonished for, and try not to display around most others...yawn, boring

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  2. First, another great post; I really enjoy this blog and your book.
    As an empath, I do feel a need to stick up for emapthy, at least in as much as I feel it's too simplistic to analogize how an empath sees their empathy as though it were a fetish, or as this attribute we (or I) by possessing, make us better equipped in relating to others and at defining, advocating for and maintaining a larger moral fiber that is fundamental to social order and structure. Perhaps it's a skepticism against such broad strokes in either direction that seems inadequate somehow; I'm of the view that where the limitations of emapthy begin the advantage of not possessing empathy becomes a necessity.

    neither empathy or a lack thereof seem sustainable in isolation, and the utility of one over the other, that a metric capable of defining and measuring such tenuous and contextually fluid could even be posited seems preposterous. As such, and what I think you as a non-empath do often and with an impressive precision, addressing and discussing the shortcomings and potentially socially devastating problems that arise in the empaths blind spot (e.g. as implicit in your note of the 12-year old bride story, emapths are blinded by the moral crusade, it's perhaps our most terrifying and pervasive flaw and that you point this out - mobs alarm you) makes for a compelling critique and even more compelling socially collaborative treatise (and perhaps at some point, we may in turn find a way to do for you).

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    1. shoot, again typed quickly and forgot to edit before posting. empathy quirk? :)

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    2. Hi Fan,

      I found this comment very astute in a way I'm unable to articulate at present.

      "neither empathy or a lack thereof seem sustainable in isolation, and the utility of one over the other, that a metric capable of defining and measuring such tenuous and contextually fluid could even be posited seems preposterous."

      I think evolution supports this assertion, because both empath and socio have survived side by side for so long. However, I'm unsure how this arrangement could possibly benefit the less predatory people of the population in day to day operations. For example, today's corporations, mostly run by socios, are undeniably destroying essential ecosystems on which we all depend. They can't seem to help themselves, because "winning" (profits) trumps the welfare of other living beings. Socios like M.E. have apparently found a way to minimize their impulse to game and hurt other people. But is that true of most socios?

      June Harvey

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    3. Society without empathy would be a nightmare. How else do socios expect to manipulate the empaths if they arent able to use the weakness of experienced consistant mass emotion? It is the source of the socio power and the gift of their ability to lead in that they are devoid of empathy in an empathetic world. In a world full of sociopaths, and no empaths I would be quite distyrbed indeed. The empath woukd appear to have mind reading capabilities to those de oid of mirror neurons. The lone empath in a world of socios would be like a god.

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  4. I couldn't get over the fact that the guy in the talk kept insisting that all humans are wired for empathy. Basically, that thought overrode anything else the guy said.

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  5. Only the Paranoid SurviveOctober 20, 2014 at 6:51 AM

    I don't think that empathy is necessary for "society" because many social species (ants, bees, etc.) don't have it. On the other hand, it seems that all primate societies possess empathy. This suggests that empathy was essential for the maintenance of our specific type of society, and humans would not have survived for hundreds of thousands of years without it.


    However, our lifestyles and family structures have changed dramatically in the last years and empathy is becoming a disadvantage, which explains why the world is currently controlled by psychopaths.

    I believe that empathy will cease to exist in the distant future.

    It's already happening:

    Young people today, compared to college students in the late 1970's are "40% lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago."
    Source:http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201006/is-the-me-generation-less-empathetic

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    1. Hi HB, I always enjoy your posts.

      "This suggests that empathy was essential for the maintenance of our specific type of society, and humans would not have survived for hundreds of thousands of years without it."

      There is ample proof of this: it takes cooperation to hunt in a group and if you cannot trust your partners in carnage not to throw you under the mastodon's tusks, you are aren't going to participate. Socios, I assume, would always consider that other members of the group are more disposable in a tight pinch. That's not true of people who really care more for others than themselves. And that's probably why 'empaths' have survived; they serve Darwinian purposes, so to speak, because they are willing to die for others.

      If empathy ceases to exist, I believe so will we. A society of socios would, I think, find themselves fighting for top position. Unless, of course, they could control their impulses to always win, always dominate. But I imagine that other socios would never allow another socio to conquer and win. Maybe I'm wrong, but the competitive side to be top dog does seem pretty strong in socios.

      Young people today. I can relate. I've never met so many young folk who don't want to pay taxes for public education, because they don't want to have kids. When I asked them, So, it's OK with you to live in society of dummies, without the capacity for critical thinking, perhaps even the skills to perform adequately on the job, like you know, construction of bridges, and so on, they tell me they believe that the Powers That Be would never allow that to happen. Like I said, critical thinking . . . .

      June Harvey

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    2. Yikes. I meant to address you, Only the Paranoid Survive.

      June

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  6. Wow. So I posted a comment above without having watched the TED Talk mentioned - I know, lazy - but I did just get a few minutes to check it out and am genuinely confused, even bothered. I only have a sec but wanted to quickly list the 4 major ways in which I find it problematic to see if anyone else experienced the same take-away:

    1. Ripkin's underlying assumption that all humans possess empathy, at least to some degree, in that no mention or factoring-in of non-empathetic populations are considered with regards to society and the psychological make-up of society.

    2. Ripkin's correlation between humans' evolving capacity to exercise empathy, the "extending of empathy," with the evolution of socially civilized societies, or more progressive and unified social functioning. why? because point no:

    3. Ripkin's characterization of the empathetic mechanism as, and only as a benevolent and socially advantageous exercise.

    4. That if Ripkin is on TED Talks, is this quack sociology common? ug.

    thanks!

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  7. I didn't watch the talk. There's much more to a person than whether they experience empathy or not. There's a capacity for guilt, responsibility, duty, happiness or bitterness, self-awareness ... that gets to for instance the point that HLHaller made, whether or not such a person can state their own needs, take seriously the needs of the other and abide by a contract. That is just one example of how a person functions in relationship to others. There's also the capacity to introspect and take responsibility for the outcomes in one's life. So many other parts of this too.

    Taking empathy out of the context of the rest of the person is at least an oversimplification.

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  8. It does seem like there is an empathy fetish from certain quarters. It seems like at least once or twice a week I read an article or blog that talks about the importance of empathy within the context of whatever they are talking about.

    I had actually been in Haiti not long before that earthquake. It didn't make me feel any sort of empathy towards the people there. Likewise for the earthquake/tsunami in Japan, or the tsunami in Indonesia, or anywhere else there is mass suffering.

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    1. Hi HB,

      Yeah - it does seem that "empathy" is the buzz word of the day.

      What I'm considering these days is the difference between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. I don't have much of the former and gobs of the latter. Since people with a lot of emotional empathy seem to be compelled to act on it, I can see where they might feel uncomfortable with someone who isn't compelled by those same drives.

      And I'm not sure I buy that the young folks are any more self absorbed than any other generation. That is as old as civilization. The ancient Greeks complained about how "kids these days..." They do have better toys now days though -

      But, yeah, being as I'm not long on emotional empathy, it's tough to see what "they" are all excited about.

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    2. "What I'm considering these days is the difference between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy."

      That's interesting. And I think I understand the difference between the two very, very well, because I can do both, but only if, after the initial rush of both kinds of empathy, I first detach at least somewhat from the emotional empathy. Because the emotional empathy of plugging into the fear, anger, isolation, etc., really is hard to digest; most people are not at all happy. They feel unloved, misunderstood and utterly alone.

      But when I do detach emotionally, I can then know exactly what someone is feeling -- not what they're thinking but feeling. And if the words they speak don't line up with the vibe I'm getting, I go with the feeling, because it has almost never let me down in terms of knowing what's really going on inside that person, versus what they are telling me.

      As for what "they" get excited about: The lack of empathy today in business, law, politics, education, on and on, is killing the biosphere and if it's not stopped soon even socios, the ultimate survivors, will find their kingdom a very paltry, dead and boring world. Not to mention the bad food, air, water and so on, they will be forced to endure.

      June

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    3. All this endless talk of empathy... To me, empathy I only valid and valuable in an individual when it applies to the people that are close to you. Having no emotional empathy for people that you don't know does not make you a sociopath, if it is what is being discussed here.

      If you can willingly hurt somebody that is close to you without hurting yourself, then you lack basic emotional empathy, and you are most likely quite far up the sociopath ladder.

      To me, feeling and acting on empathy outside of your close circle is a luxury. If I was rich enough or had enough time to help tsunami victims, sure I would. I would actually love to be able to afford it - I think. But putting food on the table and a roof over myself and my loved one comes first.

      And don't cry for me. I am far from being on the streets. However, I am lucid about what my priorities are.

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    4. Hello O&W,

      I can relate.

      But I still have to ask: Is caring about the bees who pollinate our crops, the microbes that create fertile soil to grow the crops, a luxury? What will happen to us all if we don't care about these beings who exist outside our intimate circle, as Other and are therefore not worth our consideration?

      June Harvey

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    5. Hi June,

      I'm not sure emotional empathy is necessarily the answer to the problems with the biosphere. I think some broader, longer term thinking is needed - and sociopaths aren't the best at that. However, even with my limited emotional palette, I am concerned about global warming and pollution, and wars and all that - and we are working to educate our kids along the same line of thought.

      So, I'm back to: besides the additional information it provides, what's so great about empathy?

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    6. Hi June, i was talking about emotional empathy in my earlier comment. Caring about the diminishing population of pollinating bees and whatever else afflicts the future of the planet and the human race belong to cognitive empathy, in my mind.
      Marketing campaigns to feed the kids in Africa and provide relief to victims (of war,natural disasters, etc.) try to appeal to your emotional empathy. The pictures of a cute and famished kid, or pictures of destroyed areas do not don't exactly work with me, other than on a cognitive level. I know saying this makes me appear heartless though nowhere near the top of the sociopathic scale. But that is what I mean about expanding your emotional empathy outside if people close to you being a luxury. If I had nothing else to worry about, I could probably feel emotional empathy for people not directly connected to me.

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    7. Hello HL, Good to know you're teaching your kids about the environment, etc. Actually warmed my heart. ;-) Knowing that someone with a 'limited palette' cares about earth's life support systems.

      The 'additional information' empathy provides is precisely what makes it so fantastic (under the right circumstances). Affinity with other beings, to feel yourself merging with the physical forces of nature and with animals is broad, deep and inclusive, on every level: cognitive, emotional, spiritual and physical -- it is as sensual an experience as orgasm if the cues are positive ones, just different g-spots in the brain and body. Empaths make the best lovers . . . we know what you want before you do.

      What it provides to the imagination of fiction writers, painters and poets is priceless -- it's what makes all great art great. If you're a healer, well, they don't call it the healing touch for nothing. Really. Studies show that the most vital thing that most doctors supply to their patients is listening with full attention and with sympathy. Actually touching your patient with care in your heart makes a difference, too. Unlike the medical text robots, med pad in hand, that one sees so often today.

      But, I will admit, that given the shitty state of the world, empathy can be a real drag. There are times I think about heading back to the bush, where I only have to interact with grizzlies. Way easier than people.

      I understand socios find that the emotional side of empathy manifests itself as extremely judgmental. But just like socios, not all empaths are created equal. If they are really compassionate, they will work through that ugliness. The judgmental side of empathy can also lead to self-judging, when the empath realizes they are not being at all compassionate when they condemn socios so harshly. For being born without the same capacity for feeling. Then they are horrified, filled with self-loathing at their Satanic side for demonizing a being they consider isolated in ways they imagine painful and limiting. Working with low functioning socios has cured me of that obnoxious cycle and all kinds of other self-righteousness that the empathetic sensitivity to suffering and beauty engenders. Unfortunately for some people, it's also made me a lot more detached, able say No, You're full of it. Walk away without a shred of guilt.

      June

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    8. Hi O&W,

      Marketing campaigns that use imploring images to help the down and out are enough to exhaust anyone's sympathy. One reason I dislike them so much is because I know they are trying to manipulate me, and ironically that often crushes my compassion. You're certainly not alone in the feeling the way you do.

      Far as emotional versus cognitive empathy goes, I think it's pretty hard to remove the feeling aspect and still retain the cognitive. They are linked and feed into each other, like an interconnected feedback loop. Which is not to say that I can't separate the judging-emotions of the person who I see inflicting the pain, from the feelings of the person that's suffering. It does take practice, though, because the anger at seeing someone inflicting pain on another creature combined with the in-flooding sensations of the victim's pain is pretty intense. Like any animal, when the empath feels pain, in this case the pain of another person or animal, their first instinct is to lash out. So the young bride story, yeah, I can see how that would generate a lot of rage; she's a child about to be raped. Even though, as someone pointed out, this sort of thing goes on every day in countries around the world. I guess the rage pours out when the images are shoved in your face; then, because we don't live in India and don't see it every day, the concern retreats. Everyone is busy, after all and we live in a modern circus filled with electronic chaos, traffic, noise, crowds, etc. Lots of distractions around to keep the third world horror far away from consciousness.

      June

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  9. "Having no emotional empathy for people that you don't know does not make you a sociopath, if it is what is being discussed here. "

    When some tragedy happens and everyone goes nuts trying to raise money, what motivates that if not some form of empathy?

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    1. HB, empathy developed in humans who lived in small groups where the survival of the individual depended tightly on the wellbeing of those around them. It is a face to face reaction. That's why the stunt in Norway was effective, putting a human adorable face on what otherwise is a glum statistic that most dont pay attention to otherwise.

      I don't feel empathy when I give in response to some charity. I feel some sympathy and the duty to help those in need and the good feeling one gets by being able to make a small contribution. It isn't empathy for me without a person to relate to.

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  10. "Could it be that sociopaths cannot utilize (or do not possess) mirror neurons, thus making us physiologically incapable of empathizing with others? "

    " In a study published in March 2005 Iacoboni and his colleagues reported that mirror neurons could discern if another person who was picking up a cup of tea planned to drink from it or clear it from the table"

    I don't think your hypothesis makes sense because sociopaths are often very good at reading body language and discerning others' intentions. And have a strong tendency to react negatively to others' negative emotions... for example, from stories I've read, including your own, when sociopaths encounter someone who is a little rude, dismissive, or angry toward them, the sociopath will get insanely angry and decide to physically attack or even murder the other person. This is mirror neurons hard at work.

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    1. Furthermore, it is autistic people who have a hard time reading others' body language and intentions... autism is now thought by some to be caused by an intense firing of mirror neurons, which actually results in excessive amounts of empathy or perhaps we should call it sympathy. But my understanding is that mirror neurons are what help us form memories and why some autistic people are savants. So there is much more to mirror neurons than just empathy.

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    2. I might be confusing this with some other type of neurons.... doing research now

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  11. Cruella deVille (not really)December 1, 2014 at 12:12 AM

    "The fetish that empaths have with empathy is one of the great mysteries to me."

    Seriously? You hate empathy so much that you've relegated it to a fetish? Isn't half the point of your blog to request empathy from "empaths" for sociopaths? If this is your attitude about empathy, you'll never begin to comprehend it.

    I'm considering recommending a book here that I think would really help you understand what empathy is about, but I am very hesitant because I'm afraid of sociopaths using it to twist everything around in order to merely appear empathetic (which we all know they do already).

    Let me see if I can summarize this for you in a few words... an explanation to your "great mystery." While I'm not sure that all humans are capable of FEELING empathy, I do not think that empathy is merely a feeling. It is part feeling, and it is much more than that. Empathy is, more importantly, a basic human need. A *universal* human need/desire, and regardless of whether you are capable of feeling empathy, you are certainly capable of desiring it. What does it mean to desire empathy? You desire to be listened to, understood, respected, accepted, and have your needs (including empathy once again) cared for .... and a genuine effort made to meet these needs by others. Tell me you don't desire this, and I will tell you you're lying. It comes back to empathy FULL CIRCLE because empathy is the social means by which we communicate and work together to meet the needs of all interconnected parties, while simultaneously being a universal human need in and of itself. That's how fucking important empathy is.

    Oh, the irony of you writing a blog complaining about how empaths don't accept you, only to turn right back around and be like "these empaths, they're just empathy fetishists... incomprehensible!"

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