Science and Empathy

I just finished listening to a broadcast of a fascinating radio show about empathy, from a scientific viewpoint, that aired on January 16th on WUNC from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. You can listen to the show first, and then join our discussion here in this blog. Or read the high points here first, and then listen to the in-depth discussion.

Two neuroscientists from Duke University, Lasano Harris and Pate Skene, approach the biological foundation of empathy with a more precise definition of empathy than I use, in that they include not just the ability to put oneself into another’s shoes and understand both cognitively and emotionally what that person is experiencing, but that this results in the desire to help that person. Jesse Prinz, a professor of philosophy,  joins the discussion from his viewpoint of the history of morality.

Interestingly, and rather distressingly, they claim that in measuring a person’s brain activity to determine how much the mirror neurons fire, they found that people are much more empathetic toward people who are like themselves, or toward people to whom they are close. At first in the discussion, they seem to claim that people actually can’t feel empathy toward those who are “other”, which I found distressing, since that’s the whole point of the empathy symbol. But later they say that one’s group doesn’t necessarily have to be defined narrowly as one’s race or cultural group, so they’re not saying that I, as a white woman, cannot feel empathy for a black man. But they do make a very interesting point. To increase empathy, we need to find ways to increase our “group”. If my empathetic neurons are going to fire more for a white, middle-aged, middle-class woman than they are for a homeless Latino man, then I need to find ways to mentally and emotionally expand my group to a broader range of humanity.

On the other hand, if our “group” is all of humanity, then we are burdened with unsustainable empathy. They talk about how a person cannot continue functioning on a day-to-day basis if he or she becomes overwhelmed with empathy for all the suffering people of the world. Certainly this is a journalistic truism, that people will be more interested in stories that are closer to them, and that the further away the reader gets, the less concern the story generates. So a fire that puts a family out on the street is interesting, and generates an empathetic response from us, if it happens in our town. We really cannot care about every fire that happens to every family in the world. A tsunami on the other side of the world is certainly big enough to attract our attention and interest, but we probably need to see video of real people getting swept out to sea or of sobbing parents discovering the body of their child for our empathetic neurons to fire, and thus to cause us to get out our wallets and donate to the relief effort.

They talk about empathy for animals as well (certainly not a natural part of our group, but then many of us bond closely with our pets, and enjoy learning about animals in the wild.) They talk about how people who have higher levels of empathy need to shut that down so they don’t get overwhelmed, and they even mention “roadkill” as being too distressing for a highly empathetic person. I found that interesting personally, since every time I drive past a dead squirrel on the street or a dead raccoon on the side of the road, I imagine their spirits leaving their bodies, and I feel a bit sad. If I’m driving on a busy street, I also can’t drive past a car waiting on a side street to enter the road without checking my rear view mirror to see if they were able to get on the street. I feel concerned for them, and am compelled to check on them, even though it drives me crazy that I do that.

This was an fascinating discussion that broached on many aspects of empathy, including one that I discussed in a very early blog about empathy in autistic people. There is a common belief that autistic people cannot feel empathy or make that connection with other people’s experiences and feelings, but the father of an adopted severely autistic child, Ralph Savarese (an English professor), enters the discussion about half-way through and thoroughly disputes that. He also brings in the angle of feeling empathy for characters in literature, and talks about how his son (now a successful college student) was overcome with empathy for Huck Finn and other characters in Twain’s novel.

They even talk about empathy and the law, in that Pate Skene is now a law student. How do we get laws passed that protect the rights of minorities if we don’t feel empathy for them because they are not part of our group? This is a good question that is very relevant to the current debate about gay marriage. As more gay people are open about their sexuality, more people will know them as individuals with whom they work, or as neighbors or members of their religious group, and will thus be able to include them in their now-expanded “group”. It will be easier to empathize with their desire to be in a married relationship.

Lots of food for thought in this compelling broadcast. I invite you to listen to it, and add comments to the discussion in this blog.

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3 Responses

  1. Liv Lane says:

    Ahhhh, lots to think about. And I agree with the parent of the child with autism; our youngest is on the spectrum and I've never met a more deep-feeling, empathetic child.
    I thought of you this morning as I was uploading my own post on empathy: 🙂 Hope you are well!

  2. So much research on Empathy is taking place; I gathered some of the highlights from 2012 here, for anyone who is curious:

  3. Thanks so much, Hadassah, for posting this empathy year-in-review–it's a fantastic resource!

    And Liv, thanks for adding your personal perpective–am so glad to hear confirmation that autism does not have to mean a lack of empathy!