What is Empathy?

7 ufSomeone told me that the description of people with Asperger’s Syndrome as lacking empathy is a confusion between displays of empathy and feelings of empathy. That may be true, but that’s still not addressing the point I’m trying to figure out. What is it non-AS folks mean by “empathy.”

I can’t figure out if I have too much empathy or too little. For example, one day I was having a conversation. I was sitting down. The other woman was standing and holding a heavy object. I had to break off and ask her if she didn’t want to at least put the object down. Now, she was strong and healthy and didn’t have my back or fatigue problems. She was in no distress. But I don’t just try to put myself in other people’s shoes, I can’t keep myself from doing it even when I try. I couldn’t keep my mind on what she was trying to say to me because, the longer the conversation went on, the more I thought about how my back would be hurting if I were her.

I also recently interrupted a friend in the middle of an impassioned speech to ask “Can’t I get you a glass of water?” She looked at me like I was crazy. “Your throat is dry.” I explained. She drank half a glass of water in one gulp when she got it, so I’m sure I was right, but she obviously was so intense that she hadn’t felt any discomfort, even while I was so uncomfortable noticing her dry throat that I just couldn’t pay attention to what she was saying anymore and had to interrupt.

It used to drive me crazy one place I worked how I kept getting into conversations with coworkers as we were walking down the hall, and when we got to the intersection where I was going one way and they the other, we’d stand blocking the intersection. I’d keep trying to suggest we go somewhere else to talk, or talk later, or at least get out of the intersection, and they’d keep talking, oblivious to the other people squeezing their way to get past us. While I’d be in agony.

I listen to a lot of audiobooks and it really bothers me when the reader has a cold.  I want to tell them to go home and go to bed.  Of course, that’s silly.  Those recordings were made years ago, and they’re usually over their cold before they finish reading the book. It must not bother other people so much or they wouldn’t sell audiobooks with this flaw.

In each example, my interest was in relieving the discomfort I was feeling, not what the other person was actually feeling. So, that’s selfish, right? But I was, almost literally, putting myself in the other’s place, which is, I thought, the definition of empathy. Yet, that doesn’t really seem to be what people mean when they give concrete examples of empathy.

Or am I confusing empathy with sympathy? Sympathy, I think, is being able to say things like “I feel your pain” and “I feel so sorry for your loss” which, to someone too literal-minded like myself, are, well, lies, even though I know you’re supposed to say them. (I fear I surprised someone once when they said “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” and took it literally and I asked a favor.)  And they just sound so cliche, I don’t think I could force them out of my mouth.  Maybe I should take a page from the Dexter books and practice saying “There, there.”  Great.  I’m making a serial killer my role model.

Reading List for What’s Wrong with the World?

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman
The Hidden Brain : how our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, wage wars, and save our lives by Shankar Vedantam.
Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives by Dean Buonomano
The Psychopath Inside by James Fallon
The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill by David M. Buss
The World is Flat — A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas L. Friedman.
Exposed: The Secret Life of Jodi Arias by Jane Velez-Mitchell


Video lecture series: Neuroscience of Everyday Life — Professor Sam Wang, Ph.D.  — http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/neuroscience-of-everyday-life.html


Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork
Sirius (1944) by William Olaf Stapledon
Odd John (1936) by William Olaf Stapledon

What’s wrong with the world?

An old friend of mine posted a comment on FB about the recent school shooting, that got some interesting responses, including mine.  I thought this blog would be a better forum for my thoughts.

First, let’s try another little thought experiment. Write down all the famous murderers from the last 20 years that you can think of. Then do the same for scientists. How many of each did you come up with?


Anyone can get a gun and walk into a school and instantly achieve a level of fame normally achieved only by entertainers (I include sports figures and politicians in that category). What difference does it make if they die in the process? We’re all going to die.

But that’s just a piece of the puzzle.

Human brains evolved over millions of years to optimize survival in a non-technological world. Increasingly, we have to deal with aspects of technological development that our brains are just not made for and the rate of change keeps accelerating. Our brains are designed to cope with small communities of people we know where, when we get angry, we can’t do much more than punch somebody, and, whatever we do, only a score of people will ever know.

Lethal weapons, mass communication and transportation speed are just a few of the things our brains are not wired for. Mass shootings are just one of the most showy results.

Is Loyalty a Virtue?

This portrait was executed with a normal right shoulder line, which was altered later to give a slight tilt. — http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2726816/

My current “thing” is the Wars of the Roses, which illustrate a lot of interesting problems with the concept of loyalty. If you decide to support something — King, person, cause, country or whatever — and later decide that was a bad decision, how can it be a good thing to continue to act on the basis of that bad decision?

I can see why the King thinks your loyalty to him is a virtue. It’s certainly makes his life easier to know that his supporters will back him no matter what he does. I can see that it makes your own life easier if you can make a decision and then forget about it, to not have to constantly reevaluate.

The only case I can see when it might be the ethical thing to do is when resisting the temptation to change only because you want to be on the winning side, especially the temptation to try to make both sides think you’re loyal to them until one of them wins. And even then, I could argue that you have a higher duty to keep yourself, and others you’re responsible for, safe.

But what if the King has changed and is doing evil things? What if the situation has changed and the King you supported, through no fault of his own, is no longer the best person to meet the needs of the country? What if you have matured, and your greater knowledge makes you realize it was naive to make the decision you did? In all these cases, if you continue to be “loyal” after you realize continuing your support will do harm, how can that be a good thing?

The Morality Meter: An Ethical Thought Experiment

What if you could buy a Morality Meter?  I imagine something that looks like a wrist watch.  It would come in different models with many different settings and would monitor your actions (or thoughts, if your morality worries about “lusting in your heart” or some such) and give you a reading for your choice of time interval.  The “10 commandments” or “7 Deadly Sins” models would tell you how many you violated and how many times.  The “Harm None” model would give a reading on the harm you’ve done, the “Kant” (The greatest good for the greatest number) on the good you’ve done, and the “Karma” on both.morality meter

Of course, you could set your preferences to answer the questions about “Harm none of what?” and “Greatest  number of what?”  People?  All people are only some?  Animals?  All animals or only some?  One good dose of antibiotics could really mess up your score.  Although there are all those living happily in your gut.  But neither your thoughts or actions have much effect on them, while taking antibiotics is a conscious effort to kill things.

I’d want a weighting system.  I feel I have a much greater moral imperative to see to the welfare of my cats than I do to any other cats.  I think parents have a greater responsibility to keep their children from harm than other children.  And grandchildren.  Cousins?  Neighbors?  Those would all be in your preferences settings.

Anyone who’s wrestled with questions of vegetarianism has given thought to how they feel about eating different animals.  Most people are horrified by whole idea of cannibalism, and most Westerners would be almost as horrified by the thought of eating dogs and cats.  Increasingly people are weighing questions about if it’s morally equivalent to eat mammals and fish, fruits and vegetables, organically grown or not.  I feel guiltier when I eat pork than beef, duck than chicken.  Why?  Because I’ve cuddled pigs and ducks, but not cows or chickens.  That makes a difference to me.

If you could buy a Morality Meter, would you?  Do you think you’d be surprised by the readings?  What model and settings would you choose?  Would you modify your behavior to get better readings?  Or just change the settings?  What if there were a badge model, so everyone could see your readings?  Would you use it?  Would it become fashionable?  Would it change our society?  Would governments find some way to get money from it, making the phrase “Sin tax” literal?  I suppose there would be an authorized “Government” model (as well as models authorized by various religions).

Is this a purely theoretical thought experiment?  Is there a behaviour with many harmful consequences that governments have put up signs all over the place telling you their standards, and we have meters telling us how closely we’re following them?

Well, we have speedometers in our cars and posted speed limits.  (And, yes, the government has a way to make money out of people who “sin.”)

I like to ask people what they think the “right” speed is.  I don’t think anyone has every answered “the speed limit” which seems to me the most obvious answer.  “The speed of traffic” or “5 miles over the speed limit” are the most common answers.  One guy was very insistent that it was perfectly legal to go 5 miles above the speed limit.  Not just that cops didn’t stop you as long as you didn’t go faster, but that it was legal.

Admittedly, this fascinates me because my father when teaching me to drive told me the “Speed Limit” was just that — the upper limit — and you should only go at that fast when road conditions were perfect and you were passing someone.  The “right” speed most of the time, he told me, was 5 mph below that.  Slower at night or in the rain.  Of course, everyone passed us.  One of the two times I was ever stopped by a cop was for going too slow when my father was giving me a driving lesson.

I generally drive at the speed limit.  I go over it when there’s someone tailgating me.  There have been other times, when I’ve gotten behind someone going a lot slower, and I passed them, but the car in front of them isn’t going much faster, so I keep passing, and speeding up to do so.  I was in the grip of the competitiveness that’s probably the source of most driving behaviors.

There’s that joke “How can my checking account be overdrawn?  I still have checks left.”  I imagined getting pulled over and saying to the cop “How can I be speeding?  There are still cars in front of me.”  (Better yet, like the joke about Heisenberg, the cop would ask “Do you know fast you were going?” and I could answer “No, but I know where I am.”  Sorry, that’s one my favorite jokes, but I don’t dare tell it because I don’t know anyone I could be sure would get it.  But since I doubt anyone will be reading this, it doesn’t matter here. http://socratic.org/chemistry/the-quantum-mechanical-model-of-the-atom/heisenberg-uncertainty-principle)