Empathy: from social neuroscience to the Kokinshu

I’ve recently been spending quite a bit of time deliberating empathy.  Yes, empathy, feeling the same emotions as another person or setting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

All these popular ideas about the unbridgeable relationship between the subject and the object has made me feel a little alienated.  (I guess that’s normal, I guess.)  A story about Rousseau watching his “Maman” put a piece of food in her mouth and realizing he would never know how it must taste comes to mind, and that just sends shivers up my back telling me there’s something a little off.

The Kantian philosopher Cassirer says we don’t understand the world on its own terms.  Instead, to understand objective things, we have to understand it in relation to other things.  We need an interpretive structure, a scaffold that explains the relations of all the objects to each other.

This scaffold is an interpretive lens through which we see the world.  The lens adds a layer of unreal things we cannot push aside, because we can’t understand the world without them.  For example, we cannot see the formula for gravity written on Newton’s apple, but without the idea of gravity we cannot understand that the apple always falls to the ground.

In effect, the interpretive lens is like seeing ghosts every moment we look at the world around us.  The things we recognize and our relationship to those things are all ghosts.  (One question I should talk about sometime may be: what’s the difference between the scientific ghosts we see today and the ghosts and spirits our ancestors talked about? But that’s worth a whole different post.)

Kant says that since we cannot prove the objective world exists, we must have faith in its existence to be able to understand it.  I imagine that without Kant’s faith, we would go crazy, but I also think that empathy has a large deal to do with our sanity.  Thanks to empathy, we can reinforce subjective interpretations by sharing them with other people.  For all I know, you might even be able to feel empathy for something inanimate like art or a natural scene, but there the term begins to lose its firm footing.

Exactly this idea about Empathy is something I got from another Ted talk by Daniel Goleman, a psychologist who works on theories of compassion.  He gave me the hint to look at research done in social neuroscience, a new field of study that uses MRI technology to scientifically study social and emotional responses.

So, I found an article (published in 2006, so a little old for a science article) summarizing work on empathy in social neuroscience by Decety and Jackson.  They summarized inquiry on empathy like this:

There is strong evidence that, in the domain of emotion processing and empathic understanding, people use the same neural circuits for themselves and for others.  These circuits provide a functional bridge between first-person and third-person information, which paves the way for intersubjective transactions between self and others.  These circuits can also be activated when one adopts the perspective of the other.  (Decety and Jackson, 2006)

First off, I think it’s funny how they use the word “circuits” to explain phenomena in the brain.  It’s like our brains are complex computers.  I won’t go into my ideas about that now, saying instead that this sounds similar to emotional bonds, which often serve as the goal in art.  Art perpetually attempts to build or reinforce that bridge between the “first-person and third-person” in creative ways.

This is all a little similar to the introduction to the Kokinshu completed in the 10th century.  Ki no Tsurayuki wrote it like this:

Japanese poetry (in contrast to Chinese poetry) makes the human heart its seed and ten thousand words its leaves.  The people in this world have many matters on their minds, and everyone tries to express these matters, making them visible or audible.  If you hear a bush warbler among the flowers or the voice of frogs living in the water, you’ll see that all living things write poetry.  That which can move heaven and earth without using force, move the hearts of invisible demons and gods, soften relations between men and women, and make friendly the hearts of fierce warriors, is poetry.  (my translation)

Here, Ki no Tsurayuki said that the whole world can be understood through poetry.  Poetry can be the necessary interpretive lens I just wrote about, but more than that, he said that poetry can cause empathy in all beings in this world.  Poetry can be a diplomatic device fostering understanding and peace.

Going back to the scientific research, the studies Decety and Jackson cite used narratives and photographs to evoke empathy in the test takers.  Narratives and photographs are a form of art, so I wonder what level of abstraction in art still produces an empathetic response?  Also, are empathetic responses different for people of different cultural backgrounds?  In other words, does familiarity with the context of a narrative or image aid the creation of empathy?

I don’t think I need science to know the answers.  Certainly, people familiar with abstract art or with art from another culture gain more from it than someone without that familiarity.  The strength of the emotive response has a lot to do with how well you can recreate the same conditions in your own imagination.

The scientific study brings out one more point of interest:

However, were this bridging between self and other absolute, experiencing another’s distress state as one’s own experience could lead to empathic overarousal, in which the focus would then become one’s own feelings of stress rather than the other’s need.  Self-agency and emotion-regulatory mechanisms thus play a crucial role in maintaining a boundary between self and other. (Decety and Jackson, 2006)

Here (and more clearly elsewhere in the article) we see empathy is the result of imagining the situation of the other.  It is also necessary to know one’s emotional limits.  Someone who gives and gives a great deal of emotional support to other people ends up feeling lonely and depressed themselves.  The challenge, therefore is to promote positive empathy.  Therefore, it seems to me that empathy has to be fostered.  It requires a level of guidance and familiarity, and if you understand empathy as the foundation of morality, then the necessity for fostering empathy is self-evident.

The Decety and Jackson article can be downloaded here as a pdf.