What we talk about when we talk about empathy

What we talk about when we talk about empathy

In Context Exhibition What we talk about when we talk about empathy Paul D Stewart/Science Photo Library Published Online February 15, 2013 http://...

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In Context

Exhibition What we talk about when we talk about empathy

Paul D Stewart/Science Photo Library

Published Online February 15, 2013 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ S1474-4422(13)70020-6

For more on The Brain and The Mind talks see http://www. thebrainandthemind.co.uk/ index.html


Lisa Appignanesi and Lara Feigel, members of the Centre for Humanities and Health at King’s College London (London, UK), have a grand ambition. Over a series of six free talks, they will bring together neuroscientists, artists, and psychoanalysts to discuss how they view The Brain and The Mind, with the aim of developing a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. I attended the third of these talks—titled The Workings of Empathy—chaired by Feigel, with psychoanalyst Darian Leader, actress Fiona Shaw, and neuroscientist Chris Frith on the panel. Each speaker gave a 5 minute overview of their position, before Feigel chaired a discussion between the panelists and invited questions from the audience. This structure worked well, keeping the discussion concise and lively. Feigel opened the evening by providing some definitions of empathy, including that from the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. Shaw discussed the importance of the empathy that an audience feels for a character; the best plays make us feel the emotions of the characters as if we were living out the plotline ourselves. She also described an occasion on which her brain was scanned by MRI while she read an extract from TS Elliot’s poem The Waste Lands. When reading this passage, Shaw always calls to mind watching her mother getting ready for an evening out, and in particular a gesture her mother made when preening her hair. The scans showed that when Shaw read this extract, not only did the neurons in the part of the brain that controls language light up, but so did those that control the arms, even though Shaw was still at the time. She took this finding to show how strongly she related to her mother. This was a phenomenon expanded on by Frith (Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychology at the Wellcome Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London, London, UK) who described the discovery of mirror neurons, which are neurons that fire both when an animal is doing a particular action, and also when the animal sees another doing the same action. He then outlined a series of experiments that he argues have elucidated our understanding of the mechanisms of empathy. For example, in one study, pairs of friends were taken into a room with an MRI scanner; one friend was put into the scanner, while the other sat outside. Both friends were given electric shocks, but the person in the scanner could see a screen that showed whether they or their friend would receive the next shock. The results of the study showed that the individuals in the scanner had the same pain response in their brains whether they or their friend received the shock. Frith went on to interpret how such an empathetic response might have evolved—if the purpose of pain is to

teach us to avoid harm, then we will benefit from feeling the pain of others. Similarly, Frith described the unconscious responses that are induced when we feel fear, such as a widening of the eyes to increase the field of vision. When people are shown pictures of someone expressing fear, the viewer likewise has these physical responses, a process Frith terms “emotional contagion”. Although these insights were undoubtedly interesting and provided a possible rationale for the evolution of empathy, whether the reactions that Frith described were truly expressions of empathy—ie, of one person sharing the emotions of another—or whether they were merely biological instincts, was a matter of some debate in the audience. Leader (Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research, London, UK) offered a very different perspective. He described a school of thought within psychoanalysis that argues that it is impossible for one person to know what is going on in the mind of another without talking to them for a long time, and actively avoiding transferring your own feelings to them. Leader believes that empathy is a response to emotional distress. Not knowing how someone else feels about us is a terrifying state to exist in, because we do not know if the other wishes us good or harm, and thus we comfort ourselves that they are probably feeling the same way that we do. During the discussion, Leader and Frith were very much at odds, with Leader stating that it is foolish to think that you can know about emotion by monitoring only what happens in someone’s brain and not talking to them about their experience, but Frith maintained that emotional contagion is a fundamental human process. This disagreement seemed to arise because Frith and Leader started with very different definitions of empathy. According to Frith, when I see someone in pain, I feel connected to them as a fellow person, and I share some of their emotion, which might then help me survive if I adjust my behaviour accordingly. However, according to Leader, when I see someone in pain, I am afraid of how they will react, so to ressassure myself, I disregard the other’s true feelings and assume that they will be feeling the same as I would if I was in pain. It was somewhat ironic that during a discussion about empathy, two of the speakers seemed quite unable to see the other’s point of view, but this tension certainly kept the debate interesting. If the remaining talks about gender (Feb 26) and memory (March 28), follow a similar vein, the audiences will certainly leave feeling that their understanding of the mind has been challenged, but perhaps with more questions than answers.

Frances Whinder www.thelancet.com/neurology Vol 12 April 2013