Abstract: Empathy is the drive to identify another person's thoughts and feelings and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion. Empathy comes by degrees, with individual differences evident in the traditional bell curve. We now know quite a lot about which parts of the brain are used when we empathize and how empathy develops in children. We also know that early experience affects empathy, but so does biology: hormones in the womb, and specific genes. There are several ways in which one can lose one's empathy, clearly seen in psychiatric conditions such as the personality disorders, including the psychopath. We discuss how people with autism and psychopaths show opposite empathy profiles. Finally, the discovery that there may be 'genes for empathy' implies that empathy may be the result of our evolution.
Baron-Cohen, S, (2011) Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty. Penguin/Basic Books. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Zero-Degrees-Empathy-Simon-Baron-Cohen/dp/0141017961
Baron-Cohen, S (2003) The Essential Difference: men, women, and the extreme male brain. Penguin/Basic Books
Baron-Cohen, S (2009) Autism and Asperger Syndrome: The Facts. Oxford University Press.
Simon Baron-Cohen and Sally Wheelwright The Empathy Quotient: An Investigation of Adults with Asperger Syndrome or High Functioning Autism, and Normal Sex Differences. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 34, No. 2, April 2004 http://gamut.neiu.edu/~lruecker/baron-cohen.pdf
Thank you for this talk! I was wondering if you think that a very highly empathic person should be empathic in almost all situations? It's very interesting how people can turn off their empathy for certain people, in certain situations. Would that kind of selective empathy be absent in an highly empathic person? Thank you also for the specification on the adaptive function of empathy. There is not a lot of information in articles about the fact that having average empathy may be the optimal level for adaptation!ReplyDelete
It's a very interesting comment you're posting! It'd be worth making a study on highly empathic people, it'd really be going against the current of those studies involving psychopaths, people with low-level empathy, and people with a disorder on the autistic continuum.ReplyDelete
I'd like to call to question the data correlating to pre-natal testosterone levels and empathic score at 8 years of age. I would expect these issues are addressed in the publication, but can't get access on the UQAM wifi. Any comments to address the actual data would be appreciated.ReplyDelete
At first glance, it looked as if the trend (high testosterone/low empathy) was largely driven by three male data points quite far from the cluster of data, showing very high testosterone and low empathy scores. When looking at the data set without these three points, it appears as though the data cluster in a rather ambiguous relationship, skewing slightly as a negative regression. Further, these were data from women and men grouped together. It is well known that testosterone levels are higher in men and it was well parsed out in the talk that empathic score is higher in women than men. Thus, it is unclear whether the testosterone/empathy correlation is merely a confound, rather than supporting the study's conclusion: "While empathy may be influenced by post-natal experience, these results suggest that pre-natal biology also plays an important role, mediated by androgen effects in the brain."
PERCEIVING VS CARINGReplyDelete
Autists have trouble perceiving what you are thinking, but do sociopaths really have trouble perceiving what emotions you are feeling? Don't they perceive it, very well, but don't care if it hurts (if hurting you gets them something they want), in fact, don't some kinds of sociopaths get pleasure from your hurt, and from hurting you?
So I don't see the autism/sociopathy symmetry. One is a problem in perception. The other is not. (Empathy is not something you perceive -- unless you are trying to discern whether someone else feels empathy. Empathy is something you yourself feel. So is sadistic pleasure.)
I also think there are two ways to determine what someone else thinks or knows: By pure deduction, and by perception. If by perception, then you perceive what the other feels, including what it feels like to think or know X.
My guess is that autists have problems with both: with perceiving what others think/know (which also feels like something) and with perceiving what emotions others feel. Unlike sociopaths, though, it is not true that they get pleasure from someone else's pain. So, when told someone is hurt, even though they didn't perceive it, autists empathize, once informed.
I'm also reluctant to the autism/sociopathy symmetry. I think that psychopaths really understand (the thinking) and feel what the other is feeling. I just don't think that they possess the additional feeling, or the nuances, that should accompany the evaluation of the feeling that someone else has. I guess that most of the time, we evaluate the feeling that other people have through placing ourselves into that situation, thus feeling what the others feel and yielding empathy. Maybe that evaluation is less acute in psychopaths, that they only know what the other feel, they know the feel, but without the empathy that should emerge from such an evaluation.Delete
Psychopaths are intelligent, intelligently manipulative, and this requires a capacity of understanding the emotional thoughts and the emotional feelings that one ressents.
I don't understand why you talk about «symmetry». Baron-Cohen have explained that autism VS psychopathy are quite different in terms of empathy. Indeed, the psychopath has a normal cognitive empathy but the emotional component is altered. So, although they are able to perceive/be aware of/have recognition of mental states, they do not respond adequatly to the latter. So yes, they perceive our emotions. It's really more a dissociation vs a symmetry in my opinion, since it's the contrary for autism. By the way, the definitions of the two empathy components are well explained in «Autism: The empathizing-Systemizing (ES) Theory», by Baron-Cohen (2009).Delete
It seems to me that, while autistics may have issues with recognizing emotions in others (but can experience it normally), it is the inverse for psychopaths. Perhaps the mirror neuron system is involved?Delete
My understanding from the talk was that the double dissociation between people with autism and sociopaths was in regards to cognitive vs. affective. Sociopaths don't have trouble perceiving the emotions of others (cognitive empathy), they have trouble with "feeling" the emotions of others (affective empathy). Vice versa for people with autism. Can we think of affective empathy as the perception of your own emotions? Also, I don't remember it being said that sociopaths get pleasure from the pain of others - that might be true sometimes, but is it necessary for a sociopath to be a sociopath?Delete
I don't know if we can think of affective empathy as the perception of your own emotions, although clearly related. I remember Dr. Baron-Cohen defining affective empathy as the drive to respond appropriately to another person's thoughts feelings. I think the important part of the definition is the responding part. This is the part sociopaths are lacking, although able to identify another person’s thoughts and feelings, often even to the point of being able to intelligently manipulate them.Delete
Mr. Harnad, you are right, sociopaths do perceive and comprehend very well what you are feeling. The problem is that they don't seem to be able to feel what you are feeling. Yes they feel sadistic pleasure when they hurt you, this isn’t empathy. Empathy is understanding and feeling what the other person is feeling, not taking pleasure of what you feel they are feeling. That is why we say that they have cognitive empathy (theory of mind) and not affective empathy, because they understand very well what they can do to make you suffer and manipulate you, but they don’t seem to be able to feel what other people feel.Delete
I said earlier that we can turn off our empathy for people we dislike, other ethnicity, etc. Again, when we take pleasure in the suffering of other people because we hate them, I think we are turning off our empathy; we are not putting ourselves in their shoes. Empathy leads to more prosocial behaviors, it doesn’t mean that you will act in a way or another, but I really don’t think it can bring cruelty.
WHY (SOME) PEOPLE CAREDelete
When my cat is in pain, I don't feel her pain. (I wish I did: I would be able to help her more.) I perceive that she is in pain, and I feel sorry for her (and try to help her). Yes, I know what it feels like to feel pain, but it does not feel the same way as feeling sorry for someone who is in pain.
The sociopath, too, perceives if someone else is in pain. And the sociopath too knows what it feels like to feel pain. He just doesn't care; he is not sorry, perhaps he even enjoys it. The mirror neurons are intact, just otherwise deployed.
I think it's a mistake to treat sociopathy or sadism as a perceptual deficit. A predator has no perceptual deficit in killing and eating its prey either. It is not turning off its empathy. It just cares about eating and not about what the prey is feeling.
I also think that caring about what others feel is partly learned. Perhaps sociopaths have a deficit in learning such lessons? Or other drives are simply stronger in them?
Since we observed a double dissociation between empathy in psychopaths and autistics, a question that comes to my mind is: it is possible to «teach» either component of empathy ? For example, knowing that autistics have more difficulty with cognitive empathy but they have strong systematization capacities, would it be possible to «systematize» the analysis of facial expressions (e.g., if the eyes are like X, than Y) ? Will this be enough or would be missing the need for an emotional memory associated with a facial expression ? Maybe that might only help them to «perceive» but not «feel» ... but then like Dr Baron-Cohen said, when they know, they feel.ReplyDelete
Claudia Polevoy - UQAM
I am not sure it would be possible to teach the cognitive component. Recognizing emotions often involve much more than looking at a person's eyes. It involves, among other things, paying attention to their tone of voice, their communicative intentions, the movement of their body, and any conjunction of these factors. It might be possible to teach them some basic heuristics but nothing like full-fledged mind-reading abilities. The theory would just be way, way too involved.Delete
Seems like there is a DVD to help children recognize emotions. Maybe it's a little artificial and mechanical but still...Delete
Oh, I didn't make myself clear: I only meant to attack the idea that we can acquire full-fledged mind-reading abilities by learning explicit conditional rules. It is quite possible there are other ways to improve mind-reading abilities.Delete
Whether or not an attempt to teach these abilities/feelings is possible partially depends on whether or not the hardware is in place to support these abilities. Given that the abilities were not acquired naturally as they are in most people is evidence that there is a hardware (biology) problem.Delete
That was exactly the question I intended to ask Dr. Baron Cohen before we ran out of time.Delete
The above comments directly or indirectly touch upon child development. I think the question Claudia poses is also very interesting for adult learning. Can adults be taught empathy? This is an important question not just in terms of developing socially adaptive behaviors, but also for training professionals in fields where higher levels of empathy might be required. I am specifically thinking of the health profession. There is some evidence that empathy can indeed be taught. I direct you to the following article: http://www.springerlink.com/content/hx764v7802pw4817/?MUD=MP
To bring this (more or less) back to the main topic of this institute, I find it interesting that the results of the study are partly evaluated in terms of "ability to decode facial expressions". I would stay clear (this goes to Alexandre) from using expressions like "mind-reading", since all we are doing is inferring a mental state by "decoding" behavioral expressions. One obviously only needs to display empathetic behavior to be labelled by others as "empathetic". "Feeling", again, serves no obvious function, and I am inclined to think that all we can teach and evaluate are cognitive dimensions of empathy. Just a thought, more thinking required...comments welcome.
It seems to me it is not at all that autists have trouble perceiving thoughts and psychopaths have trouble perceiving emotions. Autists have trouble perceiving both. Psychopaths have no trouble perceiving both. They just don't care (about causing negative emotions). So only "empathy" is only at issue with psychopaths. (There's no "double dissociation").Delete
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Are empathy and language automatically related to one another? I'm thinking about two deaf-mute people who would probably understand perfectly that the other is sad, without the language being the support of this interpretation.Delete
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Evolutionarily, is it possible that empathy is a precursor for altruism?ReplyDelete
I think so. It would otherwise be weird that altruism might have been present before and at the same time as empathy. I always think that altruism is determined because we obtain something from it. We help someone around us because he is part of our group, and he might help us in return. I identify someone who is sad and help him out because the presence of a saddened person in the group would interfere with the group's functionality, etc.Delete
Actually if I would be tempted to say that empathy might be the precursor of altruism, some evidence tend to show that it isn't the case. Empathy is an ability that need certain neural devices to be produced and arrived late in evolution. However only a few sprecies have the ability of empathy whereas almost all living species display a certain level of altruism (even ants display altruistic behavior and they surely don't have empathic abilities). Although some people argue that even mammals such as rodents may have empathy, I stay quite skeptical about that. Empathy is thought to be driven by the so-called mirror neurons. However, the mirror capacity of these neurons seems to be found only in a limited number of species. But I don't know a lot about neural circuity of empathy so I don't want to mislead you. You should check the litterature on empathy and mirror neurons for more details.Delete
S. Baron-Cohen presented several slides about the structural (anatomical) abnormalities found in the brain of those participants who participated to a simulated empathy task. Apart from the basic biases coming up from the tasks, I was wondering if those regions activated (limbic system, vmPFC, OFC), and that are thus considered less functioning or being impaired or reduced in size or reduced in their activation or whatever, would rather be the consequences of those genetic traits that would've altered during development the normal functioning of specific proteins.ReplyDelete
We put forward the impact of GABAergic receptors that could have a very much significant role in altering the neurodevelopmental process. How this relates to environmental impact, without any genetic prediposition, on the development of non-empathic behaviours, I don't know though.
Thank you for your talk. I have few questions for you, Dr. Baron-Cohen.ReplyDelete
1)Can you explain more precisely in the case of autism, the relation between the three types of consciousness (of the physical world, of the mental states (of self) and of others) that you described? It is possible to say that all are interdependenty related? And how?
2) About empathy in very young children, who are later diagnosized as autistic: Often, some parents did'nt observed anything wrong, because in the two first years of their life are social children, they have the smile, they try to speak, they have joint attention, and one day, all of this developemental signs dissapear. Can we say that this pre-level of empathy development is stopped because autism is manifested? They have these abilities or not? It is a very problematic question because often the parents seem to think that their child was a normal child and one day, he became autistic. We know that sometimes, in video recording, we observed that these children manifested some autistic signs. But the question is important.
3)About the relation between cognitive and affective empathy:
I agree with you that is very different for autistic people and psychopaths, but I want to understand more about the affective empathy in autistic people? Can we say exactly that the affective empathy is intact, beacause they have really many difficulties with the expression of the emotions and also with the understanding. Emotions are they related only to cognitive empathy? or they are also and actually very strong related to affection? I'm remember some examples when one autistic child respond by laughing as reaction to his mother crying, because for him the tears look as something emazing. It is because that he did'nt have only cognitive empathy or is a little more complicated? Actually, is very difficult to separ these fields. But I agree with Dr. Cohen that these children have some affectivity that sometimes is very well manifested.
Thank you very much for your answers.
Camelia Dascalu (Paris 3 University)
I really enjoyed Simon's talk who brought the idea that empathy has social bases and the fact that he differenciated consciousness in terms of "what we are conscious of". Because I think that beyond the Hard problem of consciousness, we have, at some point or another, to address the evidence that consciousness has different levels, and that found in humans is another level that cannot be ignored just because of the Hard problem. Separting consciousness of the physical world and consciousness of our mental states is quite essential in my opinion even if some still argue that there is only one kind of consciousness.ReplyDelete
Simon talked a lot about social bases of empathy and how social factors can influence the level of empathy we display. He also added that although empathy is highly inluenced by social factors, some biological factors play a role in the control of empathic behaviors.ReplyDelete
However, as it has been pointed out by someone in the discussion session, Simon missed a really important process in the machinery of empathy (this mechanism is actually crucial in any kind of behavior), mainly epigenetic processes. For those who are not really familiar with epigenetics, epigenetics is the mechanism by which environmental factors, including social factors, can modify gene expression without modifying the DNA sequence.
In fact, studies on epigenetics and behavior tend to demonstrate that the variability found in (human) behavior (e.g. variability in the level of empathy an individual is able to display) might only be the result of a variability in the environment rather than in variations at the genetic level. Epigenetics, actually explain why individuals who receive inapropriate care in their childhood (e.g. abuse, parental neglect, etc...) develop later mental disorders such as depression, personality disorders and so forth. These effects on the behvior has been shown to be directly socially triggered by epigenetic modifications leading to modification to the so-called "biological factors" that Simon mentioned. It is however true that psychopathies have biological correlates but these biological correlates are correlates of social factors. Of course, sometimes, for some rare mental disorders, the cause is entirely genetic, but I'm talking here about quite common mental disorder such as depression and personality disorders. Looking for psychopathic genes (as Simon presented) cannot be successful as it is likely that the main factors leading to the development of a mental disorder relies mostly (if not only) on social factors.
I also wanted to mentioned that we have to be really careful when using adoption sutdies (or any kind of genetically informed studies such as family studies or twin studies) to infer the genetic component involved in behaviroal phenotypes. Epigenetics being quite recent, their effects has often been omited in the results of such studies. In fact epigenetic processes start accuring on the individual well before its birth and those epigenetic effects can easily be allocated to genetic factors. Actually, epigenetic factors can explain why two individuals living in the same family (and thus in quite similar environment) tend to display similar behaviors.
That being said, epigenetic is the evidence that the hypothesis of a social theory of empathy is highly plausible.
COMMENTS COPIED AND PASTED FROM THE CORRESPONDING POST ON FACEBOOK :Delete
FREDERIC SIMARD :
"Even though his talk focused on the genetic precursor to empathy, Dr. Baron-Cohen did presented evidence that environment had a strong and additive influence, on top of genetic, over behavior. I do not think he intended to overlook all the facets of empathy, but rather that he intentionally focused on the genetic aspect of it, in order to fit his talk in the 50 mins format. However, I agree with your post and find it very insightful."
PAULINE CLAUDE :
"I know, he probably didn't want to present all the facets of empathy. But if he presented genetics variations as being a factor of empathy, which seems to not be quite accurate according to the results of epigenetic studies. It's probably because he misses completely the epigentic factor in its overall vew of empathy. When you look at epigenetic studies, it seems quite striking that variation in behavior is only the result of variation in the environment (especially the social environment). Epigenetic effects are quite tricky because with genetically informed studies such as adoption sudies (which he presented in his talk) they can be confused with genetic factors (which is actually the problem of most of these kinds of studies, because they generally don't take into acount these epignetics misleading effects)."
FREDERIC SIMARD :Delete
"I don't know about epigenetic studies, but if you are right (which I don't doubt of), you mark a strong point... Maybe indeed, the effect is not additive (A or B or A+B), but conjunctive (A and B)... And I do believe that environmental effect should exist through epigenetic... Good point!"
Dear Dr. Baron-Cohen,ReplyDelete
I wondered about the case of the autistic woman that designed better enclosures for cattle (her story was made into a movie with Claire Danes) based on her ability to understand the cow's perspective. Dr. Baron-Cohen painted a pretty simplified view on autism but I am curious how she would have the ability to empathize with animals if she could not do so with fellow humans?
I also am interested to know, given that the genes identified to play a role in empathy and they appear to be able to affect almost all neural circuits because they are involved in pretty basic functions like GABA transmission, what makes the 'empathy' circuits more vulnearable to disruptions?
Did you just look at qualitative aspects of empathy or did you also try, in your experiments, to quantify them?ReplyDelete
Dr Baron Cohen has developed scales of empathy that can be filled (and has been validated) by various populations. I encourage you to look at the research done with it, most of it is really interesting and the items (even if some are questionable in my view) are a good operationalization of empathy.Delete
In Dr. Baron-Cohen's talk he described patients with Autism having low cognitive empathy and high affective empathy. From what I know of autism, there are many different levels or degrees of severity, ranging from a milder form, Asperger, to more severe symptoms in the autism spectrum. Are there any variations in the level of cognitive empathy with patients who have less sever symptoms of autism? And are there any changes in the scores for cognitive empathy over time with patients who receive social skills therapy?ReplyDelete
CONSCIOUSNESS IS NOT ABOUT SOCIAL BEHAVIOR: The idea that consciousness evolved to allow organisms to be social is a total simplification. I have a much stronger preference for Damasio's general idea that consciousness conferred organisms somehow an advantage in seeking homeostasis overall. In that framework, social behavior is only one of millions of things that organisms need to do to maintain homeostasis.ReplyDelete
NOT ABOUT HOMEOSTASIS EITHERDelete
A million things do to maintain homeostasis -- but no hint of why any of them is felt...
Xavier Dery @XavierDeryReplyDelete
Baron-Cohen: great experiment, but not sure there's such a direct link between recognizing facial expressions and feeling empathy #TuringC
9:31 AM - 7 Jul 12 via Twicca Twitter app
Xavier Dery @XavierDeryReplyDelete
Baron-Cohen: Trying to find the optimal strategy for survival? Aim for the average! Well, for your level of empathy, that is. lol #TuringC
9:44 AM - 7 Jul 12 via Twicca Twitter app