Some thoughts on empathy

I’ve written about empathy in Look Me in the Eye, and I’ve discussed it at my appearances. Tonight, in response to a reader’s letter, I present a question on empathy for all of you:

In my book, I suggest that humans are pack animals, and as such, our empathy is primarily directed at other pack members – our family, close friends, or co-workers. With billions of people in the world, people dying every minute, and horrible news everywhere. . . how could we truly have empathy for a larger circle?

I even suggest that we might feel relief when someone dies, if they are not part of our pack. Why? Because we know that death is inevitable, and it’s a relief it struck outside our pack, and not within.

In comparison, if death or serious injury occurs within our pack, we are overcome with sadness, grief, and a sense of loss.

It’s obvious that (for example) a mother must concentrate most emotional energy on her kids, if she is to be a successful parent. In light of that, my suggestion that we care mostly for our “pack mates” seems sensible.

I’ve even questioned the true feelings of some people who exhibit exaggerated shows of emotion upon hearing of some faraway disaster. While it’s not possible for me to know those people’s feelings with certainty, it’s clear that they would be on a constant emotional roller coaster if they truly experienced news of faraway disaster in the same way they experienced, say, the death of a grandparent of “pack mate.”

Yesterday, I received a letter from a reader. She said, “I’ve always been very sensitive to the suffering of others. Not to sound like a saint, but since becoming a parent I’ve had a hard time discussing news stories that involve children dying in a fire or other fluke accidents. My first realization as a young adult that wars still rage in many countries and that worldly powers-that-be can do nothing to fully protect innocent people from being tortured in horrid ways devastated me. I can’t stand to watch violent anything; I buckled over in pain when the Twin Towers fell; I still cry my eyes out over what to many are typical news stories.”

The above is from an unsolicited letter, written (to the best of my knowledge) honestly and in good faith. What does it mean in light of the ideas I expressed?

I don’t cry my eyes out over news stories. When I reflect upon that, I can’t see how I (or anyone else) could get through the day if I reacted that way, because similar bad news is everywhere. I’ve thought a lot about empathy, and I think my response represents a human evolutionary strategy. . . limiting the grief we experience and concentrating our caring and empathy on those we have the greatest stake in protecting.

Comparing my feelings to hers, I thought back to the day the Twin Towers were attacked. I remember a vague but strong unease, worry about war, worry about my brother in New York (a pack mate.) The word I keep coming back to is “worry.” The news of that disaster made me worry, and it made me scared. Is my brother OK? How would it affect me? How would it affect our country? How would it affect the families?

To me, that seems honest and fundamentally different from what I felt when my father died. On that day, I remember crushing grief, sadness, the realization that he would never again encourage me, or talk to me, or listen to me, or indeed do anything at all. He was gone. I missed him terribly, and I was sad.

I was not worried at all, nor was I scared.

Those are very different responses to death, one outside my pack, the other within. Indifferent as I may seem to news of faraway disaster, I have an immediate and visceral reaction to bad news about my pack; my family or friends.

I suggested in my book that the feelings expressed in the letter I received today come from a different place in our brain than the feelings we’d have for an immediate family member. As such, I called that “learned” or “social” empathy. I think humans evolved that response to encourage socialization over larger areas. I suggested there must be several types of “empathy.”

I think “social empathy” evolved as the human population spread, in order to encourage different groups to connect with one another. I think it’s a different feeling, and it serves a different purpose in society. Social empathy bonds us as fellow humans via a different set of feelings, as I noted.

I also suggested that some people are hypocrites, because I’ve seen people put on great shows of emotion and then, a few moments later, joke or make light of the whole thing. Such a flip flop is consistent with play acting, not genuine feeling. Why do some people do that? To get attention? I don’t know.

I’m sure many of you have observed the same things at various points in life.

So this is tonight’s question: Do you think there is more than one kind of empathy, and if so, what and why?

* * *

On a lighter note, it was Turkey Day at work. I used to get turkeys for everyone at Robison Service, but people started grumbling. They wanted variety. Variation in Thanksgiving fare. I decided to give them what they wanted. Within reason.

When Bobby (our resident Gentleman and half-outlaw biker) came back from the store, this is what he passed out in response to the staff's requests:

1 Turkey, fresh
2 Bottles, Johnnie Walker Black
12 Cases, Sam Adams beer
2 Cases, Corona beer
Some sausages, 1.5 inch diameter

And one bottle of wine.

As you can see, turkey is fast fading from the scene when it comes to Turkey Day fare.

What did you get for Thanksgiving? What did you give?


Go Democrats said…
For Thanksgiving, I got the opportunity to read your entire book, which my mother took out from the library. Asperger syndrome sure is the literary flavor of the month these days, as parents buy the books to get some insight into their kids--if I had been a KISS roadie rather than a professor I might have hopped on your bandwagon.

I did like your book overall, although I thought your writing style was choppier, less narrative, and a little harder to read than Daniel Tammett's.

I also think you are still fundamentally misguided about your pranks, which were pretty mean-spirited. You may not have fit in as a child, but that doesn't excuse the stuff that you did (especially the faked hanging)!
John Robison said…
Godemocrats, in what way am I misguided about my pranks? I don't portray them as good, bad, or leading anywhere. They are what they are.

I don't deny that some are mean spirited. Nowhere in my book do I suggest I think they are nice.

I do think this: As a child who was abused, bullied, and abandoned, those pranks were a much less harmful and dangerous outlet for my frustration than the eruptions of (often lethal) violence we see in schools today.

Sometimes, one must choose the lesser of several evils.
Essential Amy said…
As far as empathy goes, perhaps it's not different types of empathy, but maybe 'shades' of it, as in a type of value scale. I remember reading that part of your book and I really could relate to your explanation. I always thought that because I was hearing about a tragedy or watching it on tv, I was one step removed from it. After reading your explanation, my reactions made more sense.
John, thanks for choosing to discuss this issue in your blog. One reason I wrote that letter was to help myself sort through issues of empathy, and this discussion will certainly contribute to that whole process.

I continue to be intrigued by your definition of “social” empathy and believe it may be accurate, but I still consider it an innate emotion, not something that’s learned.

You’re right, of course, that it would be difficult to cope on a day-to-day basis if I cried my eyes out over every sad news item in the press. I don’t cry at every piece of bad news that I hear, but I cry over many and I’m affected, one way or another, by all of them. Maybe that’s one reason I stopped watching television news a long time ago. Instead I opt to scan headlines on the Internet and pick and choose which stories I’ll read.

As I wrote in my note, I’m sure emotional empathetic reactions are due in part to various things such as fear, relief, survivor guilt, and even an imagination that can’t help but consider the rippling consequences of a typical tragedy. But I know empathy has a lot to do with the way I feel, too. Just knowing someone is being hurt emotionally and/or physically causes me anguish. Call me hypersensitive or simply call me overly empathetic. I’m convinced such emotions and reactions are real for me and many others like me.

Have a great Thanksgiving! Your company sounds like a fun place to work. K.
p.s. I'm on Chapter 16 and plan to finish Look Me in the Eye tomorrow. Kudos on a terrific book!
John Robison said…
Let me clarify an important point. I don't think either empathy form is "learned"

I think they evolved, over thousands of years, as humanity and society evolved.

And I do think I describe two distinct emotions that are often lumped together as "empathy."
Unknown said…
On Empathy:
When I first read the part about Empathy in the book, I found a common similarity, especially with death. Death is natural and is to be expected.

However, I think I have more relieve if the death comes of a "pack mate" rather than outside. We are all going to die, there's not a prescribed time that everyone will keel, over, so whether someone dies when they are 72 or 27, they don't have to deal with this life anymore. Their dead, they can't feel anything. The closer to me the person who died, the sadder I will be. If the person was ill or had difficult health problems, then I am more relieved for their sake than my own self-centered sadness.

On the Letter:
I can see how you can get caught up in the event. I get very riled up when I read a news story about how a child died because they were left in a hot car unattended and ends up dying. That angers me more than most things. Could be that I am parent, I don't know. But other horrific stories, such as rapes, hurricanes, drownings, murders etc. do not illicit the same feeling, although I know they are bad. Actually, there was one incident when the sister of one of my wife's friend was murder in her front yard. I was rather wound-up about this and expressed some disdain about the events on my blog. I felt bad for my wife's friend at the sudden loss but maybe I was more angered how she was killed.

And that leads to think that there is some "shock" variable that makes an event more substantial. The combination of the person and the shock value is what triggers the empathy. For the Letter Writer, there is a low threshold of Shock to illicit a reaction, regardless of person. For myself, the shock value is more muted unless there is some degree of separation between me and person (such as my wife's friend's sister). Although I knew the friend, but never her sister, the way that she was murder was rather shocking, thus creating more anger than empathy.

When the oklahoma city bombing happened, I barely watched any of it. I followed the main headlines, but never really thought about it in any grand scheme of things. In 2002, I had about 45 minutes to spare and I was in the OKC area. I knew that I would regret NOT going to the memorial since I had the chance. When I got there, I found myself greatly moved. First, to be on the memorial, I finally had a reality sense of the amount of damage that it caused. I was able to see the damage and estimate the amount of force needed to create destructive effect. And then to see the memorials left behind, and it was actually the Running Bibs of marathon runners who left their mark as a sign of solidarity more than that pictures left by family members. I expect the family members to be sad and hurt and leave a memorial, but it was the unanticipated random act of kindness that others had done to show their compassion for people out side of their "pack", that really got to my heart.
So much to think about here...John, do you consider the runners who left their bibs were acting out of something other than empathy? Simple solidarity?

I definitely agree with the idea of the low threshold to shock in the same way that some people (myself included!) have a low pain threshold. K.
niknak said…
I think empathy occurrs on a spectrum, and usually the most empathy is felt for those in our pack, as you said. However, I think it is a worthy goal to expand our circle of empathy way out of our pack. Many people come to this same idea for different reasons, but mine is religious: we are all children of God. Without that set of rules to govern me I would be content to keep my empathy to family, children, friends.
Lili Marlene said…
John wrote
"I suggested in my book that the feelings expressed in the letter I received today come from a different place in our brain than the feelings we’d have for an immediate family member. As such, I called that “learned” or “social” empathy. I think humans evolved that response to encourage socialization over larger areas. I suggested there must be several types of “empathy.”"

I am 150% certain that there are many, many different very specific types of empathy, and I'd happily bet that not every person experiences every type, "normal" people included. How can I be so certain? Because I experience a striking and unmistakeable form of synaesthesia that is only triggered by one very, very specific type of empathy, that I have only ever experienced with regard to one person, a very close "pack member", and it is not sexual in any way. This is one of the reasons why I believe that the scientific study of synesthesia is very important, because it's striking effects are like brightly coloured or strongly scented markers showing how the brain really works. If neuroscientists and psychologists want to understand how the mind works, all they have to do (!) is find out how synaesthesia works.

With regard to crying over TV news reports of disasters, I think we are all different in that regard. One person has told me that crying over emotional TV stories was for them a symptom of the so-called "day 3 blues" that is supposed to affect mothers 3 days after giving birth, presumably due to hormones. I never experienced that myself.

I tend to empathize with children and close kin much more than with less close adults, and my husband and I have little sympathy for adults whose problems are of their own making.

I tend to "go ballistic" if someone threatens or upsets my own kids, and I don't feel one bit apologetic for that trait. I wish my own parents had had that trait. I believe this may be an Aspergian trait. I think there was something about this in the book about AS by Patrick McCabe and family (which is worth a read).
Samwick said…
This comment has been removed by the author.

The remaining paragraph of my original note to John brought up the issue of synesthesia. I'll review it for others in this thread who aren't familiar with this condition:

A June 2007 study at the University College of London involved people with mirror-touch synesthesia, a condition that causes a person to experience a tactile sense of touch when he sees another person being touched. The researchers suggested from their findings that a link exists between certain aspects of the tactile system and empathy. This study led the researchers to assign a certain “emotional gut reaction” aspect to empathy (that appears to be exaggerated in mirror-touch “synesthetes”) as well as a cognitive process that involves thinking about how someone else feels.

As John suggests, empathy appears to be very complex. I like Niknak's suggestion that it occurs on a spectrum. K.
Chris Eldin said…
John, I remember that discussion in your book, and appreciated and applauded your honesty.

I didn't cry when the Twin Towers came down. I didn't know anyone in them. I felt scared and panicked for my own family, worrying about what was going to happen next.

I agree with the poster who said there is a spectrum of empathy. But I also believe people 'fake' a lot of emotions. If something nice happens to someone else, are you truly happy for them? Or are you a bit jealous and wished it happened to you instead?

These feelings don't make us 'bad' or 'good.' Just human. And I do think we are more protective of our packs. We have to be. I think it's instinctual.

Fantastic post. Truly.

And godemocrats--where's your profile? I don't think it's fair to show up on someone's blog and criticize when you're hiding.
Anonymous said…
just finished your book, LOVED it! my 10 year old has aspergers but, i am pretty sure, is no savant.

anyway, there are lots of types of empathy i am certain, because people care deeply about lots of things. i can be more empathetic about that which matters deeply to me and not empathetic at all about that which does not, even if it matters deeply to you. does that make sense? or have i missed the point?

have a lovely holiday weekend, tam
Trish Ryan said…
Sausage and Corona sounds like a FINE Thanksgiving meal!

I think you're right about empathy. It's a rather personal thing, and sometimes we don't even understand our reactions to the circumstances life brings.
Lisa said…
What a great discussion! John, I think you're correct that there is an evolutionary component that somehow relates to empathy. I think our ability or tendency to empathize becomes more sensitized the farther we get from an existence where we are merely surviving. In other words, in our culture, most of us don't have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, or about protecting our packmates from imminent threat or danger and so our ability to empathize out to a larger circle increases.

To Karen's point, I think there must also be a physiological component. The third thing that I believe comes into play is also an overall philosophy of how we view the world. When we say "we" do we mean our immediate family? Do we mean only the people we know and care about? Do we mean our fellow countrymen? Or do we mean all human beings? I, too (and this would come as a huge surprise to most people who know me well) am extremely sensitive to the pain others feel. I intentionally don't stay closely attuned to the news because it's too emotionally draining for me. I honestly feel emotional pain and I cry and feel the physiological effects of grief when I see things like the 9/11 attacks, the treatment of the Katrina survivors, the genocide in Darfur, the earthquakes in Pakistan, the war in Iraq, people who can't afford medicine or get medical treatment because of bad or no insurance, people who are raising severely handicapped children, child abuse, animal abuse --- the list is sadly endless. I feel my empathy privately and in front of others, my commentary is probably much like yours might be.

Back to your insights about evolution, I feel that our culture has evolved around a survival of the fittest motif. In this country, "we" feel that every person can achieve what s/he wants and has the desire and motivation to do. It's a free and capitalist enterprise. Our society doesn't embrace socializing medicine. Our culture does not look at those who can't take care of themselves as a part of "we" and they are left to fend for themselves, in large part.

I think empathy is part evolution, part attitudinal and part physiological. And yes, I do believe that many people falsely express empathy and sympathy that they don't actually feel.

I think that's called cognitive dissonance.
Polly Kahl said…
Interesting post, John. Once again you have stimulated some interesting discussion. I've studied empathy for years, as one of the components along a continuum of bondedness vs. sociopathy. My observation is that empathy is unique to each individual, and each person can be empathic in some situations, yet lack empathy in others. I think the only way we can truly know evolution's impact on empathy is to remove all the variables that impact it, such as child abuse, prenatal maternal addictions, and other conditions that can contribute to sociopathy. Charles Manson lacked empathy toward many, but we'd have to remove the abuse he sustained in his childhood, and other extraneous variables, to determine if his lack of empathy was the result of evolution. And Hitler was known to be very sensitive in some areas of his life, as well as being one of history's worst sociopaths. (Happy thoughts, ja?)

On the warm and fuzzy end of the empathy continuum, may you and your family and loved ones have a lovely Thanksgiving day.
Chris Eldin said…
I've been thinking about this post all day yesterday.
I wanted to understand why I didn't cry about the Twin Towers when so many others said they did. It sounded cold, and I'm not that way at all.
Whenever I see a story or read a story I can associate a face with, it tugs at the deepest levels of emotion for me. Especially if it involves children. Tears stream down my face, and these stories never leave me. My youngest son is very similar to me-either laughing or crying nonstop.
But my feelings for these tragedies, like the Towers, make me feel scared and terrified. I want to scoop my children in my arms and protect them. I feel deep sadness that humanity has the capacity to do this. But I don't mourn the same as I do when I see a child or a family struck by something horrible.
Oprah used to be a journalist, but had to stop because she would become so emotionally involved with the people in her stories. I think I'm more like that.
Sorry to ramble. It's just such an interesting topic.

Polly, I'd love to know more about your research.
Unknown said…
Excellent and resonant thoughts. I am in the habit of pondering empathy daily ever since it was brought up years ago in a performance review as a negative, as possibly affecting my ability to effectively manage my department. I still got an excellent review and a hugeass raise but because it seemed a possibly suspect trait it has become an obsession to understand the concept and the response it can elicit from others.
I think empathy is experiential and relational in origin, with roots in the familiar and, as you state, the familial. I am not reduced to tears over mass tragedies (having never experienced one firsthand-knocking on wood) yet I either suffer over observed individual crises that sem familiar to my own traumas or unfamiliar pain that affects people I love. And yes, empathy is often seen as suspect. When we see people mourn disproportionately over strangers I think we do tend to wonder if they are in fact mourning their own pain and thus perhaps having a narcissistic experience, making others' experiences about themselves. It seems human nature is to mistrust empathy as possible narcissism in others because it is selfish perhaps and that is at odds with the selflessness that empathy would imply. This makes over-empathists seem non-altruistic and suspect and that can foster resentment and mistrust. In addition to overuse of empathy I overuse words as evidenced by my redundancy. ;-)
Lainie Petersen said…
Interesting discussion indeed.

I've never liked the notion that "Aspergians/aspies don't have empathy for others" because I think that it reflects a distorted view of empathy.

I am perfectly capable of suffering with someone who is in pain, or rejoicing with someone who is extremely happy, etc. What I am not always really good at is determining WHY someone might feel a certain way. As such, I may not fully understand why a person reacts to something in the way that they do. But this doesn't mean that I can't understand the emotion that they are feeling and be present with them through that.

As for Thanksgiving, I did present my family with my special cranberry sauce which, incidentally, includes a fifth of cheap brandy.
The Anti-Wife said…
Another great post and interesting comments. Very timely.
Happy Thanksgiving.
SelinaRussell said…
I'm glad that you've been able to coma out and say that we Homo sapiens are pack animals. The similarity between our social structure and that of dogs is striking: both are hierarchical, both are pack related, both operate on activity for the good of the pack. Dogs and humans are both omnivorous pack animals....thus we've been able to form a symbiotic bond.

In regards to empathy. I don't think it can be learned, but it is my experience that it can certainly be developed, as can the other nice character traits of kindness, generosity and compassion.

As for "tearing up" I cry at the end of the movie Starman, wept like a baby during Schindlers List, and cried for an hour after learning of the 9/11 attacks....and I'm a well adjusted heterosexual.
Lili Marlene said…
I don't get the mirror-touch synaesthesia that Sustenance Scout mentioned. I'm a little bit sceptical that it is really a form of synaesthesia. Perhaps it is a similar neurological condition that belongs in a category of it's own?

The form of empathy that triggers my synaesthesia seems to involve appreciating the particular qualities of the other person, rather than thinking about what they might think or feel. I think this is an important distinction to make between two very different forms of empathy, "admiring" empathy in which one likes or loves someone for the qualities that they appear to have, and "imagining" empathy in which one imagines what another feels or experiences.

It would be interesting to find out if the people who have mirror-touch synaesthesia also get the more prosaic forms of synaesthesia (like coloured letters etc).
Michelle O'Neil said…
There are probably as many forms of empathy as their are brains. Everyone reacts differently to everything. Every perpective is a little different than the next.

We're all walking around in our own little realities, bumping into other people doing the same.

Also on the subject of empathy, I think some Aspergians are misunderstood. My daughter has tons of empathy for others, but is not great at "reading" situations. so sometimes she appears not to care. Once a situation is explained to her, she feels great empathy for others, perhaps too much.

* We watched Hairspray on DVD for Thanksgiving! Woof!
Anonymous said…
one of the definitions of empathy is:understanding another person's feelings by remembering or imagining being in a similar situation.and that's what it means to me, to put myself in another's shoes, imagine what it might feel to me had the same thing happened. that's why i can't hear about bad things happening to other people's kids now that i have a kid, because the upset i feel at imagining something similar happening to fluffy is so real and disturbing, i'm better off putting my fingers in my ears and singing than listening or watching.

now, the day of the towers falling, i was too absorbed in my own world. fluffy was happily chewing on his hand, something he virtually NEVER did, and i had time to be on the phone, something i virtually NEVER had, and so, when dave came barreling in to deliver the news, i swatted him away like so much fly. It was a full year before i even took the whole event in.

the tsunami was the same. at the time, i was too involved in my own day to day. it was while watching a special on the event a year or so later when i got the magnitude of the event and some of the footage was so disturbing, i turned off the tube after sobbing into my sleeve.

so. my own life clearly grabs me. my emotions are tumultuous. but when it comes to imagining myself in someone else's shoes, my ability to sink in entirely depends on what's orbiting my own little space capsule. but when i can let it in, my response is really pretty self-centered: it's all based on me imagining ME and those i love in the situation. is that empathy? or more self-absorption? i don't know.
The Muse said…
Very thought provoking post, John.

I am one of those people who was absolutely devastated on September 11th. I wept in disbelief when the Twin Towers fell. I had just come home from New York the previous week and got the news from my friend who lives there. I did not personally know anyone that died; but I felt tremendous grief and sorrow for all those lives that were affected on that dreadful day. I could not detach myself from all of the suffering. For a while I became obsessed with watching the news out of fear and anxiety for my family, my friends, my community, society, this nation, and all of mankind. Like millions of people, I was profoundly affected by the events of that day...

The Buddhists believe that suffering is part of life and that the ability to truly feel for our fellow man is a spiritual virtue. I think that we are born with a survival instinct that makes us feel empathy for our "pack". But the more spiritually evolved that we become and the less self-centered that we are makes us feel more connected to the suffering of ALL people, not just those that are closest to us. The only cure for all of the world's evils is EMPATHY. Yes, this is a trait that must be learned and developed throughout our lives. It is a type of consciousness. All world religions are striving to teach empathy in one form or another. I believe that as human beings, we are born good, but innately selfish and self-centered. This is our inherent, biological need for survival that makes us worry about our pack and ourselves. But as we evolve past our own basic needs we start to see ourselves not as being the center of the universe, but as part of something greater than ourselves. Our egocentric perspective changes; and our paradigm shifts. We begin to shed that belief of self-preservation at all costs, i.e. survival of the fittest. The desire to serve some larger purpose in this life makes us feel connected to our fellow man. Empathy is a spiritual trait that the Buddhists speak of when they talk about "enlightenment." As we become more spiritually conscious and enlightened we aspire for more meaning and purpose in our lives. Moreover, compassion and social empathy is fundamental if we ever hope to achieve world peace..
Just posted a note on this discussion thread in one of the (many!) posts I wrote today. Thanks again, John, for a terrific discussion and a WONDERFUL book!! K.
piglet said…
firstly, i have an issue with having too much empathy. of feeling others' emotions even when they haven't invited me too. i have a big problem with crowds/malls or anywhere there are a lot of peoples. i never knew why but now i do, on some level i am tuning in to their radars. i'm still trying to figure out how to block them out when i need to.

for thanksgiving i got: family, clarity and insight. i gave: love support, hope, humility and an ear.
Sandra Cormier said…
When my aunt passed away unexpectedly when I was a teenager, my mother looked at me with disgust and asked me, "Why aren't you crying?"

I didn't know why. I loved my aunt, and thought she was a unique and vibrant woman. But her death didn't shock me.

I felt sad when elderly friends and relatives passed, but tears were few and far between.

Only twice did tears come to my eyes at a funeral: When my long time neighbour passed and the bagpipes started playing Amazing Grace, and when fifty schoolchildren released balloons for my eight year old cousin.

When my children were little, I tried to instill at least a bit of empathy in them by asking, "What would you feel if this happened to you?" I hope some of it stuck.
Appletini said…
I believe there to be different levels/types of empathy. I too have found my self getting all choked up because of some disaster on the news. My heart hearts for those people and I wish it had never hapened.

However, it is not to the extent of having a loved one die. Whether it's "pack" empathy or societal's all learned through your experiences and relationships with others, primarily your primary caregiver.

Well, that's what I think.
blueridge said…
I read the entire book as part of a class I am taking on the education of exceptional children and youth. I appreciate your frankness in the text and here in your blogspot.
I tend to agree with you that some people might exploit the tragedies of others for their own personal gain. It might be for attention in some cases. Maybe it is cathartic for others to experience tragedy vicariously, for only a short period of time. I myself find stories about the abuse/neglect of children, particularly very young children, to be disturbing and painful to read or hear about. I have cried privately about some cases of children that were killed, left alone, or abused, even though they were "outside of my pack," as you say. I guess it depends on how you define your pack. Anyway, I didn't cry for catharsis or attention, I deeply felt sad about what had happened to the child and imagined what that child might have experienced. It is an interesting thing to examine, since as you say there is always more bad news if you care to look for it.
Steve H said…
i very much enjoyed and appreciated your thoughts on the pack mentality. thanks.
Drama Mama said…
Wow. Great post.

Yah, I think that there are all kinds of empathy - certainly, my daughter exhibits very deep empathy, but like Michelle O'Neill's daughter, does not OUTWARDLY seem to exhibit it.

Me, who vibrates on everyone and everything in my wake - was pretty much unfazed about disasters and the like unless it affected someone I knew (a pack mate)

So yes. I do think that there are all kinds, just as there are all kinds of minds.

BTW, I can't eat a damned thing right now b/c of my fast, but I am DREAMING of tamales for Xmas. Dreaming, I tell you!
Stacy said…
I can't say I think social empathy is a learned or evolved thing, but not everyone has it. I think I'm decidedly lacking in it. I feel guilty that I don't feel empathy for events around the world (or even closer to home) but it seems ridiculous to try to force an emotional reaction that will fix nothing.
Amonly said…
Hey John,
Thought of you this weekend but decided to focus on a quiet time with my family. My son came in and stayed a few days! Was wondering if you were home based or on the road.

Anyway - Checking your blog. This is a topic which we have discussed over dinner several times. And have also discussed our different attitudes.

I do believe there are different 'levels' (types- expressions) of empathy and empathy can range from sympathizing and understanding a situation to 'feeling' as another might. The amount of concern one has in response is another thing altogether, as is action one might take.

I think that the Aspergers may effect your ability to 'feel' as others might although you might yourself have feelings or concerns. When it is immediate - you have visceral reactions. And then your intellect kicks in, which allows you to care for those close because it makes sense and directly may effect you. The visceral may also come around an unconscious connection about how things that effect those close to you might effect YOU.

There is another empathy which is to be able to imagine the experience of others whether close to oneself or not, whether it effects oneself or not.

Some are more sensitive to 'feeling' as others might. Women may be programmed to do this more than most men as it helps in drawing them viscerally to care for (and even fight) for others, especially children , and those in their extended community.

I can relate to the woman who reacted strongly to the the hurts in the world - especially the violence towards children. As a young woman and mother the hormones that are released tend to magnify the 'feelings' one has in reaction to news and experience. I think they enhance and fortify empathic feelings and emotions and reactions to others emotional states. I think it is one reason women and girls cry more-or react to stress in others - besides socialization. I believe this difference may exist even between male and female babies. (some studies I have seen)

Sometimes this can work against onself and survival and certainly against the logic you are so tied to. At times one cannot often DO anything about these other folks hardships - and it may not effect one directly.

But the reaction is NOT hypocritical- or useless. I think it is human and can help one have a perspective that there is a larger world, that others suffer, and it may help one to appreciate what one has and find solace in the closeness and care one CAN give and receive with those around one. Sometimes it CAN generate actions to extend to others- contributions to relief organizations or volunteer efforts to help others in need.

BTW- the reaction of humor may be a normal distancing so as not to be too overhwelmed and feel so helpless with an empathic response to something far away. It does not negate the initial 'empathy' or feelings of concern.

Anyway. This empathy can lead to feeling connected to humans around the world, understanding and acceptance of our common human condition, and caring for the world as well as ourselves.

I think right now we need more extended empathy (and education/information) to help folks make choices that might save us from economic and environmental disasters. We are no longer just living in small tribes - but are interconnected on a global scale.
Caring for just the welfare of our family or small circle (as say the Bush family and many of the Politicos and corporate heads do) can lead to creating hurts and hardships for multitudes.

I think empathy of this sort is a challenge for you, partly due to the Apsergers and partly to your upbringing (lack of care and empathy in your family- lack of community) and being male in a very individualistic and materialistic society.

The stage you are in ( a father, husband in midlife) and meeting and hearing from people with the publishing of your book, is pushing you to broaden your perspective- and question things. (maybe our freindship has too?)

I also think the success you have, and are building on, gives you an opportunity to effect things and people even outside your immediate circle.

Maybe you are also questioning now whom do you (should you) care for? Can you (and should you) empathize with these new 'stranger' friends. And as you have an Asperger mind- is this something that may not come naturally, but is something you need to or want to LEARN?

(Empathy is both natural AND learned or enhanced by experience and culture)

As to stages of development- Maslow is a must read. Goleman also writes about EQ- emotional intelligence.

In friendship - Alison
Happy Holidays to ALL
maryk119 said…
Right on Alison! I couldn't agree more. I was curious why the difference in gender had not yet entered the discussion. As you alluded to, I think males for the most part, are only concerned with what they can "fix" or resolve. I see this with my own husband and worry his lack of empathy will be misconstrued by some as a selfish attitude. But I have come to understand that he is so focused and consumed with what he CAN control - he almost automatically filters out those things and events he feels he has no control over.

While I, on the other hand, am one of those people who has a strong, visceral response to events both destructive and joyful, regardless of who it happens to. I immediately feel for whoever it affects or who I imagine it affects. And since it happens regardless - if someone else is present or not - I don't think it's hypocritical or for show.

Anyways, I've enjoyed reading so many thought-provoking insights ...Thank you for taking the time to post them!
There was just an article in the NYT that movies that are based in pure fantasy/fiction appeal more to men because they don't have to have empathy for the characters. Movies based on true stories appeal more to women because they tap into empathy. Interesting? Nah, I didn't really care at all. (Get it? A little empathy joke.)

See you Sunday at Elm's John. Looking forward to it. KIM
Unknown said…
For Thanksgiving, I served a hellava meal to my son, and his father who refused to divorce me. After diner I went to work and served wine and food to others. The following day I finished reading your book. Thank you for being so honest.

When I am not tending bar, I work as a special educator. I work with 5/6th grade students.
Last year and the previous year I was gifted with an Aspergairian {sp?}, in my language arts class, what a wonderful child. Somedays I was the teacher, other days I was the student. I adored this child, while some of my colleagues totally missed his genius, and considered him to be one of "Susan's kids".
Having the opportunity to read your book over the Thanksgiving break caused me to forget the burnout I was facing at school only two weeks ago.
Thank you again.

A few random thoughts, loved hearing about your pranks, you would have fit right in with my family, The Egberts, we were a fun loving group. I found myself smiling and reliving some of my childhood moments, I found comfort knowing that others lived a somewhat similar lifestyle.

Have you read, the Red Queen? After reading it I came to undertand the Klan/Pack mentality.

Finally, if I send you an archival quality photgraph of a circus elephant with his trainer, wuld you in turn sign 2 or 3 books for me to give to my sibs for Christmas?

Best: Susan
John Robison said…
Susan, (or anyone else) if you want to send me books with self addressed post paid return packing, I'll be glad to sign them and ship them back to you.

I don't know what I'd do with an elephant photo. I have quite a few of my own, but elephant photos are like kiddie porn to performance photographers . . . they draw stinging criticism and negative commentary like no other circus image. As a result, I no longer display elephants though my other circus images continue to be well received.

To all the rest who continue to comment on empathy . . . I think we agree (mostly) that there are several kinds of empathy, differentiated by the varying feelings they induce in us, and the different ways we respond.

Look for more on this topic in my next book, and be assured I will continue to ponder all these thoughts.
John Robison said…
And for those of you who have not read the comments to this post . . . I would like to draw your attention to our fellow blogger Piglet, who says she cut off and gave away one of her ears for Thanksgiving.

That makes me think of Cubby, when he was small. When he was about three, I decided to take him to the barber. When we went in, he saw the scissors and asked what they were for.

"To point your ears," I said. "We're going to trim a nice point onto both ears."

"But I don't want my ears pointed," he said. "It might hurt."

"It doesn't hurt at all," I replied. "I'll bet you can't even remember having your tail bobbed when you were two."

"I had a tail?"

Those were the days. He hardly believes anything I tell him now.
tim said…
I was handed your book on thanksgiving day and finished it over the weekend. having a gifted son with the same diagnosis.I now am able to see just a little more of his world and how he looks at the world around him. thank you and may god bless you and your family.
HanquePimm said…
I haven't cried/teared much,tho I c/td a lil at the (seperate) deaths of my parents,I was glad I did.
I was going to speak of at movies c/t-ing but there's no time now .
I'm the same Hank Pym who posted B4,I just 4got my old account.
...Test !!!!!!!!!
This is Hank/Hanque/etc. Pym , again .

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