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Blog

Zero degrees of empathy

Posted on November 7, 2012 at 8:03 AM Comments comments (99)
Empathy. It is considered an essential skill and a core condition (Rogers) in psychotherapy and counselling. It is the ability to put oneself in another person's shoes, to experience the world as they are experiencing it. In essence when we are being empathic we are recreating in our own mind and body a map of another person's mind, we are resonating with their pain and experiencing it as our own. 

A while ago I read a book by Simon Baron-Cohen "Zero degrees of empathy". Baron-Cohen asked the question "why does evil exist?" and wanted to find a scientific answer rather than a religious one. Baron-Cohen is an expert in autism, a condition which is characterised by a person's reduced ability to pick up and interpret another person's facial and bodily expressions in order to understand what they are feeling. This causes a considerable amount of strain socially. People are unable to gauge whether what they are doing is appropriate to the situation at hand. For instance, they might tell you a story about a subject that they are passionate about and fail to notice that you are drifting off, getting bored and would like them to stop. People with autism feel lost in social situation. They find it difficult and confusing - a minefield. They notice that people frequently get irritated and fed-up and this is scary because they don't understand what they've done wrong. 

People with high-functioning autism (Asperger's) can be helped to manage social situations by being taught about non-verbal communication and the significance of social cues. It's a little bit like learning to colour by numbers. 

There is another category of individuals tthat display zero-empathy. Baron-Cohen suggests that in this category are people on the high-end of spectrum of personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder (BDP), narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. 

Amongst other traits, patients diagnosed with BDP show an inability to connect with the pain caused to others through their self-harming acts and suicidal threats. They do not understand or experience the turmoil and the extreme fear that the other person is overwhelmed with. 

Clients with narcissistic structures are unaware of the other having any needs. They fill up the space with their discourse and tend to put others down. 

Antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy) is a condition rarely encountered in the therapy room. Psychopaths who are also violent and break the law tend to end up in prison. Those who don't break the law may be highly successful professionals. Cambridge trained psychology researcher dr. Kevin Dutton is fascinated by psychopaths. He has interviewed many of these individuals. 

Dutton has a certain admiration for psychopaths. He has found that some psychopathic traits (charm, ruthlessness, low empathy, focus, low stress response under pressure), if  coupled in an individual with high intelligence and low predisposition to violence may be highly useful in certain professions such as surgery, law and the arm and facilitate a high degree of achievement in these areas. (Psychopath in your family is a short film uploaded on his website www.wisdomofpsychopaths.com. I also found this documentary: I am fishead that proposes the thesis that corporate leaders are psychopaths)

The psychopath can accurately create a map of another's mind. He (because it tends to be a man) is extremely good at gauging what the other may be experiencing or thinking. However, the psychopath fails to experience another person's pain and are themselves emotionally under-aroused. Functioning MRI brain scans show that in psychopaths the amygdala (the structure of the brain that gets activated when we experience negative emotion and fear) is under-activated. 

In other words psychopaths cannot display the kind of "hot" empathy that translates into compassion and moral restrain. They are very good at thinking on their feet, focused, driven and because they brain/body rarely triggers the stress response, their verbal and manual performance remains highly accurate even in the most daunting situations. 

Why is that? Stress response translates partly into the release of a steroid hormone - cortisol. This hormone triggers bodily reactions that are biased towards facilitating a motor reaction such as running really fast. Prolonged exposure to glucocorticoids however has negative effects on the hippocampus (the part of the brain involved in the retrieval of autobiographical memory). We have all experienced stressful situations in which we feel tongue tied and cannot remember facts that we do know. Cortisol is to blame. In fact, cortisol not only interferes with the functioning of the hippocampus but can also contribute to premature cell death at this site. Prof. Dr. Robert Sapolsky from Stanford University has proved that stress has a negative effect on memory and the hippocampus. (The audio of his talk Stress and memory Forget it! is uploaded on youtube. Ignore the picture of the cat.)

Psychopaths have no such concerns. They are able to withstand extremely stressful situations without their nervous system being overwhelmed and without their body swimming with adrenaline or cortisol. 

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that what all people with zero-degree of empathy have in common is that they are not so good at relationships. The inability to hold someone else's mind in your mind, to respond with compassion is not conducive to being able to form a strong bond with another human being. 

The good news is that we are getting better and better at identifying low-empathy in children and that there are ways to train people in empathy. 

And to end, I found this brilliant short animated history of empathy by Jeremy Rifkin. It is called "The empathic civilisation". Rifkin argues traces the evolution of the empathic brain and argues that our ability to extend empathy to others with whom we don't share the same culture and religion, as well as to other species is essential to our survival on this planet.