Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Wolf Nose

This entry is about empathy, but I feel the need to digress from a sharpened approach to that topic. Tugging at a point located not far enough bellow my navel to be of bawdry interest are conflicting motivators urging me to begin this entry with a disclaimer. No disclaimer is actually needed, but disclaimers are such indulgent digressions that I’m tempted to the edge of the diving board. No -scratch that- far too melodramatic even for me. My temptation is more like that which keeps me in a warm bed on a cold morning; my disclaimer a handy snooze button.

What unnecessary disclaimation am I going to indulge in? If I apologized to gravity for describing the sunrise it was so instrumental in forging it would be obvious that I was interested in neither. One would be more likely to ask what was going on inside AOA’s mind rather than point out the unmentioned contributions of magnetism, or even the strong and weak nuclear forces. Perhaps there was some childhood trauma involving the influence of gravity on a poorly piloted bicycle that occurred early in the morning? This type of conclusion would be insightful.

Insight is not empathy. The word “Empathy” is derived from the Greek word ἐμπάθεια (empatheia), "physical affection, passion, partiality", but it really got its definition when a couple of Germans in the later 1800s defined it as “feeling into”. It is not known whether his cool name helped Ted Lipps introduce his friends’ concept of empathy to Freud, but the rest of the story is also history. Empathy is “feeling into”; insight is “seeing into”. Empathy suggests a much more intimate interaction than does insight.

Some might be lead to believe that I should make a disclaimer concerning my professional relationship with FOX news. It is true that Glenn Beck and some other “pundits” have disparagingly defined empathy as a synonym for communism. This was done in a targeted attempt to discredit Sonia Sotomayor while she was being examined for her eventual instatement as a Supreme Court justice. I do not believe that FOX news “pundits” actually think about, or really care about, what they say. This, coupled with the fact that my professional involvement with them has –so far- been limited to imagining dirty Birther limericks (“There once was a black prez from Kenya”) that Bill O-Riley could recite, means that I do not have to disclaim anything about this relationship when I talk about empathy.

The fact that empathy could be re-defined as a bad concept is flabbergasting to me. When my mind wanders about the concept of empathy I feel inclined to go out and tell strangers that there is love in my heart for them. I want to cuddle sick kids and damaged adults. I want to tell someone about one of my more colorful mistakes and have them reply that it was not such a big deal, and that they would have liked to have been there with me to make the mistake more epic. I wish to walk hand-in-hand with a lover imagining how the ground, once so hard and unforgiving, has become rubbery enough to lend a spring to my step. Of course many of these feelings come from compassion and nurturing. Empathy is important in the effective chanelling of compassion and nurturing.  Both compassion and nurturing are marvelous ideas worthy of an entire series of essays each, but neither idea is a synonym for empathy.

The disclaimer comes from the fact that I was motivated to write this after simply reading an article and slightly conversing with the author. I’m often amazed that people who write well are humans in real life. My disclaimer should be in the form of a statement concerning the lack of any evidence that worthwhile ideas, concepts, or even proper sentence structure has flowed from her article to this essay. If you look at a marvelous horse you know that somewhere you can find the makings of a pretty good compost pile; if you look at an impressive compost pile it is impossible to tell anything about the horse. Of course you can grow some pretty good tomatoes with enough compost, and one of these days I will get the right seeds for my blog.

If you think I am being unnecessarily self deprecating I will present the following evidence. In the article the author quotes Credo Mutwa who states “Women think with their pelvic area”. In context the quote speaks of the connection between the act of childbirth and empathy. At least once in the coming days I will catch myself saying “I am like a Zulu woman because I think with my pelvic area so often”. It is like my pen is a magic wand with which I can convert the Dali Llama into Swami X. The act of hearing with my ears perverts the message; for some reason there is a failure in communication, and yet I’ve got so much to say.



Communication is the key to empathy. The entirety of what is communicated during an empathic event lacks proper description by either the felt or the feeler. This suggests that the processing of the communication is performed more centrally in the brain than typical conversations. In an earlier essay I described the core portions of the brain as “evolving earlier” than the outer portions. The image of the brain as an evolutionary onion whose core is analogous to the earliest evolved proto-brain is an enormous and highly misleading over-simplification. There is, however, more than a hint of accuracy in descriptions made using this model, so I will resort to it again here.

Deep in the brain the signals from smell are processed. One of the most stunning olfactory communication is performed between mother and child. A mother can identify her child by smell alone, at times more accurately than by sight alone. The new mother’s sense of smell is heightened after childbirth for both this purpose and to help sense potential dangers. Some new mothers find certain smells unbearable. Some mothers have called this enhanced scent the “development of wolf nose”. The innate ability to identify one’s own offspring has obvious evolutionary advantages. One can protect one’s own genetic material. One can ignore or destroy the offspring of other mothers.

The more complex the brain the more infrequent female infanticide is. Infanticide by females is not very common in any of the primates, but it has been well documented:

“A female named Passion began killing and eating several of the babies in her community. Together with her daughter Pom, over a period of many years they attacked and killed infants in their group.” --Jane Goodall in observation of a group of chimpanzees
In addition to identifying one’s offspring the core brain helps to identify those individuals that have been partnered with. Romantic love is smelly.

At this basal level we can identify identities through empathy-like use of smell, but there are other things that smell. Fear, anxiety, exertion, emotion; all these things stink. Simply by smell an individual can accurately identify the disposition of another, but empathy is much more than fragrance.

Empathy includes the captured glance and the slight droop of an eyelid. Empathy includes noticing a certain slump or the tone of a particular word. Empathy includes every meant or unavoidable activity that can be noticed. However these stimuli are useless without proper processing.

The stimuli catalogued here as part of the empathy group are mostly subtle in amplitude. The more subtle a stimulus the less cognitive response it intrinsically generates in the brain. Some subtle stimuli are connected to well developed neural pathways and generate response out of proportion to the magnitude of the stimulus, but these are the exception rather than the norm. I would like to describe the empathy stimulus group as a cloud excitation event; many ephemeral stimuli working together to form a meta-stimulus.

There are specific empathetic excitation events which can be directly observed in the brain. When stimuli inform the brain that a particular event is occurring with an observed individual then neurons in the pathway used to react or perform that event are stimulated in the brain. These neurons are called ‘mirror neurons’. The inevitable conclusion is that the feelings we get when watching someone react to an event (that feeling as if we were reacting to a similar event) is caused by neurons firing in the brain that would fire if we were actually reacting to the event ourselves. My brain is full of mirror neurons, and I always tear up watching sappy movies.

The cloud meta-stimulus excites many patterns in the brain at once. All of these patterns are private information created by connecting and prioritizing previous stimuli. The empath then re-feels their own shuffled experiences rather than feeling what the person feels. This creates room for some inaccuracies in the empathy event. This allows the creation of emotionally sensitive fantasy, but it also creates room for some potential miscommunication. An abused person will see many stimuli as one of many potential manifestations of danger. A nurtured identity might see more compassion in the same stimulus set. One does not have to walk around the block too many times to know people whose innate empathetic sensitivity play them for fools and victims more often than they should.

It is the processing of this cloud meta-stimulus that makes empathy a remarkably human characteristic. In the non-verbally communicating animals it is difficult to distinguish between empathy and other types of reaction. Some primates who are shown another individual being shocked when they pull a lever for food will avoid pulling the lever. Is the monkey feeling into the pain of the other monkey or are they reacting to a specifically communicated cue to avoid painful stimulus experienced by any member of the pack. What difference does it make?

In human empathy we know that a particular directive has not been communicated. We know that the information being understood is the result of shared experiences. When I reach out and touch someone’s face and they look into my eyes rather that at my hand I know the clues they are looking for; they are the same clues I look for in their eyes.

Of course I miss many points about empathy that are exceedingly useful. There is cultural empathy where one searches through obvious communications in order to develop a sense of commonality. Cultural empathy is probably what FOX news was attacking; to mention that at the onset, and then only talk about something mostly unrelated, is what I call “It’s my blog”. To stop this entry before at least detailing a handful of these empathy-related topics is what I like to call: “this entry is too long already”.

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