A slowdown in posting

My posting is going to be a bit slower/haphazard for a while. Real life, wouldn’t you know.

I don’t want to lose my wonderful reader-commentators, but I do understand the vastness of the web-world – there’s a lot of good stuff out there.

If you register via RSS feed you’ll be notified when something new appears.

Be well!

Is an empathic act necessarily an action at all?

An empathic act is a form of reply to the other’s signal, a reply which is experienced as being right. Today I want to consider just how minimal such an act might be.

But before I illustrate empathy, what does an unempathic act look like?

Unempathic acts
Say one picks up the following overt or covert signal from another person: I am depressed.

There are any number of ways to behave unempathically. Indeed, no act is guaranteed to be empathic because it is the recipient’s experience that is the final determination. (It makes no sense to say “I empathised but he didn’t find it empathic.” The fact of the matter is more like this: “I tried to be empathic but wasn’t.”)

Some examples of unempathic responses made to depressed people can be found in a post from HBC Protocols (via Barbara at Abuse sanctuary):

“What’s your problem?”

“Will you stop that constant whining? What makes you think that anyone cares?”

“Have you gotten tired yet of all this me-me-me stuff?”

“You just need to give yourself a kick in the rear.”

“But it’s all in your mind.”

“I thought you were stronger than that.”

“No one ever said life was fair.”

“As you get stronger you won’t have to wallow in it as much.”

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

“Do you feel better now?” (Usually said following a five minute conversation in which the speaker has asked me “what’s wrong?” and “would you like to talk about it?” with the best of intentions, but absolutely no understanding of depression as anything but an irrational sadness.)

Worse than useless
The title of the post from which these examples comes is illuminating: ‘The 99 worst things to say to someone who is depressed.’ The word ‘worst,’ I suggest, does not literally mean that this is a list of the worst things one could say; rather, it means that comments like these make things worse.

Something is experienced as unempathic when a person feels that another’s response is ‘wrong’. Wrong meaning misaligned, out of sync, on the wrong wavelength. The statements above, whether or not they emerge from empathy and are intended as empathic, are unempathic because the other person experienced them as mismatched – as worse than useless.

The effect of unempathy is is often one of insult being added to injury. In our example the person now not only still feels depressed, they feel misunderstood. But it can be worse than this. The depressed person now not only feels depressed and misunderstood, they may feel more hopeless about their prospects.

How minimal can an empathic response be?
It might be argued that a depressed person is so pessimistic that they are likely to find fault with anything one says. Less can be more here. Even something as simple as “That’s a tough place to be” might be experienced as empathic. This statement doesn’t capture the scope of the other’s experience, but it has the virtue of capturing something of it.

An empathic act might not involve words at all. Sometimes a physical gesture, a facial expression, a sigh, a nod or shake of the head might work very well (i.e. be experienced as empathic by the recipient).

Each of these is doing something small. One might, though, not say or do anything anything whatsoever. The very fact that one doesn’t mouth expected banalities may be what matters. (There is a book on Zen who’s title is apt here: Don’t just say something, sit there‘)

In this instance the receiver of the message, ‘I am depressed’ may through their silence communicate something along the lines of: “Anything I can think of to say would probably not capture how profound and hopeless this state seems for you; whatever I can think of saying would either trivialise your experience, come across as a criticism of you, or seem as though I was trying to jolly you out of it. I understand that much. Therefore I don’t make a knee-jerk platitude, but rather keep a respectful silence.”

How much more elegant and effective to imply this rather than say it.

Do you also find that sometimes not doing anything can be strong medicine?

Photo: Sessizlik / Silence, originally uploaded by B@ni

What is it to be empathic?

Empathy is a primal level of interpersonal interaction whereby signals from one person are picked up by another. These may (or may not) become actualised as feelings, and/or thoughts, and/or behaviours.

As readers point out, features of this basic interpersonal signal-detection are authenticity, unthought/unfelt, somatic.

Empathy, then, is but the raw material for being empathic.

What is it to be empathic?
The word ’empathy’ is often often used in common parlance as a shorthand for one of two types of things:

1. Feelings and/or thoughts which (it is assumed) are similar to those of another person (e.g. “I feel sad, perhaps it’s because he feels sad”).

2. Behaviours intended to help the other through correct identification of how things are for the other (e.g. because I believe that he is sad I offer a kind word).

As cumbersome and potentially confusing as it may be, I want to keep these distinct:

empathy as apperception
empathic internal awareness
empathic act

(The former I have been dealing with for a while now and attempt to capture in the metaphor of the internal ham operator.)

Empathic internal awareness
When a signal from the other is detected it can be elaborated into a sensation and then a feeling, or into an awareness and then a thought. One can ping (to use swivelchair’s word) between these to build a complex emotional conception. And one might act upon it.

While this internal response can become increasingly sophisticated, I think that a rather minimal internal awareness can lead to an empathic act.

Empathic act
An empathic behaviour has the following elements:
1. a signal from the other is detected
2. a response is proffered to demonstrate shared experience
3. the response is experienced by the other as right.

I will argue that if any of these is missing it is pseudo-empathy which might well be experienced as unempathic.

Why is this nitpicking necessary?
I trust that it is clear how the collapsing of meanings makes it impossible to follow a statement like this: The psychopath felt no emapthy as he used his empathic detection of another’s signals to behave unempathically in order to hurt the other.

Photo: Briton Riviere: Sympathy, originally uploaded by freeparking

The internal ham operator

Inside each of us is an amateur radio operator who sends and receives signals on frequencies undetectable by the senses.

The radio operator is many rungs beneath the commanding officer. The general is dimly aware (if at all) of the messages this private sends and receives, there being many inefficient bureaucratic levels.

The equipment is rudimentary and the signals are weak; indeed, the signals only carry a few yards – from one person to another. The operator, a bored and unskilled conscript, emit signals sporadically and listens that way too.

The volume is turned down low so as not to interfere with the work of the senses. Nevertheless, even if the volume dial is turned right down, sensitive dials indicate that intermittent signals are in the ether.

When the volume is turned up it is still difficult to make out what if anything the operator in the field is saying, such is the interference and static.

Of course it is essential to be tuned in to the same frequency as the other radio if he is to pick up any signals. Much confusion happens otherwise. The ham operator, unaware that he is operating on a different frequency to his buddy, hears only feedback from his own equipment and distorted echoes of his voice. He might even misconstrue this noise as a message from his buddy. He thus unwittingly misinforms his commanding officer, sometimes with disasterous effects.

More often than not there is dead air because of a variety of factors: poorly maintained equipment, interference in the atmosphere, a weak signal, mistuned frequency settings. One or both operators may dry up and not be sending.

Even when good contact is made, the lines of communication may be broken between the private’s basement cubicle and the general’s top floor control room.

Sometimes the equipment becomes unplugged and the operator sit fruitlessly twiddling the dials. For some their equipment is permanently unplugged or out of order.

When the reception is good and the volume is turned up the message may be distorted and the senses may be overwhelmed. However, there are times when good alignment between the internal receiver and the senses enhances the flow of communication and actions may then follow.

The name given to this incoming signal when it is detected is empathy.
What should be the name for the emitted signal?

Photo: Dad’s radio, originally uploaded by nate steiner

Quickpost – A great new site

Guided and challenged by readers’ comments, I have over the course of several posts been honing in on what this thing is we call empathy.

The journey is far from over. (I haven’t yet got to the operationalisation of emapthy – what it means in practice.)

This seems like a good place to consolidate ideas into an overarching metaphor. I’m writing that at present and hope to have it out tomorrow.


In the meantime, let me draw your attention to new site – Psychoanalyst TV put together by Swivelchair from Neurological correlates.

It’s based on a simple but great idea – aggregating videos on neurology and behaviour. (Although, as the title of the site and the list below indicate, videos are chosen on a much wider and more humorous basis.)

Hopefully the site will attract both comments and recommendations for videos to add. See here for a submission guide.

Some recent posts
Sopranos – Dr. Winer (1:39)
More deposition video Old Lawyer Fight (2:56)
Birth of Baby Orangutan (2:38)
Narcoleptic Dogs (2:53)
TEDtalks: Dan Gilbert (on happiness)(22:01)
Lie Detection – Prof. Paul Eckman (1:46)
The Phone Call (2:00)
Tom Cruise Scientology via Gawker – DIY Microexpression analysis on this (4:41)
Harvard Biovisions – The Inner Life of a Cell (3:10)

Besides providing us with interesting and entertaining videos which we might otherwise miss, it’ll save us a lot of time zooming around Youtube!

Does empathy necessarily involve emotion?

I have suggested that empathy necessarily involves consciousness only if one defines consciousness in the broadest terms to include ‘unsymbolised thinking’ – mental facts or events which are (possible) precursors to words, images, and feelings.

In the study by Scwitzgebel and Hurlbert Describing inner experience? it was found that, far from constant inner speech, inner experience includes unfelt feelings (the Beeps alerted the subject to note her inner experience at that moment):

We discovered that she had feelings, sometimes expressed bodily: of sadness/dread pressing on her chest in Beep 2.2, of yearning in Beep 4.1, of conviction that she was correct in Beep 6.1, of happiness (a lightweight feeling in her lungs) in Beep 6.2, of concentrating in Beep 6.3. But we also discovered that sometimes her feelings were apparently ongoing in her body but are not directly experienced: of being exasperated but not experiencing it directly in Beep 3.3, of concern and resentment not being directly experienced in Beep 4.2, of anxiety about being late not being experienced in her body but being thought about in Beep 5.1.

What Hurlbert calls ‘feelings’ occur at several levels of experience. More on this below.

Readers may be able to go along with the notion that perhaps empathy happens without the level of consciousness enables one to think, “There’s something going on here.” But I suspect they will be loath to give up the idea that empathy involves emotion, indeed is an emotion.

However, that’s in implied in the model I present today. Continue reading