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. The field I visit for concepts is Affect Theory, originally developed by the psychologist Silvan Tomkins and popularised by Donald L. Nathanson.

Affects are the strictly biological portion of emotion. They involve very short bursts of biological activity (ranging from a few hundredths of a second to a couple of seconds). There are nine universal affects.

Dissmell (reaction to bad smell)

The psychoanalyst Michael F. Basch developed Tomkins ideas as follows. The step from affect to feeling is a step from biology to psychology. Feeling is when one becomes aware of an affect. The step is not an automatic one by any means.

Over time feelings become attached to memories: an emotion is a complex interaction of feeling and memory. A feeling connects with memories which in turn trigger other affects. The step from feeling to emotion is from psychology to biography.

Empathy and emotion
All of the above applies to empathy too, with the distinction that empathy is an affect sparked off by something in the other. It is not quibbling to separate out these distinct processes, I don’t think. Indeed, it is the collapsing of them that has contributed to the misuse of the term ’empathy’.

Empathy is an affect evoked by the internal state of another; this evocation may be developed into higher levels of symbolisation – coherent thoughts and/or emotions.


15 thoughts on “Does empathy necessarily involve emotion?

  1. Empathy can’t simply be an emotion as we can have empathy with someone experiencing a variety of emotions.

    My guess is that it is a ‘higher order’/more inclusive experience.

    Everything in our experience has some degree of physicality so I think empathy has this too.

    Do you want empathy as an extra affect. My inclination is to see it as an organisation of experience that includes emotion. This is very much a suggestion. I’m keen to hear others’ responses.

  2. If you can move empathy to a biological affect, that would certainly help explain for me what I saw as highly empathetic behavior, yet explain the lack of feeling and skewed emotion in the psychopath’s behavior.

  3. Physical empathy is certainly physiological, which is why is it involuntary, though I don’t think it’s affect based–it probably involves something like the “mirror neurons.” As I think psychological empathy is based upon physical empathy, I have trouble conceiving of empathy as affect. However, I’m sure there are more affect-based conceptions of empathy than my variety, which sees empathy more as an analog of consciousness, as a form of information processing. I do think a rewording of the definition is required. “Empathy is an affect evoked by the internal state of another” sounds like ESP.

  4. evan – Thanks for your this. It makes me aware of the ‘danger’ (a tad too dramatic) of the direction I’m going in. By suggesting that empathy, while it certainly can be higher order, need not be, I’m heading away from what many people take it to be. Go too far away from others and I’ll be preaching to a one-man choir!

    For me empathy is a lower-level event which is conscious/affective only in a most basic sense.

  5. benzthere – Excellent, you’re getting at precisely what bothers me about the way people talk about psychopaths and empathy and feelings. Hopefully making some distinctions will help us figure out what actually goes on.

    I’m particularly keen to get a better understanding of the psychopathic mind. But I do have the hope/suspicion that, just as in medicine, one can better understand healthy function through the study of dysfunction.

  6. dm-smith – Physical and psychological empathy, this may well be a productive way to go, thanks.

    According to affect theory, affects can be identified through immediate facial reactions that people have to a stimulus, typically well before they could process any real response to the stimulus – e.g. Eckman’s famous micro-expressions.

    Perhaps what happens with empathy is that the mirror neurons activate affects. That’s physical empathy. If that’s more or less right, how does that then become information processing, do you think?

    “’Empathy is an affect evoked by the internal state of another’” sounds like ESP.” I know. I just can’t think of a good reason for not putting it that way (besides not wanting to be associated with ESP!). Rather than say empathy is a variety of ESP, I’d say that what people have thought of as ESP is, in fact, empathy.

  7. Biology –>Psychology->biography->biology again, wash, rinse, repeat

    I think the initial environmental input — “internal state of
    another” — is really “theory of mind” –“My understanding (if any) of another’s internal state.

    And so this may be step 1 in biology: do I understand that another is experiencing something, yes or no (binary)

    If you are autistic, the answer may be no. So you would need another way to understand that initial sensory input.

    You do understand another is thinking something (“theory of mind”) if you have what we consider “normal” wiring (without going into a lot of discussion about what that is here).

    Now, once we know the other has their own thoughts , we go from biology –> psychology to determine *what* the other is thinking.

    I think this pings back and forth between psychology and biography.

    Biography I think is also physiological. The “feelings” may be encoded in imprinted neurons (like “grandmother” cells). So maybe it should be called “biological biography”.

    We see a photo of grandmother. We see grandmother’s apron. We see grandmother’s knitting. (Sorry for the stereotype, researchers, not mine). We see the word “grandmother” and it evokes our “biography”, and oxytocin or serotonin reinforce this “thought”.

    But what if granny is wielding a shotgun? Or is like Janna, the fake internet psychopath?

    “Who do you believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?” she asks.

    You come up with excuses because this “grandmother” doesn’t jibe with “biography” — the concept of “grandmother” imprinted in the “grandmother” cell.

    And so that pings back to your initial “theory of mind” about what the other is thinking — the “feelings” stemming from “biography”.

    And that pings back and forth. You can see it in fmri’s which light up all over the place when people are conflicted.

    (I just saw a speaker speak about developing artificial intelligence based on the concept of decision points based on “grandmother” cells. . . )

  8. On psychopaths:

    (sorry for the long post)

    The understand that others think things, but the link between biology —> psychology is either broken or rerouted.

    Normally, we go from sensory input to limbic system.

    I think psychopaths go from sensory input to the part of the brain that does trigonometry.

    So psychopaths understand “the other person is experiencing something”

    They understand “the other person is experiencing *xyz*”

    Then, instead of wiring that to a mirror neuron or a grandmother cell or whatever, it goes to the trigonometry center: “What is the calculation for that to benefit me?”

    Or something like that.

  9. “Rather than say empathy is a variety of ESP, I’d say that what people have thought of as ESP is, in fact, empathy.”

    Metaphysics or magic is an effect without a medium to produce the effect. With the cause of empathy located in another’s internal state, you have no medium for the effect. So you may as well stay with ESP.

    However, your affect theory can take care of it; the empathetic person picks up and reacts to physical cues (along with situational factors)before they consciously register–which would be something of an analog of physical empathy.

    I have an answer to your question as to how physical empathy becomes information processing, but it’s long and I’m getting self-conscious about the length of my responses. It’s swivelchair’s fault. He apologised for length, and I think of him as terse.

  10. swivelchair – Oy, biography is also biological! You description of rapid pinging is great. (‘Pinging’, a neurological term or a neurologicalcorrelates term?)

  11. swivelchair – you ideas of the psychopath’s brain having some regions ‘unplugged’ and of trigonometry are very nice in that someone like myself can readily employ them in my thinking as it develops – at the same time as they contribute to that thinking.

  12. Without giving it much thought, I’d say physical empathy does not involve any of the universal affects. A lot of physical empathy is collateral, a consequence of organic systems tending to act holistically. For example, “holding your mouth right” when you attempt something is a joke about that kind of collateral movement. Physical empathy is a kinesic/mimetic response to what we’re doing or watching. You asked when physical empathy becomes information processing. It is information processing from the get-go, or, at least a collateral part of it.

    Early on, communication theory took information as a central concern, which makes sense when communication is viewed as social information processing. George Miller’s essay, “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” reported study showing we can retain in short-term memory only seven items, plus or minus two. Ten items produces an interactive matrix of 3,600,000 possible combinations. The sentence referencing Miller contained over 20 items. You see the problem. Miller theorized that we somehow “chunk” information. What follows is a model of both consciousness and information chunking that I picked up from a published symposium on consciousness years ago. Think of consciousness as a circle light projected by flashlight. There is a generally illumined field, which represents general awareness, and a focal center, which represents attention. As we focus attention, we move it around within the generally illumined field. Now imagine some tricksters blindfold you, spirit you away, and leave you in some dark room. When you get the blindfold off and the lights turned on you begin to look for cues, signs, of where you are. You see a bookcase full of medical books, a stethoscope on the desk, and some family pictures. You reasonably conclude that you are in a doctor’s office. So all the signs go into the context of information that is the doctor’s office. In that context, some signs are more criterial and others — the medical library, the stethoscope — and the family pictures are less reliable, but consistent with offices generally. On the basis of those few signs you expect many others. For example, pens, pencils, appointment books and so on. You didn’t focus on any of those; they are potentials of the context in contrast with the actuals you attended to. So in information processing, whatever is actual (actually attended to) is a sign, and what it signifies is the potential other signs of the context. So when we hear a word, what it means is potentialities, not actualities. The potentiality is the “chunk” of information.

    Here’s a complementary physiological model. There are longer and shorter neural pathways through the reticular activating system to the “associative” cortex. The reticular activating system is involved with the kind of discrimination, differentiation, characteristic of attention behavior. One theory of processing is that messages through the shorter pathways reach the cortex in time to assign relevance and signal the reticular activating system “Pay attention. Something important is coming through.” In our everyday lives attention behavior is chiefly flickering, briefly orienting or largely absent — as when you drive to work and suddenly realize where you are. All of your perceptual and motor abilities were working– you stopped at lights, turned where you should, and didn’t get a ticket. You just weren’t paying attention, at least in the sense of the tending to all of the details. That’s our every day, normative mode of processing. In that mode things are processed and acted on pretty much in terms of relevance and habit. Any well learned routinized information can be processed in this mode. Most communication behavior is in this mode. One reason we don’t know what we’re going to say until we say it is because we don’t have a memorize words for the relevance for expressing. We have to find them. It’s like painting a feeling.

    On the other hand, when we are learning a foreign language, such as chemistry or physics, our reticular activating system works overtime and can stand it for only short period– i.e., our attention span. This second mode of processing is described as involving a high degree of consciousness. The descriptions of consciousness, from general orientation to highly conscious behavior have as their primary ingredient focused attention, stimulus differentiation. My guess is when you process newly learned information the stimulus is correlated with specific memory items. You ask a Physics 101 student about Einstein’s theory of relativity and you get a more or less rote textbook answer. You ask a physicist the same question and you get a relevance answer — the importance of the theory to physics and vastly more effective expression than from the student. The physicist knows all the actuals of the information context, and if necessary he can access them, attend to them, but that’s a slow, dull way of processing.

    To summarize, in my view, consciousness describes less a what than a how of information processing, is less a state than a process, the process being the interaction beween potential relevance and actual signs.

  13. dm-smith – I’ve just re-read your lovely piece on attention, etc. Very nice. Perhaps what I’ve been groping towards is a way of describing the process of “the interaction beween potential relevance and actual signs” with particular reference to empathy.

    I’ve learned so much on this empathy-excursion of mine, but feel as though I’ve got about as far as I’ve need to go for my purposes. I envisage two more posts. One outlining a list of further issues I could have posted on re empathy. And one on how a psychopath might use empathy.

    Then it’s on to other pastures. See you there.

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