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

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

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

Quickpost – inner experience – (how much) do we talk to ourselves?

In my last post I asked whether one is necessarily conscious of one’s empathy.

I offered an example where something of the state of one person is evoked in another (me), but “I don’t notice it at all. In this case, I sit with Joe and my body responds to something in him (perhaps he’s as unaware of his feeling as I am of mine). No cognition, no rationality, no awareness. Nothing registers, nothing is done – the moment passes.”

But this polarises things too much – as though thought is either a fully formed conscious idea or nothing at all. It separates body and mind, it is more all-or-nothing.

As sometimes happens, the very next thing I read after publishing the post gives me a diffirent way of putting things.

Eric Scwitzgebel and Russell T. Hurlbert have written Describing inner experience?. In it they set about to discover what out inner experience is like: verbal, imagistic, emotional…

(At the bottom of this post I include an except from the preface to show the brilliant method used to study this fleeting topic.)

Consciousness without inner speech, etc.
What I’ve latched onto is Hurlbert’s concept of ‘unsymbolized thinking’ – the idea that “much conscious thinking takes place neither in speech, nor in images, nor in any other symbolic format.”

Says, Schwtizgebel:

Russ Hurlburt suggests that people often overestimate the amount of inner speech (silent speaking to oneself) in their stream of experience. People, he says, simply presuppose that that is how thinking must occur….In conversation Hurlburt has also suggested that one basis for the impression many people have that they frequently or constantly talk silently to themselves is that when we stop to think about what our current stream of experience is, that self-reflective activity tends itself to produce inner speech in many people. Why exactly this should be so I’m not sure. But if it is so, someone might gain the false impression that inner speech is constant because she notices inner speech whenever she stops to think about what her experience is. (This would be a version of the “refrigerator light error”.)

The inner consciousness of empathy
To come back to my question – is one necessarily conscious of one’s empathy? My answer must now be maybe. If conscious does not necessarily involve inner speech, let alone the formulation of ideas, then it is quite possible to have an empathic response without (yet or ever) formulating that response into an idea.

It still remains a possibility, though, that empathy is a fact and not necessarily an experience. It may be that there is an empathic neurological response which the subject does not register consciously – even in unsymbolised thinking.

From the preface to Describing inner experience?:

Can inner experience (‘phenomenal consciousness’ in contemporary philosophical lingo) be accurately apprehended and faithfully described? The question is crucially important, both for a humanistic understanding of who we are and what we know about ourselves and for the newly burgeoning scientific field of ‘consciousness studies.’ One of us, Russ, is an optimist, believing that adequate methods make faithful descriptions of experience possible. The other, Eric, is a pessimist, believing that people are prone to considerable introspective error even under the best of conditions. Five years ago at a conference in Tucson, we presented opposing papers on the matter and instantly became friends, arguing over dinner, then over margaritas, then again the next day, then in the airport waiting for our respective flights home.

This book is the product of our best attempt to make concrete progress in our dispute. We felt a need to do something more than simply continue with the usual methods of abstract argument, historical reference, and citation of favorite experiments. Thus, we recruited someone not party to the dispute (we’ll call her ‘Melanie’), asked her to describe her experience in a way Russ found suitable – by random sampling and interview – and debated the extent to which the resulting descriptions could be believed. The bulk of this book is a lightly edited transcript of these interviews, in which Melanie makes her best effort to describe individual moments of her experience in careful detail, and Russ and Eric question her, argue with each other, and further pursue their disagreements (and connect with the relevant psychological and philosophical literature) in side boxes. Although Melanie’s experiences are in certain respects quite ordinary, we think the reader will find at least some of her descriptions surprising, intriguing, and suggestive. The book begins and concludes with chapters expressing our different points of view and our different takes on what we accomplished and failed to accomplish.

Is one necessarily conscious of one’s empathy?

The story thus far. There is a blurring of subjectivities. Empathy refers to a meeting of something of me and something of you. I have argued that empathy is neccesarily accurate in the sense of an actual meeting having taken place (and not been imagined, say). However, one’s interpretation of the content of what one has met may not be factually accurate.

Now the question emerges, is one necessarily conscious of empathy?

I’ll start with an example where consciousness is apparent. Joe and I are talking about nothing in particular when I begin to feel enormously sad. I can’t think of anything in my life that may be causing this, nor is there anything sad in what we’re talking about. I say, “Are you OK?” He sighs and says, “I miss Jane”.

Let’s take this as an unambiguous case of empathy. I am conscious of what’s going on.

(Incidentally, the empathy is the meeting of my feeling with his, not my comment – that’s empathic behaviour, something I wish to keep distinct because in reality there is no necessary connection between them.)

Now, could it be the case that empathy could be at work but there be no consciousness of this at all? Let’s go back to the example.

Say Joe and I talking about nothing in particular when I begin to feel enormously sad. But this time I have an urge to have a beer, or to do some exercise, or tell a joke.

Or perhaps I have no urge but for a while after our talk I feel a little down. If I think about it at all I wonder whether I need something to eat. Perhaps I don’t notice it at all.

In this case, I sit with Joe and my body responds to something in him (perhaps he’s as unaware of his feeling as I am of mine). No cognition, no rationality, no awareness. Nothing registers, nothing is done – the moment passes.

Is this empathy?

Photo: You know, originally uploaded by Ingorrr

Empathy, identification, projection, projection-and-identification (and projective identification)

In this post I want to clarify the difference between ‘identification’ and ‘projection’ as they will be useful in my task of elaborating the meaning of ’empathy’

Empathy is a psychologically accurate resonance with what is going on for another person. To empathise is to identify with an aspect of the other person.

Identification may be fleeting or enduring, trivial or profound.

In its slighter form, identification involves seeing oneself in another. For example, the reader of a novel identifies with a character – meaning there is an aspect of the character which matches something in the reader’s experience or make-up. “I really identified with the Michael Douglas character in ‘Falling down’ – sometimes I also feel like blowing my top.” Continue reading

Quickpost – Why empathic ‘accuracy’?

Many thanks to readers who keep me on my toes with their generous, challenging questions.

Among other things, I realise reading the comments that I have hopped over a couple of paving stones which may have made it less obvious to others how my thoughts were progressing. (On the other hand, it may be that my thoughts aren’t actually progressing at all!)

The last post raises the issues of empathic accuracy and suggests that empathy is accurate in one (psychological) sense, but not necessarily in another (factual).

But why raise the question of accuracy at all? I’ll try to briefly say through an example:

John: “I can see that you miss her a lot. You look sad.”
James: “That’s not it at all. I’ve just heard that the bank has screwed up my statements again and I’m feeling frustrated and at my wit’s end. Actually I haven’t had a chance to think about her at all.”

    A. Let’s say that somehow we know that James is feeling loss, but has fixed on the bank’s problem to distract himself from that pain. In this case we can say that John has empathised with James – even though James denies it – because he has accurately garnered something about James’ state.

    B. Even if James is not feeling loss, per se, but is at a loss because his partner is away, we might say that John has successfully picked up on something about James.

    C. Perhaps James doesn’t miss her. Rather he feels guilty. Even here it might be that John is empathising if he is picking up the complementary position of missing – his guilt for being the cause of her feelings of loss.

    D. Now let’s say that James has pretty good self-knowledge and is not denying or repressive feelings of loss. In this case we must say that John has mis-identified James’s state; despite his intentions to do so, he has not empathised with James; he has been unempathic.

The point here is that empathy is a kind of deep meeting; no meeting, no empathy. If it is wholly inaccurate then it has nothing to do with the other and is a one-person activity.

Now, why has John in D. got it so wrong? Possibly he has projected his own current state – or his state as he imagines it would be in James’ shoes – onto James.

Emapthy is an act of identification with, not projection onto. A post on these mechanisms follows.

"Photo: DAMN IT, another twin moment!", originally uploaded by Cosmic Kitty