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.

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

Quickpost – Revenge! But should she have seen it coming? (Come to think of it, should he?)

Talk about losing face!

Perhaps you’ve heard about the case of the very public humiliation of Zhang Bin, news director and premier newsreader for CCTV 5, China’s main sports channel.

A fuller account can be read here, but the gist of it follows.

At its relaunch as the the channel of the Beijing Olympics, Zhang’s wife, Hu Ziwei (also a well-known sports newsreader), walked on stage and announced to the audience that she’d just dicovered that her husband had been committing adultery. It can be viewed here. Ouch!

Hu did not hesitate to link her husband’s values to those of the country:

Zhang Bin can’t even face up to his own hurt wife. I think China, to succeed as a great power….Don’t any of you have any conscience?! Let go of me! We’re very far from being a great country.

The scene was edited out before broadcast but, as always happens, found its way onto the internet. According to the Free Republic report:

Opinion was divided. While many enjoyed the humiliation doled out to the CCTV anchor – a breed held in much contempt by internet users – others pointed out that Mrs Hu should not have been surprised at her treatment. After all, Zhang was already married to his first wife when he met her.

So, help me folks – what, if anything, can we draw from this?

Photo: photos2 033, originally uploaded by céd

Quick post: Violent media make reactive aggressive behaviour more likely. Case closed?

Even brief exposure to violent media diminishes the responses in those areas of the brain associated with control over reactive aggression. (Interestingly, this is not the case with other equally arousing media.)

Deric Bownds’ Mindblog alerts us to the following study by Kelly, et al., ‘Repeated Exposure to Media Violence Is Associated with Diminished Response in an Inhibitory Frontolimbic Network’.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we found that repeated exposure to violent media, but not to other equally arousing media, led to both diminished response in right lateral orbitofrontal cortex (right ltOFC) and a decrease in right ltOFC-amygdala interaction. Reduced function in this network has been previously associated with decreased control over a variety of behaviors, including reactive aggression. Indeed, we found reduced right ltOFC responses to be characteristic of those subjects that reported greater tendencies toward reactive aggression. Furthermore, the violence-induced reduction in right ltOFC response coincided with increased throughput to behavior planning regions.

These novel findings establish that even short-term exposure to violent media can result in diminished responsiveness of a network associated with behaviors such as reactive aggression. The present results indicate that violent media exert a unique effect on a cortical network that is associated with the regulation of reactive aggression and other context-dependent behaviors. This effect may be part of a broad mechanism that can link exposure to violent media with the emergence or increased likelihood of aggressive behavior. Given the complex nature of aggression, however, it should not be taken as the complete mechanism itself. Further studies should determine the role of other aggression-related networks and examine how and when these changes interact with behavioral phenotypes.  

Does this change/confirm your view/…?

Quickpost: Jobs for psychopaths – redux

It’s been proved: senior British managers and executive officers share many personality traits with psychopaths at Broadmoor.

mindhacks refers to an article on the ‘successful psychopath’. The relevant findings are:

The researchers found that the business managers scored, on average, more highly on measures of histrionic, narcissistic and compulsive personality than samples of former and current patients. These personality traits are thought to reflect characteristics such as superficial charm, lack of empathy and perfectionism. All of which could be potentially useful in the cut-throat business world.   However, unlike the Broadmoor patients, the business managers scored lower on antisocial, borderline and paranoid personality traits, reflecting lower levels of aggression, impulsivity and mistrust. Exactly the sort of personality traits that are likely to cause problems with senior managers and the law.The authors of the study suggest that the business managers may be examples of ‘successful psychopaths’ – “people with personality disorder patterns, but without the characteristic history of arrest and incarceration”.  

I’m not sure about the last bit. Are business-types (and politicians?) more narcissistic than psychopathic, or vice versa? Still I thought readers would be interested given our ongoing discussions.

Board, B.J. & Fritzon, Katarina, F. (2005). Disordered personalities at work. Psychology, Crime and Law, 11, 17-32.