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.

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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?

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Photo: You know, originally uploaded by Ingorrr

Quickpost – An interesting set of posts

Evan Hadkins is taking an interesting direction on his blog Wellbeing and health. Over the last week or so he has written a set of three posts in the form of a brief autobiography. Now this part is not exactly unusual in the blogging world – indeed writing about the minuiae of life is the stereotype many non-bloggers have.

The purpose of Evan’s narrative has a point, though, and that is to demonstrate the development of what has become a coherent spiritual/physical/psychological worldview. Rather than state (or imply) “This is the way I see things”, he shows how his blend of western and eastern (christian [lowercase], Taoist) spiritual and treatment (Gestalt, acupuncture) traditions came into being and coheres.

Full disclosure: he is a regular commentator on this site. The biographical pieces ‘health and me’ can be read here, here, and here.

In the final episode Evan mentions three projects for 2008.

1. A course dealing with the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual will be run via the site.
2. Also a long article to be available as a free report (an ebook?).
3. A series of blog reviews. Contact him with suggestions.

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

Is empathy necessarily accurate?


If there is an overlap or blurriness of people’s subjectivities, empathy is what call the ability to tell what another is experiencing. We say, “He gets me,” “She understood,” “I know what that’s like”. We speak of stepping into another’s shoes, of seeing the world through their eyes.

When empathy fails we say, “You don’t understand what it’s like,” or “She doesn’t get me.”

Empathy implies that person A experiences something which person B then experiences too (be it through identification, mirror neurons, or intuition – perhaps these are the same thing). It is as if person A gives off something which person B detects.

Human communication, in other words, is more than the literal content of what one person says to another. Indeed, that level of interchange, some would say, is less about communication and more about hiding and manipulating. Here’s Harold Pinter: Continue reading

The blurriness of empathy


Could the truism be wrong: the psychopath lacks empathy?

In order that we can understand the ‘callous/lack of empathy’ criterion of the Psychopath Checklist (PCL–R), I ask What, is this thing called ‘empathy’?

Readers of this blog – those who have commented thus far, that is – range in expertise from therapeutic, to philosophical, to those whose experience has been forged through life with a psychopath. Responses have been striking in that they have highlighted each of the main ways the term is understood.

Extra-; Intra-; Inter
The first thing to say is that when one accepts the existence of the phenomenon empathy one is choosing sides in a deep philosophical divide. Continue reading