The internal ham operator
January 19, 2008

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

Is one necessarily conscious of one’s empathy?
January 13, 2008

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)
January 11, 2008

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.” (more…)

Quickpost – Why empathic ‘accuracy’?
January 10, 2008

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

Is empathy necessarily accurate?
January 9, 2008

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: (more…)

The blurriness of empathy
January 8, 2008

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. (more…)

Do you know what is empathy is?
January 5, 2008

What, in your understanding, is empathy? Is it an ability, an attitude, a behaviour?

Psychopathic lack of empathy
Once we know what empathy is we can make sense of what the psychopath’s famed lack of empathy is.

As you may know, ‘callous/lack of empathy’ is one of the twenty items on Hare’s Psychopath Checklist – Revised (PCL-R). (The full the list is reproduced below.)

But, does the slash (/) mean ‘and’ or ‘or’ or ‘and or or’?

  • Are ‘callous’ and ‘lack of empathy’ synonyms (callous, in other words, lack of empathy)?
  • Or are ‘callous’ and ‘lack of empathy’ distinct (callous plus lack of empathy)?
  • Perhaps ‘callous’ and ‘lack of empathy’ are fused (callous implies empathy)?

Consider this article abstract: