Tag Archives: empathy

Reading Makes You A Better Person

Scientists have finally learned what book lovers have known for some time — reading fiction makes you a better person.

From Readers Digest:

Anyone who reads understands the bittersweet feeling of finishing a good book. It’s as if a beloved friend has suddenly packed her things and parted, the back cover swinging closed like a taxicab door. Farewell, friend. See you on the shelf.

If you’ve ever felt weird for considering fictional characters your friends or fictional places your home, science says you no longer have to. A new body of research is emerging to explain how books have such a powerful emotional pull on us, and the answer du jour is surprising—when we step into a fictional world, we treat the experiences as if they were real. Adding to the endless list of reading benefits is this: Reading fiction literally makes you more empathetic in real life.

Not all fiction is created equal, though—and reading a single chapter of Harry Potter isn’t an instant emotion-enhancer. Here are a few key caveats from the nerdy scientists trying to figure out why reading rules.

Rule #1: The story has to “take you somewhere.”

How many times have you heard someone declare that a good book “transports” you? That immersive power that allows readers to happily inhabit other people, places, and points of view for hours at a time is precisely what a team of researchers in the Netherlands credit for the results of a 2013 study in which students asked to read an Arthur Conan Doyle mystery showed a marked increase in empathy one week later, while students tasked with reading a sampling of news articles showed a decline.

Read the entire article here.

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Does Evil Exist?

Humans have a peculiar habit of anthropomorphizing anything that moves, and for that matter, most objects that remain static as well. So, it is not surprising that evil is often personified and even stereotyped; it is said that true evil even has a home somewhere below where you currently stand.

From the Guardian:

The friction between the presence of evil in our world and belief in a loving creator God sparks some tough questions. For many religious people these are primarily existential questions, as their faith contends with doubt and bewilderment. The biblical figure of Job, the righteous man who loses everything that is dear to him, remains a powerful example of this struggle. But the “problem of evil” is also an intellectual puzzle that has taxed the minds of philosophers and theologians for centuries.

One of the most influential responses to the problem of evil comes from St Augustine. As a young man, Augustine followed the teachings of a Christian sect known as the Manichees. At the heart of Manichean theology was the idea of a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. This, of course, proposes one possible solution to the problem of evil: all goodness, purity and light comes from God, and the darkness of evil has a different source.

However, Augustine came to regard this cosmic dualism as heretical, since it undermined God’s sovereignty. Of course, he wanted to hold on to the absolute goodness of God. But if God is the source of all things, where did evil come from? Augustine’s radical answer to this question is that evil does not actually come from anywhere. Rejecting the idea that evil is a positive force, he argues that it is merely a “name for nothing other than the absence of good”.

At first glance this looks like a philosophical sleight of hand. Augustine might try to define evil out of existence, but this cannot diminish the reality of the pain, suffering and cruelty that prompt the question of evil in the first place. As the 20th-century Catholic writer Charles Journet put it, the non-being of evil “can have a terrible reality, like letters carved out of stone”. Any defence of Augustine’s position has to begin by pointing out that his account of evil is metaphysical rather than empirical. In other words, he is not saying that our experience of evil is unreal. On the contrary, since a divinely created world is naturally oriented toward the good, any lack of goodness will be felt as painful, wrong and urgently in need of repair. To say that hunger is “merely” the absence of food is not to deny the intense suffering it involves.

One consequence of Augustine’s mature view of evil as “non-being”, a privation of the good, is that evil eludes our understanding. His sophisticated metaphysics of evil confirms our intuitive response of incomprehension in the face of gratuitous brutality, or of senseless “natural” evil like a child’s cancer. Augustine emphasises that evil is ultimately inexplicable, since it has no substantial existence: “No one therefore must try to get to know from me what I know that I do not know, unless, it may be, in order to learn not to know what must be known to be incapable of being known!” Interestingly, by the way, this mysticism about evil mirrors the “negative theology” which insists that God exceeds the limits of our understanding.

So, by his own admission, Augustine’s “solution” to the problem of evil defends belief in God without properly explaining the kinds of acts which exert real pressure on religious faith. He may be right to point out that the effects of evil tend to be destruction and disorder – a twisting or scarring of nature, and of souls. Nevertheless, believers and non-believers alike will feel that this fails to do justice to the power of evil. We may demand a better account of the apparent positivity of evil – of the fact, for example, that holocausts and massacres often involve meticulous planning, technical innovation and creative processes of justification.

Surprisingly, though, the basic insight of Augustinian theodicy finds support in recent science. In his 2011 book Zero Degrees of Empathy, Cambridge psychopathology professor Simon Baron-Cohen proposes “a new theory of human cruelty”. His goal, he writes, is to replace the “unscientific” term “evil” with the idea of “empathy erosion”: “People said to be cruel or evil are simply at one extreme of the empathy spectrum,” he writes. (He points out, though, that some people at this extreme display no more cruelty than those higher up the empathy scale – they are simply socially isolated.)

Loss of empathy resembles the Augustinian concept of evil in that it is a deficiency of goodness – or, to put it less moralistically, a disruption of normal functioning – rather than a positive force. In this way at least, Baron-Cohen’s theory echoes Augustine’s argument, against the Manicheans, that evil is not an independent reality but, in essence, a lack or a loss.

Read the entire article following the jump.

Image: Marvel Comics Vault of Evil. Courtesy of Wikia / Marvel Comics.

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Empathy and Touch

From Scientific American:

When a friend hits her thumb with a hammer, you don’t have to put much effort into imagining how this feels. You know it immediately. You will probably tense up, your “Ouch!” may arise even quicker than your friend’s, and chances are that you will feel a little pain yourself. Of course, you will then thoughtfully offer consolation and bandages, but your initial reaction seems just about automatic. Why?

Neuroscience now offers you an answer: A recent line of research has demonstrated that seeing other people being touched activates primary sensory areas of your brain, much like experiencing the same touch yourself would do. What these findings suggest is beautiful in its simplicity—that you literally “feel with” others.

There is no denying that the exceptional interpersonal understanding we humans show is by and large a product of our emotional responsiveness. We are automatically affected by other people’s feelings, even without explicit communication. Our involvement is sometimes so powerful that we have to flee it, turning our heads away when we see someone get hurt in a movie. Researchers hold that this capacity emerged long before humans evolved. However, only quite recently has it been given a name: A mere hundred years ago, the word “Empathy”—a combination of the Greek “in” (em-) and “feeling” (pathos)—was coined by the British psychologist E. B. Titchener during his endeavor to translate the German Einfühlungsvermögen (“the ability to feel into”).

Despite the lack of a universally agreed-upon definition of empathy, the mechanisms of sharing and understanding another’s experience have always been of scientific and public interest—and particularly so since the introduction of “mirror neurons.” This important discovery was made two decades ago by  Giacomo Rizzolatti and his co-workers at the University of Parma, who were studying motor neuron properties in macaque monkeys. To compensate for the tedious electrophysiological recordings required, the monkey was occasionally given food rewards. During these incidental actions something unexpected happened: When the monkey, remaining perfectly still, saw the food being grasped by an experimenter in a specific way, some of its motor neurons discharged. Remarkably, these neurons normally fired when the monkey itself grasped the food in this way. It was as if the monkey’s brain was directly mirroring the actions it observed. This “neural resonance,” which was later also demonstrated in humans, suggested the existence of a special type of “mirror” neurons that help us understand other people’s actions.

Do you find yourself wondering, now, whether a similar mirror mechanism could have caused your pungent empathic reaction to your friend maltreating herself with a hammer? A group of scientists led by Christian Keysers believed so. The researchers had their participants watch short movie clips of people being touched, while using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record their brain activity. The brain scans revealed that the somatosensory cortex, a complex of brain regions processing touch information, was highly active during the movie presentations—although participants were not being touched at all. As was later confirmed by other studies, this activity strongly resembled the somatosensory response participants showed when they were actually touched in the same way. A recent study by Esther Kuehn and colleagues even found that, during the observation of a human hand being touched, parts of the somatosensory cortex were particularly active when (judging by perspective) the hand clearly belonged to another person.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image courtesy of Science Daily.

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Yawning and Empathy

From Scientific American:

You can tell a lot about a person from their body. And I don’t just mean how many hours they spend at the gym, or how easy it is for them to sweet-talk their way out of speeding tickets. For the past several decades researchers have been studying the ways in which the body reveals properties of the mind. An important subset of this work has taken this idea a step further: do the ways our bodies relate to one another tell us about the ways in which our minds relate to one another? Consider behavioral mimicry. Many studies have found that we quite readily mimic the nonverbal behavior of those with whom we interact. Furthermore, the degree to which we mimic others is predicted by both our personality traits as well as our relationship to those around us. In short, the more empathetic we are, the more we mimic, and the more we like the people we’re interacting with, the more we mimic. The relationship between our bodies reveals something about the relationship between our minds.

The bulk of this research has made use of clever experimental manipulations involving research assistant actors. The actor crosses his legs and then waits to see if the participant crosses his legs, too. If so, we’ve found mimicry, and can now compare the presence of mimicry with self-reports of, say, liking and interpersonal closeness to see if there is a relationship. More naturalistic evidence for this phenomenon has been much harder to come by. That is, to what extent do we see this kind of nonverbal back and forth in the real world and to what extent does it reveal the same properties of minds that seem to hold true in the lab?

A recent study conducted by Ivan Norscia and Elisabetta Palagi and published in the journal PLoSONE has found such evidence in the unlikeliest of places: yawns. More specifically, yawn contagion, or that annoyingly inevitable phenomenon that follows seeing, hearing (and even reading) about another yawn. You’ve certainly experienced this, but perhaps you have not considered what it might reveal to others (beyond a lack of sleep or your interest level in their conversation). Past work has demonstrated that, similar to behavioral mimicry, contagious yawners tend to be higher in dispositional empathy. That is, they tend to be the type of people who are better, and more interested in, understanding other people’s internal states. Not only that, but contagious yawning seems to emerge in children at the same time that they develop the cognitive capacities involved in empathizing with others. And children who lack this capacity, such as in autism, also show deficits in their ability to catch others’ yawns. In short, the link between yawning and empathizing appears strong.

Given that regions of the brain involved in empathizing with others can be influenced by the degree of psychological closeness to those others, Norscia and Palagi wanted to know whether contagious yawning might also reveal information about how we relate to those around us. Specifically, are we more likely to catch the yawns of people to whom we are emotionally closer? Can we deduce something about the quality of the relationships between individuals based solely on their pattern of yawning?  Yawning might tell us the degree to which we empathize with, and by extension care about, the people around us.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Alex Gumerov/iStock / Scientific American.

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