Richard Lopez

Rich is a happy and recent resident of Morningside Heights. He currently works as a research assistant at the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Columbia University, where he studies emotion regulation and craving in substance-using populations. He graduated from Princeton University in 2009 with a BA in psychology. In addition to studying the brain and human behavior, Rich enjoys moonlighting for The Curator and writing songs that illumine and transcend our human condition. He can be found trying to "keep the feast" at richlopez.wordpress.com.

Explaining Empathy

This article originally appeared in The Curator May 21, 2010.

How do I know that I know what I know – about you? This is clearly a question about epistemology, about knowledge. But it’s a special kind of knowledge, about others.

The ability to understand what another human being is thinking or feeling is most commonly known as empathy. The word empathy comes from the German einfühlung, which literally translates as “feeling into.” For thousands of years, empathy has attracted the attention of great thinkers in many fields of study, but only recently has empathy experienced a serious comeback, signaled by the advent of social neuroscience. This field, a melding of social psychology and cognitive neuroscience, is startlingly young and the researchers in it are duly young, and maybe even hip (as David Brooks has pointed out).  Empathy has found center stage in a large body of social neuroscience research. So far there doesn’t seem to be a definite consensus on how we empathize with others, but there are two prominent theories on the table that try to explain the phenomenon of empathy.

The first one, called Simulation Theory, proposes that empathy is possible because when we see another person experiencing an emotion, we “simulate” or represent that same emotion in ourselves so we can know firsthand what it feels like. In fact, there is some preliminary evidence of so-called “mirror neurons” in humans that fire during both the observation and experience of actions and emotions. And there are even parts of the brain in the medial prefrontal cortex (responsible for higher-level kinds of thought) that show overlap of activation for both self-focused and other-focused thoughts and judgments. On an intuitive level, Simulation Theory makes sense, because it seems glaringly obvious that in order to understand what another person is feeling, I can simply pretend as if I were feeling the same thing. Despite its intuitive appeal, Simulation Theory has to be tested to see what evidence exists for it in the brain.

The other proposed theory that attempts to explain empathy, which some researchers think completely opposes Simulation Theory, is known as Theory of Mind—the ability to understand what another person is thinking and feeling based on rules for how one should think and feel. Research exploring Theory of Mind became very popular in clinical work on autism, the basic finding showing that autistic individuals cannot effectively represent or explain the mental states of another. More recently, tasks that tap Theory of Mind processes have been implemented in brain scanning studies. The results from these studies show that there may be specific brain areas that underlie and support a Theory of Mind.

Sadly, some researchers have pledged their allegiance exclusively to one of these theories, creating an academic duel with the naïve assumption that one of these theories is right and the other blatantly wrong. Not to risk sounding too cliché, but I can’t help but ask the question: can’t we just get along?

What’s most likely, maybe, is that empathy is a multi-faceted process, with some aspects of it being more automatic and emotional (immediately getting upset when we see a loved one who’s upset) and other aspects of it that are more reflective and conceptual (understanding why someone might be upset based on what we know about the person, his/her personality, etc.). Whether the more automatic or the more reflective aspect “kicks in” will necessarily depend on the social context in which we find ourselves. This is a daunting, open question, and we’ll have to wait for social neuroscience as a field to grow a bit more and address it.

For now, what we can say from empathy research is that we have begun to understand how the brain gives rise to the wonderful capacity we have to “feel into” another human being. With the newfound tools of social neuroscience in hand, psychologists and neuroscientists are now on the cusp of more discoveries about the vibrant life of the empathic brain.

 

photo by: A_of_DooM

Explaining Empathy

How do I know that I know what I know – about you? This is clearly a question about epistemology, about knowledge. But it’s a special kind of knowledge, about others.

The ability to understand what another human being is thinking or feeling is most commonly known as empathy. The word empathy comes from the German einfühlung, which literally translates as “feeling into.” For thousands of years, empathy has attracted the attention of great thinkers in many fields of study, but only recently has empathy experienced a serious comeback, signaled by the advent of social neuroscience. This field, a melding of social psychology and cognitive neuroscience, is startlingly young and the researchers in it are duly young, and maybe even hip (as David Brooks has pointed out).  Empathy has found center stage in a large body of social neuroscience research. So far there doesn’t seem to be a definite consensus on how we empathize with others, but there are two prominent theories on the table that try to explain the phenomenon of empathy.

The first one, called Simulation Theory, proposes that empathy is possible because when we see another person experiencing an emotion, we “simulate” or represent that same emotion in ourselves so we can know firsthand what it feels like. In fact, there is some preliminary evidence of so-called “mirror neurons” in humans that fire during both the observation and experience of actions and emotions. And there are even parts of the brain in the medial prefrontal cortex (responsible for higher-level kinds of thought) that show overlap of activation for both self-focused and other-focused thoughts and judgments. On an intuitive level, Simulation Theory makes sense, because it seems glaringly obvious that in order to understand what another person is feeling, I can simply pretend as if I were feeling the same thing. Despite its intuitive appeal, Simulation Theory has to be tested to see what evidence exists for it in the brain.

The other proposed theory that attempts to explain empathy, which some researchers think completely opposes Simulation Theory, is known as Theory of Mind—the ability to understand what another person is thinking and feeling based on rules for how one should think and feel. Research exploring Theory of Mind became very popular in clinical work on autism, the basic finding showing that autistic individuals cannot effectively represent or explain the mental states of another. More recently, tasks that tap Theory of Mind processes have been implemented in brain scanning studies. The results from these studies show that there may be specific brain areas that underlie and support a Theory of Mind.

Sadly, some researchers have pledged their allegiance exclusively to one of these theories, creating an academic duel with the naïve assumption that one of these theories is right and the other blatantly wrong. Not to risk sounding too cliché, but I can’t help but ask the question: can’t we just get along?

What’s most likely, maybe, is that empathy is a multi-faceted process, with some aspects of it being more automatic and emotional (immediately getting upset when we see a loved one who’s upset) and other aspects of it that are more reflective and conceptual (understanding why someone might be upset based on what we know about the person, his/her personality, etc.). Whether the more automatic or the more reflective aspect “kicks in” will necessarily depend on the social context in which we find ourselves. This is a daunting, open question, and we’ll have to wait for social neuroscience as a field to grow a bit more and address it.

For now, what we can say from empathy research is that we have begun to understand how the brain gives rise to the wonderful capacity we have to “feel into” another human being. With the newfound tools of social neuroscience in hand, psychologists and neuroscientists are now on the cusp of more discoveries about the vibrant life of the empathic brain.

photo by:

Angry Babies and Automatic Minds

 

BAM! ANGRY BABY!

There it is.

“It” is the quick “Whoa, angry baby!” reaction you experienced when you saw the picture. Quick cognitive processes carried out by your brain immediately perceived the baby’s facial expression as the primary input. The output – the “whoa” response – is seemingly not subject to reflective thought. It just happens.

We can say our reaction is automatic; it doesn’t “wait” for us to reflect on it or change it. For many years, psychologists debated about what comes first: affective (good/bad) reactions, or deliberate and reflective thinking? Of course, these two processes are not mutually exclusive, since a lot of our cognition is probably an interaction between them. But many times, one type of process might have greater influence in driving a response to a stimulus, as we’ve seen here with this agitated little one.

So what makes up the stuff of thought? “Hot” affective reactions, or “cold” cognitive operations? For much of the last century, information processing models of cognition assumed that affective (evaluative) judgments happened at a post-cognitive stage. For example, if I wanted to determine whether or not I like a certain sweater, I would first make informed inferences based on multiple criteria of the sweater (such as softness of fabric, size, style, and so on). After individually calculating “weights” for each criterion, I would then sum the weights and, finally, make an evaluative decision about the sweater.

The game-changer came in 1980, when the late Robert Zajonc published a seminal paper that swept the theory-scape of psychology. According to Google Scholar, this paper – “Feeling and Thinking: Preferences Need No Inferences” – has been cited nearly 3,600 times since its publication. Zajonc’s main premise was that affect tends to overwhelmingly color our perceptions and judgments, leaving little room for more reasoned thought. Affect dominates so much, Zajonc argued, that affective processes temporally precede and therefore trump deliberate thinking.

Social psychology has taken this assumption and run with it – probably prematurely. For example, in 1999 John Bargh published “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being” in American Psychologist. This paper highlights some interesting findings from Bargh’s research, suggesting that a lot of our behaviors are activated and carried out by unconscious processes. These processes, sometimes called heuristics, are usually rapid and affective in quality, and while they might be more functionally efficient, they give rise to errors and biases in our reasoning and judgments (see Kahneman & Tversky, 1974).

But Bargh, at the end of what seems like a permissive concession to the intractability of our automatic minds, comes to the strange conclusion that automatic processes “are in our service and best interests…They are, if anything, ‘mental butlers’ who know our tendencies and preferences so well that they anticipate and take care of them for us, without having to be asked.”

That’s all well and good – if our preferences and tendencies are healthy and adaptive, contributing to our (and others’) well-being and flourishing. But what about in the case of psychopathology? What should I tell the depressed patient about her recurring negative thoughts that paralyze her and prevent her from connecting with those whom she loves? Should I just tell her that her “mental butler” is taking care of everything, and that she shouldn’t go to therapy to try to change her thought processes?

While I respect Bargh’s opinion, I do not like its implications. While we might, without proper training or knowledge, succumb to automatic thought processes that guide our judgments and behavior, we should not believe that we have no power over our thoughts. There is hope in the budding field of social and affective neuroscience, as many lines of research are revealing the possibility of adaptive cognitive change (such as mindfulness meditation and cognitive reappraisal).

William James once said, “Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake.” I would like to think that as we keep charting courses in psychology and neuroscience, we are waking up to the possibilities that our mysteriously beautiful minds can offer us.

Dignity Passes By (no more):
Taking On Modern-Day Slavery

Sometimes when a word and its usage have a long, colorful history, we forget the truth for which the word stands. Dignity is one of those words-and we have to bring it back, because right now, there are too many human beings in the world who don’t have it and have never known it. Modern-day slavery is robbing millions and millions of men, women, and children of their dignity (some estimate the number to be as high as 27 million).

In the U2 song Crumbs from Your Table, which laments the nagging tension between scarcity and abundance, Bono speaks of “dignity [that] passes by.” For millions who are caught in the horrors of debt bondage, forced labor, and sex trafficking, dignity does pass by, every day. With their dignity absent, these individuals’ humanity necessarily wanes and wears thin. And every day we, the privileged ones in a developing world, have the opportunity to make sure that dignity is restored to all who suffer the gross oppression of modern-day slavery. When we take this opportunity, we move closer to a world where restored humanity confronts and subverts dehumanizing suffering.

An emerging grassroots organization called Stop Child Trafficking Now (SCTNow) has the potential to lift the darkness and ignorance that so penetrate the American psyche about human trafficking. SCTNow uniquely targets the demand side of the problem – the predators who desire and prey upon the young victims. Some estimates put these children as young as 2 to 3 years old, and our moral sensibilities rage, but the feeling can pass as quickly as it came, and we feel helpless to do anything to approach, understand, or affect the problem.

Lynette Lewis, co-founder of SCTNow, was in the same situation a year and a half ago. She deeply grieved over the sufferings of all the children who were trafficked and forced into slavery, children in the United States who did not necessarily come from troubled backgrounds or broken homes. People often assume that trafficking of persons is a problem only in other nations, not a reality to be dealt with in the United States. Lynette and the staff at SCTNow want to make sure that they dispel that myth and emphasize the pervasiveness of trafficking here in the US.

SCTNow Walks
On September 26-27, 2009, history will be made as individuals, corporations, religious organizations, communities, and student groups come from all over to participate in the inaugural Walk to Stop Child Trafficking Now! Learn more.

To better get at the heart and mind that drive SCTNow’s bold mission, I spoke with Sundy Goodnight, the organization’s National Campaign Director. Her passion is contagious, especially when she describes howSCTNow is uniquely positioned to make a tangible, measurable dent in the number of trafficked human beings. Sundy’s liveliness and conviction not only woke me up physically (it was 9:30am and the caffeine from my Starbucks “redeye” was just starting to kick in), but also emotionally and spiritually. She reminded me that this is an injustice that cannot be watched or analyzed from afar. The suffering is real and tragic, and the victims of this brutal oppression need the sure promise of our help.

Sundy, speaking from her experience as a trauma counselor, wisely remarked that “when a girl is sexually abused or violated…trauma creates silence…[and] shame, guilt, and condemnation follow her the rest of her life.” As if this wasn’t saddening enough, Sundy continued, “The fears are louder than the truth of what she [the victim] is living.”

SCTNow takes a simple approach: go after the demand (the predators), so that the supply (human persons) is compromised. The philosophy behind SCTNow rightly assumes that other methods to alleviate the problem of sex trafficking – whether it is rescuing victims, rehabilitating them, or taking down the pimps who run the brothels and trafficking rings – are useful and necessary in their own right, but do not get at the core of the problem: demand. If predators are found out and brought to justice, SCTNow’s logic goes, then deterrence will curb demand, which will then irrevocably decrease supply. SCTNow has over 100 men who, once they receive enough funding, will assemble themselves as special operatives teams to build cases and track down predators, and then hand over those cases to local law enforcement. Remarkably, these special ops team members are retired Navy seals and counterterrorism agents who have voluntarily joined the cause and pledged to work in the field for little pay.

After my conversation with Sundy, I walked to the subway with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I figured that Stop Child Trafficking Now’s strategy will work well, and in turn help abolish modern day slavery altogether. On the other hand, cynicism fed my thinking that SCTNow’s vision might be too grand, too expensive, and unsustainable.

For the sake of the thousands of children who are trafficked in the US each year, I will quell my cynicism and feed my hope – hope that many more people will become involved with the emerging anti-trafficking and anti-slavery movements. We lose our dignity if we knowingly let it pass by our suffering neighbor. Stop Child Trafficking Now is a convicting light to our ignorance and inaction to make sure that dignity no longer passes by the victims of human trafficking.