04 February 2011

A Leadership of Empaths

I wrote, a while back in a post called 'Cognitive Democracy', about the idea of intensive psychological evaluation of political candidates in order to find out their true motivations, before they ever have a chance to gain power.

My proposed barrage of tests was something of a blunt instrument in that the specifics of the testing methods were a little ill-defined. My interest in the subject of empathy has now led me to think that the ability to empathise is one of the main defining characteristics of an emotionally-rounded human being. Perhaps, then, scientific evidence of this ability in a given individual should form the core of the "fitness for Office" evaluation.

The definition of what constitutes true empathy may be a human construct but the faculty to empathise is formed of real structures in the brain. It seems odd for me to have to point this out, as it seems self-evident. But empathy strikes many as a woolly concept, too mired in Freudian psychobabble and gender stereotyping to take seriously as a measure of worth. Regardless of these outdated views, progress towards a scientific understanding of the 'mechanics' of empathy has moved on apace.

I remember being fascinated and delighted to find out, a few years ago, about the existence of what became known as 'mirror neurons'. These are a class of neurons that fire both when an animal is undertaking a given action itself and when it observes that action being undertaken by another. Scientific opinion on the role of mirror neurons in empathy, is divided. But it's clear why scientists might form such a hypothesis. If we see another creature, particularly another human, experiencing physical or emotional pain it's likely that the overall strength of our resulting mirror neuron firing can be correlated with the strength of what one might call our 'empathic response'.

In summation of the above, this hypothesis suggests that if we have trouble 'mirroring' the feelings of others then we have may be unable to sustain a coherent 'theory of mind' about them and, therefore, may be unable to relate to them as thinking, feeling entities in their own right. This brings to mind Kant's 'Categorical Imperative': "The second premise is that conduct is "right" if it treats others as ends in themselves and not as means to an end (the "Second Maxim")".

But I didn't intend this to meander off into philosophy. The point is that empathy is not a philosophical construct but a physical reality. In the above example it follows that if your mirror neurons are few in number you may find yourself physically unable to empathise. Even if the mirror neuron hypothesis is not completely correct it is still the case that we now have scientific methods for measuring empathic response. Recent studies, such as this one undertaken at Columbia University, have mapped the brain regions involved using functional MRI. As Dr Michael Mosley found in his recent BBC series The Brain: A Secret History, discovering via fMRI that your empathic response is weaker than you had led yourself to believe, can be an uncomfortable experience.

It's interesting to note that, as well as regions of the parietal and premotor cortex, some regions responsible for the control of our own emotional responses, were involved. This could be interpreted as an indication that the empathic response is a highly evolved one, bearing little relation to the 'gut emotional responses' of 'old brain' areas such as the amygdala. I like to think of empathy as the ability to emoting with your new brain, rather than your old one. In fact being an 'amygdaloid' (a potential term for an amygdalocentric person) might strongly mitigate against the development of a healthy empathic response.

So we now have the tools to identify individuals with weak empathic response. What are the implications of this and how do we use the knowledge responsibly? I would argue that not using it to test those who seek great power, would be a dereliction of duty. In this scenario we have the ability to get closer to the core of an individual's 'theory of mind'. Not to humiliate them by peeling away their mental defenses but to understand them more clearly, in order to see that what some may perceive as a strength is actually a weakness. I would like to think that treatments could be developed in order to help such people to relate to their world in a fuller and more fruitful way.

Humans lacking empathy may be wandering in a dark and terrible place: They exist in a world that they cannot understand, separated from the rest of humanity, deluged by a continuous flow of the apparently meaningless emotional outpourings of others. They cannot understand that the ability to empathise enriches our lives and allows us to see the similarities between ourselves and others, thus enabling us to dream of richer things than power and privilege. But perhaps these thoughts never even cross their minds.

Those that can empathise strongly with the plight of others less fortunate than themselves, and can turn that emotion into positive action, are a healing force in the world. Those that cannot empathise need help, not power.

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