Monday, January 17, 2011

On measuring empathy

The second episode of The Brain: A Secret History explores the issue of emotions: what they are, what role they play, etc.

It was interesting to note the conclusion that even 'rational' decisions are based upon emotional response, and that our ability to rationalise is impaired when we lose the ability to feel emotional responses.

But I was particularly interested in the area of empathy. Probably because I have a tendency to feel the emotions of others so powerfully, that it can have a disruptive effect on my own life. Michael Mosley was tested for empathy and found to be far from as empathetic as he had believed. But I would question the results of the test, and here's why.

The test involved exposing Mosley to a series of video clips of people being subjected to mild-to-moderate pain experiences (mainly being pinched on the back of the hand), and then being subjected to a comparable experience himself (he was smacked on the back of the hand with a ruler). His brain activity was measured during both activities and then compared. To what extent was the brain activity of his own pain replicated when he witnessed someone else's pain?

One major flaw in the experiment for me is the following: during the video clips, he did not seem to be shown the faces of the people being hurt. Just the physical act of the pinch. If empathy is about emotion, I suspect the replication sought would be more obvious if the subject were to see the manifestation of pain on the faces of the filmed subjects.

Furthermore, if empathy is about emotion, it is far more likely that an empathetic response would be exhibited when observing a subject experiencing emotional, rather than physical anguish. While I don't think I'd be terribly impressed to see one person pinch another, I can be utterly incapacitated by someone else's emotional trauma. The episode began with Mosley climbing into a small, dark, underground space, where he experienced genuine fear. I found my own heart rate and anxiety to be significantly elevated while watching him.

Of course, the tricky part here is that in order to assess the level of empathy, the subject has to observe someone else in emotional distress, and then be subjected to emotional distress him/herself.

This brings an issue of ethics into the story. One can hardly publicly humiliate people or give them news of a fictitious bereavement in the name of science. But perhaps it would be possible to ask for volunteers to enter the 'fear cave' after watching others do so. Perhaps one might also be able to establish a benchmark of the brain areas activated after a bereavement, and then to record brain activity of people watching someone who has been bereaved. It would be difficult, but surely not impossible to obtain suitable data and material without being unethical.

Just wondering....


V Yonkers said...

I agree with you on this. Different people have different pain thresholds. My sister can with stand more pain than anyone else I've ever known, but is also one of the most empathetic people I know. She might not sympathize with the physical pain because she has taught herself to ignore it and/or she just doesn't feel it.

In the US (and I am sure it is the same in the UK), you could still have a study using the examples you outlined, as long as you 1) warn participants of possible reactions, 2) allow participants to withdraw at anytime they feel it is overwhelming, with no questions asked (you need to let them know this before the study), and 3) provide follow up services (i.e. psychiatric counseling). said...

Karyn, have you read the book "Emotional Awareness" by Dr. Paul Ekman and The Dalai Lama? ( I found it revealing of a different perspective on emotions, moods, and, in particular, empathy than I have read about or considered before.

Thanks for this post, and the many more I am about to read!