(This is the fifteenth part of the ‘From Neural Is to Moral Ought’ series. It looks at emotional empathy, particularly by considering those with non-typical empathy.)

Empathy, Psychopathy and Autism

Care, Anxiety and Trust

Previously, we have looked at the biological development from solitary animals through to large societies:

  1. The emotional connection that drives pair bonding and the caring for offspring.
  2. Greatly-extended families have a social pecking order. This reduces in-group physical violence and promotes cooperation but there is considerable anxiety.
  3. Cooperation builds upon established reputations of individuals. Ultimately, this leads to the creation of institutions where there is trust between strangers by virtue of their affiliation to those institutions. Nothing more is required to build up a large society with established customs.

These customs, defining right and wrong ways of behaving, are the basis for morality, which improves the well-being of society’s members by reducing physical violence and psychological anxiety.

This progression elevates us up from an existence famously described as being one of:

“continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

… to a life that can be sociable, enriched and long.

Chimpanzees and Psychopaths

But it is still a brutish society. Each member acts only for its own interests. Short-term interests are sometimes sacrificed in favour of longer-term interests. Acts are either selfish or altruistically selfish. Chimpanzees (creatures considered previously and having high cognitive abilities) in groups have been described as a society where everyone is a psychopath because of the behaviour of individuals:

  1. Their practices of deception and manipulation.
  2. Their faking of emotions to get attention and influence of others.
  3. Their only caring about hurting others because of what others will think; they do not appear to care unless someone else sees it.
  4. There is precious little loyalty involved in male chimpanzee coalitions

(Note: I am using the term ‘psychopath’ rather than ‘sociopath’ here and treating them as interchangeable terms.)

Humans have significantly higher cognitive abilities than chimpanzees. But, based on the argument so far, this would just mean that their deceptions and manipulations and their faking of emotions would be more sophisticated.

Such a society would be missing an important ingredient: one that could accelerate and help build up a society of institutions that could provide longer lives of better well-being. That ingredient is empathy.

Cognitive Empathy vs Emotional Empathy

Empathy is commonly divided into two types:

  • ‘cognitive empathy’ is the ability to understand what another is thinking – essentially the same as having a ‘theory of mind’ discussed previously, and
  • ‘emotional empathy’ is the ability to feel what another is feeling.

Psychopathy is typically characterized as a lack of emotional empathy but not of cognitive empathy.  A psychopath:

  • can know what you are thinking, but
  • cannot feel what you are feeling.

Autism and Empathy

Autism is also typically characterized as a lack of empathy, particularly with a reduction or lack of a ‘theory of mind’  and characterized as an ‘extreme male brain’ which is a combination of a low ‘empathy quotient’ with a high ‘systemizing quotient’.

Instead, it is better to characterize autism as a result of delayed (and therefore reduced) ability in perceptual abilities to read the mind of others. For example, whether it is a contributing factor or an effect of autism, the characteristic lack of eye contact reduces the chances of correctly discerning the emotions of another in a specific situation and compounds the problem by providing a lack of opportunity to learn such emotional expressions. We can hypothesize that the flip-side of this is that the time spent not learning social skills is spent on developing systemizing interests instead. In terms of Daniel Dennett’s theory of levels of abstraction, they develop skills and interests concerning the ‘design stance’ when they would otherwise be developing an ‘intentional stance’ and a ‘theory of mind’. Their confusion among their peers in the social sphere leads to anxiety which is managed by focussing inwards onto their highly-developed interests. They will be reluctant to initiate social interaction. Once started however, they may talk incessantly about such interests, failing to understand that your interests are different from theirs.

But none of this represents a lack of empathy. To have ‘emotional empathy’ is to respond to the perceived emotional state of another by experiencing feelings of a similar sort. However, this can produce different responses:

  • To reflect back to the other as concern for the suffering of the other, or
  • To be absorbed, with self-centred feelings of anxiety and distress.

For the ‘severely autistic’, lacking a theory of mind, empathy will manifest itself as distress. For ‘high-functioning autists’, empathy will manifest itself as concern; once aware of another’s feelings, they can have the same degree of compassion as anyone else.

Incidentally, an alternative interpretation is the ‘intense world theory’ from Henry Markram (of ‘Blue Brain Project’ and ‘Human Brain Project’ fame) and wife Kamila. It is that those with autism perceive, think and remember too much so that they retreat into a safe bubble to protect themselves from the pain of intensity. Virtually all people with autism spectrum disorder report various types of over-sensitivity and intense fear.

The Integration of Senses:  Synaesthesia

The McGurk Effect

Our senses do not operate in isolate but work together to discern the best understanding of the environment. For example, in listening to someone as part of a conversation, we have the visual sensation of seeing the lips moving in addition to the sound of hearing them. Surprisingly, when the brain tries to integrate the two senses, it is the visual sense generally dominates, as is illustrated by the McGurk effect. Seeing the lips saying ‘far’ synchronized with the sound ‘bar’ makes us perceive ‘far’. By looking away from the speaker, we hear ‘bar’ again for the same auditory input.

The Rubber Hand Illusion

The ‘Rubber hand illusion’ is another well-known example of sensory integration. This time, it is the – integration of seeing and feeling.


CAPTION: The Rubber Hand Illusion

The subject places two hands on a table. A cloth covers the left arm and hand and a rubber hand sticks out of the cloth around where we might expect the left hand could be. The experimenter repeatedly strokes the fingers on the right hand in turn and simultaneously strokes the corresponding finger of the prosthetic hand. After a while, the subject starts to perceive the rubber hand as their own hand. Suddenly, the experimenter hits the rubber hand with a hammer. The subject feels pain in their left hand even though that hand has not been hit. The experience is fleeting. The ‘spell’ is broken and it is soon clear that the left hand is not hurt. But the anticipation / expectation (the prediction) of pain results in the experiencing a pain.

Again, it is the visual sense that dominates.


Synaesthesia (‘sense fusion’) is a condition where a stimulus causes both a normal experience and an additional sensation. The normal and additional senses are thereby associated.

For example, in ‘grapheme-colour synaesthesia (prevalent in about 1 person per 70), there is the perception of experiencing a colour in addition to recognizing of a number or letter. Note: this experience is simultaneously with seeing the number/letter in the colour it really is). A grapheme-colour synaesthete might see a numeral as actually being black yet perceive the numeral as being green or red depending on the numeral. This would make it easier to identify different numerals in the example below for example.


Left: reality. Right: synaesthetic perception.

There is therefore in this case the close integration of:

  1. Vision, and
  2. The concept of numbers and letters.

Mirror-Touch Synaesthesia

As indicated in the ‘Rubber Hand Illusion’, the sight of something happening to one’s body causes the expected feeling associated with that event. This integration of vision and the ‘somatic senses’ (bodily senses such as touch) is normal. But for those with Mirror-Touch Synaesthesia, the sight of something happening to the body of another causes the expected feeling associated with that event in themselves. Literally, ‘I feel your pain’.

Empathy and Pain

Empathy is Pain

Tolerance of pain and sensitivity to pain appear to be related to our ability to feel the pain of another:

  • Mirror-touch synaesthesia is linked with empathy and Mirror-Touch Synaesthetes are particularly sensitive to pain.
  • Psychopaths feel pain but are able to disregard it. Pain then no longer serves its function of modifying the behaviour of the individual in both the immediate circumstance and in the future in order to protect that individual. The lack of pain makes an individual reckless. Thus, we may view psychopathy as being less an issue of deficient empathy and more as an issue of deficient feeling and emotion.

Empathy, Sense and Perception

For the non-‘neurotypical’ types considered above, it is possible to categorize them in terms of empathy:

  • A psychopath has cognitive empathy but not emotional empathy.
  • A mirror-touch synaesthete has cognitive empathy and an extreme emotional empathy.
  • Those on the Autism spectrum have difficulties with emotional empathy, with varying degrees of cognitive empathy ranging from normal (Aspergers) to having no ‘theory of mind’ (severely autistic).

These terms are external (concerning social relationships between individuals) and psychological.

Alternatively, those type can be categorized in co-related terms of sense and perception:

  • A psychopath has much impaired sensitivity to feeling.
  • A mirror-touch synaesthete has much increased sensitivity to feeling.
  • Those on the Autism spectrum have impaired perception of feeling.

These terms are internal (about single individuals) and fit more into a neuroscientific framework.

Different Others

What role does empathy have to play in morality? We can ask:

  • ‘what if everyone was a psychopath?’ (hint: see the comparison with chimpanzees earlier), and
  • ‘what if everyone was a mirror-touch synaesthete?’

and make the obvious conclusion that the latter would be an improvement over the former in terms of general well-being. But that is not to be considered here.

In reality, we must be asking:

  • ‘how do we deal with a society in which individuals have different levels of empathy?’, or
  • ‘how do we deal with a society in which individuals have different cognitive abilities?’.

We cannot have the ‘Golden rule’ expectation that others want what we want. In learning how to balance the wants of others with the wants of ourselves, we need to be able to understand what those others want. Whether we think in terms of empathy or in terms of feeling, we must accept that others are different from us and so the ‘Platinum rule’ applies.

Next: Continuing with empathy: mirroring and mimicry.

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7 Responses to Empathy

  1. Hariod Brawn says:

    Good stuff, for which many thanks. Coincidentally (or ironically?), my last posting was about empathy.

    • headbirths says:

      Thanks for pointing me to your http://contentedness.net/2015/09/03/empathic-apes/
      It is a beautifully written piece (with an amazing photo too).

      As so frequently, I set out to do a post and only get half-way, the second half becoming the next posting. My next post here will include mirror neurons and mimicry which you mention with:

      “… one way to cheat the system is to mimic expressions and gestures, which results in a like proprioceptive sense. This means our feelings echo the other’s, so affecting an emotional contagion of sorts, whether volitionally induced or not. Yet neither jungle dweller did so, their empathic link being forged in mind purely intuitively, and silently.

      Empathy subsists in knowledge; it is in part to know the mind of the other, and whilst its currency is both cognitive (knowing) and emotional (feeling) in nature, it is the latter that strengthens the connective link to altruistic and prosocial leanings, as well as ameliorating aggressive traits. Primates’ mirror-neuron systems help forge innate empathic leanings”

      And I liked:

      “the personal does not expire at the boundary of the body”

  2. Pingback: The Learning Pyramid | Headbirths

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