Tag Archives: empathy

Can we understand other minds? Novels and stories say: no

by Kanta Dihal

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Cassandra woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through the slats on her blinds, cascading over her naked chest. She stretched, her breasts lifting with her arms as she greeted the sun. She rolled out of bed and put on a shirt, her nipples prominently showing through the thin fabric. She breasted boobily to the stairs, and titted downwards.

This particular hyperbolic gem has been doing the rounds on Tumblr for a while. It resurfaced in April 2018, in response to a viral Twitter challenge posed by the US podcaster Whitney Reynolds: women, describe yourself the way a male writer would.

The dare hit a sweet spot. Many could summon up passages from books containing terrible, sexualised descriptions of women. Some of us recalled Haruki Murakami, whose every novel can be summarised as: ‘Protagonist is an ordinary man, except lots of really beautiful women want to sleep with him.’ Others remembered J M Coetzee, and his variations on the plot: ‘Tenured male professor in English literature sleeps with beautiful female undergraduate.’ It was a way for us to joke about the fact that so much great literature was written by men who could express perfectly detailed visual descriptions of the female body, and yet possessed such an impoverished understanding of the female mind.

This is why the philosophical project of trying to map the contours of other minds needs a reality check. If other humans are beyond our comprehension, what hope is there for understanding the experience of animals, artificial intelligence or aliens?

I am a literature scholar. Over thousands of years of literary history, authors have tried and failed to convey an understanding of Others (with a capital ‘O’). Writing fiction is an exercise that stretches an author’s imagination to its limits. And fiction shows us, again and again, that our capacity to imagine other minds is extremely limited.

It took feminism and postcolonialism to point out that writers were systematically misrepresenting characters who weren’t like them. Male authors, it seems, still struggle to present convincing female characters a lot of the time. The same problem surfaces again when writers try to introduce a figure with a different ethnicity to their own, and fail spectacularly.

I mean, ‘coffee-coloured skin’? Do I really need to find out how much milk you take in the morning to know the ethnicity you have in mind? Writers who keep banging on with food metaphors to describe darker pigmentation show that they don’t appreciate what it’s like to inhabit such skin, nor to have such metaphors applied to it.

Conversely, we recently learnt that some publishers rejected the Korean-American author Leonard Chang’s novel The Lockpicker (2017) – for failing to cater to white readers’ lack of understanding of Korean-Americans. Chang gave ‘none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us’, one publisher’s letter said. ‘For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes …’ Any failure to understand a nonwhite character, it seems, was the fault of the nonwhite author.

Fiction shows us that nonhuman minds are equally beyond our grasp. Science fiction provides a massive range of the most fanciful depictions of interstellar space travel and communication – but anthropomorphism is rife. Extraterrestrial intelligent life is imagined as Little Green Men (or Little Yellow or Red Men when the author wants to make a particularly crude point about 20th-century geopolitics). Thus alien minds have been subject to the same projections and assumptions that authors have applied to human characters, when they fundamentally differ from the authors themselves.

For instance, let’s look at a meeting of human minds and alien minds. The Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin is best known for his trilogy starting with The Three-Body Problem (2008). It appeared in English in 2014 and, in that edition, each book has footnotes – because there are some concepts that are simply not translatable from Chinese into English, and English readers need these footnotes to understand what motivates the characters. But there are also aliens in this trilogy. From a different solar system. Yet their motivations don’t need footnoting in translation.

Splendid as the trilogy is, I find that very curious. There is a linguistic-cultural barrier that prevents an understanding of the novel itself, on this planet. Imagine how many footnotes we’d need to really grapple with the motivations of extraterrestrial minds.

Our imaginings of artificial intelligence are similarly dominated by anthropomorphic fantasies. The most common depiction of AI conflates it with robots. AIs are metal men. And it doesn’t matter whether the press is reporting on swarm robots invented in Bristol or a report produced by the House of Lords: the press shall plaster their coverage with Terminator imagery. Unless the men imagining these intelligent robots want to have sex with them, in which case they’re metal women with boobily breasting metal cleavage – a trend spanning the filmic arts from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the contemporary TV series Westworld (2016-). The way that we imagine nonhumans in fiction reflects how little we, as humans, really get each other.

All this supports the idea that embodiment is central to the way we understand one another. The ridiculous situations in which authors miss the mark stem from the difference between the author’s own body and that of the character. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be someone else if we can’t feel it. So, much as I enjoyed seeing a woman in high heels outrun a T-Rex in Jurassic World (2015), I knew that the person who came up with that scene clearly has no conception of what it’s like to inhabit a female body, be it human or Tyrannosaurus.

Because stories can teach compassion and empathy, some people argue that we should let AIs read fiction in order to help them understand humans. But I disagree with the idea that compassion and empathy are based on a deep insight into other minds. Sure, some fiction attempts to get us to understand one another. But we don’t need any more than a glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else in order to empathise with them – and, hopefully, to not want to kill and destroy them.

As the US philosopher Thomas Nagel claimed in 1974, a human can’t know what it is like to be a bat, because they are fundamentally alien creatures: their sensory apparatus and their movements are utterly different from ours. But we can imagine ‘segments’, as Nagel wrote. This means that, despite our lack of understanding of bat minds, we can find ways to keep a bat from harm, or even nurse and raise an orphaned baby bat, as cute videos on the internet will show you.

The problem is that sometimes we don’t realise this segment of just a glimpse of something bigger. We don’t realise until a woman, a person of colour, or a dinosaur finds a way to point out the limits of our imagination, and the limits of our understanding. As long as other human minds are beyond our understanding, nonhuman ones certainly are, too.Aeon counter – do not remove

Kanta Dihal is a postdoctoral research assistant and the research project coordinator of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Elephant neural variation suggests a contemplative mind

An article in The Conversation explores the variety of neuron structures in the elephant brain.

Taken together, these morphological characteristics suggest that neurons in the elephant cortex may synthesize a wider variety of input than the cortical neurons in other mammals.

In terms of cognition, my colleagues and I believe that the integrative cortical circuitry in the elephant supports the idea that they are essentially contemplative animals. Primate brains, by comparison, seem specialized for rapid decision-making and quick reactions to environmental stimuli.

Can children learn to read without explicit instruction from adults?

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An experiment in a remote Ethiopian village demonstrates the potential of mobile devices to enable children to learn and teach each other how to read without traditional schooling.

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See also: How Reading Rewires Your Brain for Empathy

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The evolutionary and present significance of reading

In her new book, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, author Maryanne Wolf explores how reading affects the brain and mind. What different effects result from consuming digital media rather than print media and long forms rather than tweets, posts, and other microcontent? In her excellent recent article, she says,

Will new readers develop the more time-demanding cognitive processes nurtured by print-based mediums as they absorb and acquire new cognitive capacities emphasized by digital media? For example, will the combination of reading on digital formats and daily immersion in a variety of digital experiences — from social media to virtual games — impede the formation of the slower cognitive processes, such as critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy, that are all part of deep reading?

Wolf first addressed the evolution of reading and its implications in her earlier book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. She summarizes her thesis in this interview (14 min video).

Stanislas Dehaene, an author whose work we’ve discussed, also investigated the brain circuits involved in reading. Hear him speak on the topic in this video (33 min).

Saturday Subjective

For something a little different to start your weekend, here is a glimpse into one man’s subjective world. He asks himself what consciousness is. He observes, “Life is fear,” yet his mind has found a way to peace. What is the adaptive significance of magical thinking? What is the value of cozying up to ambiguity?

CUCLI from Xavier Marrades on Vimeo.

 

Neuroscience of Empathy

(This is copied from the Meetup site. Thanks again to Brent for hosting.)

Details

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and understand how they feel- to be them, even for a second. It’s the link between self and others: how we connect, heal, and relate. Considering its importance in every aspect of our lives, we are taking a deeper look at the neuroscience behind empathy.

Recommended Preparation Info.

The Neuroscience of Empathy | Article | 5 minutes (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201310/the-neuroscience-empathy)

The Neuroscience of Compassion | Video | 20 min (https://youtu.be/n-hKS4rucTY)

Jeremy Rifkin: The empathic civilization | Video | 10 min (https://www.ted.com/talks/jeremy_rifkin_on_the_empathic_civilization)

A CALM LOOK AT THE MOST HYPED CONCEPT IN NEUROSCIENCE – MIRROR NEURONS | Article | 5 min (https://www.wired.com/2013/12/a-calm-look-at-the-most-hyped-concept-in-neuroscience-mirror-neurons/)

Empathy for others’ pain rooted in cognition rather than sensation | Article | 5 min (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/06/160614100237.htm)

Thomas Lewis: “The Neuroscience of Empathy” | Video | 60 min (https://youtu.be/1-T2GsG0l1E)

Suggested Additional Info.

Feeling Others’ Pain: Transforming Empathy into Compassion | Article | 5 min (https://www.cogneurosociety.org/empathy_pain/)

Structural basis of empathy and the domain general region in the anterior insular cortex | Study | 20 min (http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00177/full)

Neurobiology of Empathy and Callousness: Implications for the Development of Antisocial Behavior | Study | 20 min (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2729461/)

The Science Behind Empathy and Empaths | Article | 5 min (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-empaths-survival-guide/201703/the-science-behind-empathy-and-empaths)

Study challenges perception that empathy erodes during medical school | Article | 5 min (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/09/170909194039.htm)

Comments

  • Mark Harris

    Rifkin’s book, The Empathic Civilization, is excellent.

    29 days ago
  • John

    Here is a link to an excellent article arguing against a myopic focus on empathy.
    http://bostonreview.net/forum/paul-bloom-against-empathy

    23 days ago
  • John

    Here is a link to a free ebook that is entitled Compassion: Bridging Science and Practice. The book is the culmination of research findings in social neuroscience studies conducted by Tania Singer and others. There are multiple formats for download.
    http://www.compassion-training.org/?page=download&lang=en

    23 days ago
  • John

    Here is a link to an article about Tania Singer’s research in Science Magazine.
    http://flourishfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Compassioan-Science-2013.pdf

    23 days ago
  • Edward

    From the link: “Patterns associated with empathic care, for instance, overlapped with systems in the brain associated with value and reward, such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the medial orbitofrontal cortex. In contrast, patterns of empathic distress overlapped with systems in the brain known for mirroring, such as the premotor cortex and the primary and secondary somatosensory cortices, which help an individual simulate or imagine what another person is feeling or thinking.”

    23 days ago
  • Edward

    Here’s another one I just read: “Brain imaging reveals neural roots of caring. http://neurosciencenews.com/caring-neural-roots-6870/

    23 days ago
  • Edward

    From the conclusion: “Shared representations of affective states are activated from the top down in more  cognitive forms of empathy, which recruit additional executive and visuospatial processes. However, the literature overestimates distinctions between emotional and cognitive empathy, following traditional practices to dichotomize in science and philosophy. Despite each
    having unique features, affective and cognitive empathy both require access to the shared representations of emotion that provide simulations with content and an
    embodied meaning.”

    23 days ago
  • Edward

    The entire article can be read here: https://sci-hub.cc/10.1038/nrn.2017.72

    23 days ago
  • Edward

    And this article. Abstract: “Recent research on empathy in humans and other mammals seeks to dissociate emotional and cognitive empathy. These forms, however, remain interconnected in evolution, across species and at the level of neural mechanisms. New data have facilitated the development of empathy models such as the perception–action model (PAM) and mirror-neuron theories. According to the PAM, the emotional states of others are understood through personal, embodied representations that allow empathy and accuracy to increase based on the observer’s past experiences. In this Review, we discuss the latest evidence from studies carried out across a wide range of species, including studies on yawn contagion, consolation, aid-giving and contagious physiological affect, and we summarize neuroscientific data on representations related to another’s state.” https://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v18/n8/full/nrn.2017.72.html

    23 days ago
  • John

    Here is a link to an excellent video of 4 researchers giving talks at the Stanford CCARE conference. The video is 75 minutes.
    CCARE Science of Compassion 2014: Introduction to the Science of Empathy, Altruism, and Compassion
    https://youtu.be/YFDiQNwqbfw

    22 days ago
  • Edward

    Jimmy Kimmel in this video highlights a lot of what we talked about tonight. Yes, we need to feel empathy for those killed an injured in the Las Vegas shooting, but we also need to DO something about it. Meaning gun legislation. He highlights those in Congress who are making it easier instead of harder to obtain the kind of automatic weapons used in this mass murder. The reality is we must make such guns illegal, for it acts on our empathy and morality in a way that protects and serves us. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruYeBXudsds

    21 days ago

Future discussion topic recommendations

Several of us met on Labor Day with the goal of identifying topics for at least five future monthly meetings. (Thanks, Dave N, for hosting!) Being the overachievers we are, we pushed beyond the goal. Following are the resulting topics, which will each have its own article on this site where we can begin organizing references for the discussion:

  • sex-related influences on emotional memory
    • gross and subtle brain differences (e.g., “walls of the third ventricle – sexual nuclei”)
    • “Are there gender-based brain differences that influence differences in perceptions and experience?”
    • epigenetic factors (may need an overview of epigenetics)
  • embodied cognition
    • computational grounded cognition (possibly the overview and lead-in topic)
    • neuro-reductionist theory vs. enacted theory of mind
    • “Could embodied cognition influence brain differences?” (Whoever suggested this, please clarify.)
  • brain-gut connection (relates to embodied cognition, but can stand on its own as a topic)
  • behavioral priming and subliminal stimuli (effects on later behavior)
  • incremental theory – “The Dark Side of Malleability”
  • creative flow as a unique cognitive process
  • Eastern philosophies and psychology – a psychology of self-cultivation
  • neuroscience of empathy – effects on the brain, including on neuroplasticity (discussed October 2017)
  • comparative effects of various meditative practices on the brain
  • comparative effects of various psychedelics on the brain
  • effects of childhood poverty on the brain
  • neurocognitive bases of racism

If I missed anything, please edit the list (I used HTML in the ‘Text’ view to get sub-bullets). If you’re worried about the formatting, you can email your edits to cogniphile@albuquirky.net and Mark will post your changes.