Posts Tagged ‘Empathy’

Listening to Your Heartbeat Helps You Read Other People’s Minds

May 16, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Helen Thomson in the News & Technology section of the 6 May 2017 issue of the New Scientist.  She writes that “people who are more aware of their heartbeat are better at perceiving the emotions of others—a finding that might help some people with autism.”

According to the Theory of Constructive Emotions, to generate emotions we first need to interpret our body’s internal state—a process called interoception.  So we feel fear only once we recognize an increase in our heart rate or feel our palms get sweaty.

Researchers have suggested that interoception is important for understanding what other people are thinking and even guessing what they think a their person might be thinking.  The notion is that if we have trouble distinguishing our own emotions, we might also find it hard to interpret he emotions and mental states of others.

To investigate, Geoff Bird and his team asked 72 volunteers to sound their heartbeats using their fingers to take their pulse.  This is a measure of interoception.  The volunteers then watched videos of social interactions.  After viewing each video they were asked multiple choice questions testing their ability to infer the characters’ mental states.

When the volunteers were asked feelings about the emotions of the characters, the volunteers who were better at counting their own heartbeat performed better on such questions.  They were more empathetic (Cortex, dos.org/b6m2).  However, there was no link between interoceptive ability and accuracy on questions that didn’t involve any emotions.

Bird says that interoceptive difficulties probably play a role in some features of schizophrenia and autism.  There is some evidence that looking in a mirror can improve interception.  Bird says that it has not yet been shown whether interception training also improves empathy, but it’s an experiment that he’d like to try.

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The Risks of Acetaminophen

May 27, 2016

Acetaminophen is the most common drug ingredient in the United States.  It is an ingredient in more then 600 medicines.  About a quarter of all Americans take acetaminophen every week.  However, there are risks to acetaminophen according to an article by Amy Ellis Nutt  in the Health Section of the May 17 2016 edition of the Washington Post, titled, “You don’t feel my pain? Blame acetaminophen.”

The article report research published online  in the journal Social  Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience conducted  by scientists from the National Institutes of Health and Ohio State University.  The results come from two experiments involving more than 200 college students.

In one experiment 80 participants were asked to drink a liquid.  Half the participants received something containing 1,000 milligrams of acetaminopheh.  The other half constituted the control group that drank something without the drug.  An hour later all were asked  to rate the pain experienced by characteristics in eight different fictional scenarios.  In some of the stories, the characters went through a physical trauma, whereas in others an emotional trauma.  In general, those who had taken the acetaminophen rated the pain of the characters as less severe than those who had taken the placebo.

The second experiment exposed participants to brief blasts of white noise.  As one who has experienced brief blasts of white noise, these are extremely discomforting.  They were then asked to rate the pain of another (anonymous) study participant who had also been subjected to the blasts of white noise.  Research participants who had received acetaminophen rated the pain of this anonymous individual as being less severe than those who had taken the placebo.

In another test in which participants had to judge online skits involving social rejection, they showed the same effects as in the noise experiments.  “In this case, the participants had the chance to empathize with the suffering of someone who they thought was going through a socially painful experience.  Still those who took the acetaminophen  showed a reduction in empathy.  They weren’t as concerned about the rejected person’s hurt feelings.

This research built on previous studies identifying a brain region that appears to be key to a person’s empathic response.  The anterior insula, located deep in the folds between the front and side of the brain, is a place where mind and body are integrated.  It also plays a key role in awareness, including emotional awareness.  The less pain a person feels, the less able he or she is to empathize with someone else’s pain.

The researchers note, “Because empathy regulates prosocial and antisocial behavior, this drug-induced reduction in empathy raise concerns about the broader social side effects of acetaminophen.”

Empathy vs. Compassion

May 25, 2016

This post is based on an article by Emma Young titled “How sharing other people’s feelings can make you sick,” in the May 14, 2016 issue of the New Scientist.  As this article notes empathy is undeniably a good thing.  The primatologist Frans de Waal has suggested that being affected by another’s emotional state was the earliest step in our evolution as a collaborative species.

The distinction between what we and others feel isn’t terribly clear to our brains.  Tania Singer and her colleagues demonstrated this in 2004 when they put 16 romantic couples into an MRI scanner.  When they gave these volunteers a painful electric shock,this elicited activity in brain regions known to respond to physical pain and also in regions tuned to emotional pain.  However, when volunteers saw their loved partners  get a shock, no activity registered in their physical pain center, but their emotion regions lit up like fireworks.  Subsequently many other studies have confirmed that this “empathy for pain” network exists, and that it does not distinguish whether the pain we’re observing is physical or psychological.

Moreover, we don’t just catch pain from those we are intimate with.  People in the care giving professions  such as hospice staff, nurses, psychotherapists, and pediatricians often see and feel the stress and pain of others, which leads to a kind empathy burnout.  This empathy burnout has be given names such as “secondary traumatic stress” and vicarious  traumatization.”  Symptoms include lowered ability to feel empathy and sympathy, increased anger and anxiety, and more absenteeism.  Studies have linked these symptoms with an indifferent attitude to patients, depersonalization and poorer care.  Apparently anyone can catch stress any time they understand someone else’s pain and share in it.  This activate empathy for the individual’s pain network.  Singer’s research ha shown that for some people the physical effects of emotional contagion apply even when they observe a person they don’t know suffering distress.  Experiments have shown that people who watched a 15-minute newscast reported increased anxiety afterwards, with their anxiety decreasing only after an extended relaxation exercise.

Other research has shown that empathy can be regulated, just as emotions can be regulated.  Christian Keysers and his colleagues have looked at how people diagnosed with psychopathy, who are commonly thought to lack all capacity for empathy, react when the see images of people in pain.  Initially the team presented images without any instructions as to what to feel.  Predictably, the psychopaths showed less activity in areas association with areas associated with empathy for sensations, and in the insult, than the brains of healthy people.  When Keysers asked these psychopaths to consciously empathize, something very different happened;  their brain responses were identical to healthy people.

Research has shown that the training Buddhist monks undergo give them a heightened ability to manipulate their neural circuitry for empathy.  Richard Davidson  asked these monks to engage in a form of compassion meditation known as loving kindness meditation, in which one is encouraged to gradually extend warmth and care from your self and others.  Davidson found that this process changed the firing of the monks’ neural circuitry.  It suppressed activity  in the anterior insult and in the amygdala a regions involved in threat detection but recruited during empathic responses.  But when one monk was asked to empathize with suffering instead of engaging in compassion, his empathy for pain network lit up, and almost immediately, he begged the proctor to stop the experiment, calling the feeling unbearable.  The subtle distinction is that compassion is feeling for and not with the other.

Research is being done on training people this distinction between compassion and empathy.  The initial results are promising. Let us hope that such training will be readily available to caretakers and others in need of this training.

Your Heart is In Your Brain

April 27, 2016

The brain and the heart are two organs that are typically thought of as opposites.  The brain is for logical thinking, and the heart is for feeling.  Although the heart is certainly important for the brain as it supplies oxygen and other important nutrients, it has nothing to do with feeling, emotion, or empathy.   This fact that your heart is in your brain became abundantly clear in the books “Switched On:  A Memoir of Brain Changes and Emotional Awakening,” by John Elder Robison.

The author lived with autism.  He could not read the emotions of other humans, nor could he understand sarcasm.  He could not understand many personal insults.  His shortcomings in interpersonal skills contributed to his dropping out of school.  But these shortcomings were in some sense compensated for with other extraordinary talents.  He had extraordinary ability with electronics.  He had perfect pitch and could tune a guitar with both perfection and ease.  These talents led to his working with rock groups in creating and setting up their sound systems and video effects.  He worked for the group Kiss and was one of the leaders in this area.

HIs specific type of autism, there is an autism spectrum, was Asperger’s syndrome.  He wrote a book about his condition, “Look at Me in the Eye,”  which was quite successful and led to his giving many talks at organizations interested in autism.  Nevertheless, he was aware of his deficiency and very much wanted to be able to cure or compensate for it.

So at the age of 50 he volunteered to participate in research using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).  This involved placing an apparatus that generated magnetic fields that were targeted for certain areas of the brain.  This procedure had had some success in treating depression.  However, this was a research project designed primarily to learn about the brain rather than as a cure or remedy for autism.  John was doubly excited about this procedure as it involved electronics, which he loved, and because he wanted to see if it would have any effect on his autism.

As it turned out, it did.  In the past when he listened to music he understood the electronics producing the music, but the music had no emotional effects on him.  For the first time he actually cried from the lyrics of a piece.  Now he was able to have emotional feelings.  He was also about to read the expressions of others and to make inferences about how they were feeling and what their true intentions were.  In most cases he found this to be beneficial.  He owned a car repair shop, and was now able to have a better understanding of how customers felt.

In the past, he would miss most insults and any sarcasm from other people.  However, now he did not miss these comments.  And in reviewing past relationships, he realized that certain people had been routinely putting him down and insulting him without his noticing it.  He ended up ending most of these relationships.

So all the effects were not beneficial.  Sometimes ignorance can be bliss.  His wife had a serious problem dealing with depression.  In the past, although he was aware that his wife was depressed, he did not suffer any emotional effects.  After TMS he did suffer the emotional effects of his wife.  He felt her pain.  Unfortunately the end result was a divorce.

In addition to  John’s  talks on autism, he participates actively non only in research, but also in review panels deciding which proposal should be funded.  This is remarkable when you consider that John did not finish even rudimentary schooling.  Yet he is a good choice for reviewing these proposals and for helping decide the future of research.    After all, he is an author, and an author who writes quite well.  This book should be of wide interest not only for people interested in autism and TMS, but for the general reading public.

The research points to a bright future in brain science.  As for where TMS therapy stands today, as of early 2016 TMS is an FDA-accepted  therapy for depression at hundreds of hospitals in clinics across the United States.  It is also available in Canada, Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia.

TMS is not yet an FDA-approved therapy for autism or ADHD, but it is believed that this will come in the next decade.

Technology and Poverty

January 28, 2016

The October 2, 2015 edition of the New Scientist had two interesting articles in the Comments section.  The first by Federico Pistero is titled “As tech threatens jobs, we must test a universal basic income.”  An earlier healthy memory blog post, “The Second Machine Age,” reviewed a book by Erik Brunjolfsson & Andrew McAfee titled, “The Second Machine Age:  Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies”l  predicted that many jobs, jobs that would be regarded as advanced, will disappear during this second machine age.  Other healthy memory blog posts reviewed books whose authors argued that humanity’s “unique” capacity for empathy would still keep people employed.  I wrote that there would not be enough jobs requiring this “unique” capacity to keep everyone employed, even if these skills could not be implemented with technology.

The comment piece by Pistero  stated that it is possible that within 20 years almost half of all jobs will be lost to machines, and nobody really knows how we are going to cope with that.  Pistero writes “One of the most interesting proposals, that doesn’t rely on the fanciful idea that the market will figure it out, is an unconditional basic income (UBI).

A UBI would provide a monthly stipend to every citizen, regardless of income or employment status.  A key criticism of the UBI is that it would kill the incentive to work.  However, research cited by Pistero involving a whole town in Canada and 20 villages in India found that not only did people continue working, but they were more likely to start businesses or perform socially beneficial activities compared with controls.  Moreover, thee was an increase in general well-being , and no increase in alcohol, drug use, or gambling.

Of course, this research needs to be replicated, but it is good to know that this problem is being researched.  The poverty resulting from large scale unemployment would be devastating.

A second article in the same Comment section by Laura Smith is titled “Pay people a living wage and watch them get healthier.”   Paying the lowest earners less than a living wage, which occurs in both the US and the UK, leaves full-time workers unable to lift their families our of poverty.   The problem goes far beyond unpaid bills.

Poverty keeps people from resources such as healthcare and safe housing.  People in poverty experience more wear and tear from stress than the rest of us, they are sicker, and they die earlier.  Children living in poverty are more likely to be depressed and to have trouble in school.  Newborns are more likely to die in infancy.  Poor people are marginalized.  They often live outside the scope of therapeutic, vocational, social, civic, and cultural resources.  This experience of “outsiderness” reduces cognitive and emotional function.  Brain activity associated with social exclusion has been shown to parallel that of bodily pain.

Research addressing the question of whether raising people’s incomes would improve their health looked at the impact of a community-wide income rise when a casino was built on a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina.  The research compared psychiatric assessments of children before and after this even.  Children’s symptom rates began to decline.  By the fourth year out of poverty, the symptom rates could not be distinguished from children who had never been poor.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Notes on “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age”

December 26, 2015

“Reclaiming Conversation” is a book by Sherry Turkle.  She focuses on smartphones in particular.  As a matter of personal edification, and as the user of a dumb cell phone I  found this book valuable in understanding the popularity of smartphone and texting.  There are several reasons I do not use a smartphone.  I find the screen size much to small.  I require much more context in what I view.  I also need a conventional keyboard, those on smartphones are much too small.  Similarly I refuse to text and do not read texts.  I also find that smartphones add to an already existing information overload.  Consequently, I do not like interruptions and live in a world where timeliness will not suffer if I wait until a time when I am free to devote full attention to messages and material which is important to process.  Having read Turkle’s book, I have no desire for a smartphone, and should I ever purchase a smartphone, I’ll use it sparingly.

I’ve long been baffled trying to understand why people text when it is so much easier to talk.  Most teenagers send around 100 texts per day, so there must be some reason this is so popular.  Apparently, there is a sense of control when one texts.  One can read what one has written before it is sent, and once it is sent, one can wait to see if and who, if anyone responds.  So many feel that texting provides a sense of control that they feel is important.

In addition to needing to feel in control, there also seems to be a compulsion to be connected.  According to Turkle, 44% of users never turn off their phones.  Although I understand the data indicating that people feel a need to be connected most of the time, I still fail to see why they feel this necessity.  The healthy memory blog has written posts about FACEBOOK and Dunbar’s number.  See the healthy memory blog post “How Many Friends is Too Many.”  Dunbar is an evolutionary biologist who calculated the maximum number of relationships our brain can keep track of at one time to be 150.  Before smartphones Dunbar estimated that there are about five people who are close and who we speak with frequently, and  about 100 acquaintances we speak with about once a year.  With the exception of the 150 number, which is a biological constraint, the other numbers have apparently gone up drastically since the advent of the cell phone.  Friendship requires an investment of time.  We can only afford a limited number of good friends.  A large number of friends implies a large number of superficial relationships.  It appears that in the smartphone era, quantity is valued over quality.

There also appears to be an aversion to solitude.  An experiment was run in which participants were asked to sit by themselves for fifteen minutes.  They were provided a device which they could use to shock themselves, although all the participants indicated that they would not use the device.  Nevertheless, many of the participants shocked themselves after only six minutes.  I find this result extremely depressing, to think that people would find solitude that they chose to give themselves an aversive shock to cope with loneliness.  Solitude is important for both personal and intellectual development.  We need to spend time with ourselves.

One researcher reports a 40% loss of empathy in the past 20 years.  The healthy memory blog post “A Single Shifting Mega-Organism noted that throughout our lives our brain circuitry decodes the emotions of others based on extremely subtle facial cues.  Geoff Colvin and many others regard empathy as a uniquely human skill that will prevent computers from pushing humans out of the job market.  Well, empathy apps are being developed.  But empathy is developed best during conversations with our fellow humans.  This excessive use of smartphones are inhibiting, if not precluding this development.

Smartphone use implies multitasking, and whenever we multitask the performance on component tasks declines.  If you do not believe this, then read the 18 healthy memory blog posts on the topic.  The use of smartphones during classes detracts from the lecture or the topic being discussed.  Were I still teaching I would not allow the use of smartphones during classes.

There is a chapter on smartphones and romance that I found extremely depressing.  Most of the time I am envious of the young in this digital age, but not in the case of romance.  In short, smartphones take the romance out of romance.

I disagree with what Turkle writes about Massively Online Open Courses.  She puts conversations against  these courses and ignores the genuine benefits of these courses.  First of all, a Massively Online Open Course does not preclude conversations.  Secondly, conversations, as important as they are, need not be a necessary component of all courses.

At the end of the book Turtle writes about humanoid robots and robotic pets.  I did not see the relevance of these topics to the central thesis regarding conversations.

So having stated the problem, what can be done about it.

First of all, having recognized the costs of multi-tasking and do a cost benefit analysis of where smartphone use is appropriate.  Then establish rules or guidelines.

It is noted that many employees of social media companies make it a point to send their children to technology free schools.  And there is the following quotation from Steve Jobs biographer.  “Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and variety of things.  No one ever pulled out an iPAD or computer.  He did not encourage his own children’s use of iPADS or iPHONES.

“Restoring Conversations” is extensively documented.  Touching them takes you to the notes.  Unfortunately, there is no DONE enabling an easy return to the text.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Single Shifting Mega-Organism

November 19, 2015

A single shifting mega-organism is how Dr. Eagleman describes our species in “The Brain.”  He does this because we are a social species, and an enormous amount of brain circuitry has to do with other brains.  Consequently  we have a new field of research, social neuroscience.  I would add that our shifting mega-organism includes not only the living, but also the dead.  Through the artifacts of technology, we can can learn from those who have passed away.  Information resident in technology and in our fellow human beings comes under the general rubric of transactive memory.

Throughout our lives, our brain circuitry decodes the emotions of others based on extremely subtle facial cues.  Research has shown that people viewing a photo of a smile or a frown, produced short periods of electrical activity  that indicated that their own facial muscles were moving, effectively mirroring the smile or frown that they were viewing.

There is a pain matrix in the brain where pain is processed.  The precipitating event activates different areas of the brain operating in concert to produce the feeling of pain.  When you watch someone in pain, the parts of your pain involved in the emotional experience of pain are also activated.  This provides the basis for empathy.  You literally feel the other person’s pain.  We are able to step out of our shoes and into the shoes of another, neurally speaking.  Empathy is an important skill.  Having a better grasp of what someone is feeling gives a better prediction about what they’ll do next.  This is true of social pain as well as physical pain.  Social pain activates the same brain regions as physical paint.

If empathy worked all the time, then we would be a much more functional species.  Unfortunately  this single shifting mega-organism  exhibits warfare between and sometimes among different parts.  Outgroups are identified for violence even when those outgroups are defenseless and pose no threat.  This violence has occurred throughout recorded history and likely before history was recorded.  Starting in 1915 more than a million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Turks (accurately portrayed in the movie “The Cut”).  The Japanese invaded China and killed hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians in 1937.  Then there was the infamous German killing of many millions of Jews in the holocaust during World War 2.  In 1994 the Hutus in Rwanda killed 800,000 Tutsis, many with machetes.  Between 1992 and 1995 during the Yugoslavian War over 100,000 Muslims were slaughtered in violent acts known as “ethnic cleansing.”  In Srebrenica over the course of ten days, 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were shot and killed after the United Nations commanders expelled them from the compound in which they had sought safety.  Women were raped, men were executed, and even children were killed.  Today we regularly see atrocities committed by ISIS.

Itzhak Fried, a neurosurgeon, has called these atrocities examples of Syndrome E (E for Evil).  Syndrome E is characterized by a diminished emotional reactivity, which allows repetitive acts of violence.  It includes hyperarousal, which is a feeling of elation in doing these acts.  There is group contagion.  Everyone is doing it, and it catches and spreads.   Compartmentalization exists in which one can care about his own family yet perform violence on someone else’s family.   This suggests that this is not a brain-wide change, but instead involves areas involved in emotion and empathy.  So a perpetrators choices are run by the parts of the brain that underlie logic, memory, and reasoning, but not the networks that involve emotional consideration of what it is like to be someone else.  According to Fried, this equates to moral disengagement.  People are no longer using the emotional systems that under normal circumstances steer their social decision making.

So, now we have a name and an explanation.  What is needed is a means of prevention or a cure!

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

We Can’t Rely On Science Alone to Make Us Better People

October 8, 2015

The title from another article in the September 26, 2015 New Scientist was chosen as the title to this blog post.  The conclusion to this article can be found in its first two sentences.  “Our sense of right and wrong is often inadequate for modern challenges.  But the combination of rationality and humanity can lead us to more effective morality.”

The immediately preceding healthy memory blog post made the point that computer technology could be used to compensate for the narrow focus of empathy.  Of course, this technology we be drawing upon both science and mathematics.

I was encouraged to learn of an organization whose aim is to optimize the good we can do by quantifying the outcomes of our actions.  The name of this organization is the Center for Effective Altruism in Oxford, UK,    https://www.centreforeffectivealtruism.org
Rather than continuing this post it might be better for you to go to this website and explore the activities.

The Shortcomings of Empathy

October 7, 2015

Previous blogs have included many good comments on empathy.  Perhaps one of the primary ones, is that humans excel a empathy and computers are short on empathy.  Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University says that people who think that empathic concern is an unalloyed force for good are wrong.  The problem is that empathy is a spotlight and is very narrow.  It illuminates the suffering of a single person rather than the fate of millions.  It is more concerned with the here and now than with the future.  Bloom goes on to say, “It’s because of empathy that we care more about, say, the plight of a little girl trapped in a well than we do about potentially billions of people suffering or dying from climate change.”   According to the article, Morality 2.0 by Dan Jones in the September 26, 2015 New Scientist,  empathy’s shortcomings are compounded by the fact that we end up pointing its beam on cause that come into our field of view.  These are typically the most newsworthy moral issues rather than those where we can do the most good.

There is also a general belief that our brains are wired to be empathic.  This accounts for our success as a species.  But, again, the problem is the narrowness of our empathy beam.  Conflict among groups, be they tribes, nations, religions, or even professional organizations is the rule rather then the exception.  Our record is one of the abuse and even the enslavement of others who we believe “do not belong.”

The New Scientist article discusses a variety of means of prodding humans to make more meaningful moral choices.  It concludes with the following statement:  “Moral issues are complicated and hard, and they involve serious trade-offs and deliberation.  it would be be better if people thought more about them.”

It strikes me that non-empathic computer technology might be of considerable assistance. The problem of addressing the wide variety of moral needs in an efficient manner is an enormous computational task. one that is certainly beyond an individual human’s intellect, and is perhaps beyond the capacity of the collective intellect of humanity.  Humans could program their empathic concerns into computers.  Computers could then  compute enormous cost/benefit analysis.  Humans could then discuss and debate how resources could best be used to address these human and planetary needs.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Storytelling and Neural Coupling

October 5, 2015

This post is based on a section by the same name in Humans are Underrated:  What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will  by Geoff Colvin.  When we hear a story in one particular form the speaker’s and the listener’s brains align.  We not only experience the story but we also are having the same experience.  The same parts of the brain are being energized in teller and listener, that is, there is neural coupling.  The brains of the storyteller and hearer light up not just in areas controlling speech and language, but also  in areas known to be involved in processing social information crucial for successful communication, include the capacity to discern the beliefs, desires and goals of others, which is empathy.  This phenomenon becomes even stronger when a storyteller is speaking  to several listeners, when similar brain activity is induced across different individuals.

The best stories can be identified by the presence of the chemical oxytocin.  This chemical has a range of intensely emotional effects.  It makes us more trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate.  Some have called it the “love hormone,” others the “bonding hormone.”  It is called the “moral molecule” because it makes us more sensitive to social cues around us.  It often makes more inclined to gel others, particularly if the other person seems to need our help.  Therefore it is the neurochemical responsible for empathy.  Our pituitary gland  releases oxytocin when a good story is heard.  It is interesting to note that Descartes thought the the pituitary gland housed the soul.

People were shown a short film of  a true story of a two-year-old with brain cancer, whom we’ll call Ben, and his father, whom we’ll call John Doe.  John Doe’s father’s life is pretty ordinary until he learns that Ben has cancer.  Ben does not know that he has brain cancer.    The father is conflicted because he knows that Ben will die within months, but his sadness merely deprives Ben of Joy he could otherwise have.  Ben’s father finally finds the courage within himself to be joyful around Ben, genuinely grateful for the gift of the child’s brief life.  The conflict is resolved and Ben’s father is changed.

This film has been shown to hundreds of people.  The oxytocin levels in their bloom were measured both before and after viewing the film.  The film make the oxytocin levels rise.  The research subjects are paid for their time and for being stuck twice with needles to draw blood, yet they were very willing to give some or all of their money to a childhood cancer charity, depending on how much oxytocin their pituitary glands had released.

Another film was shown to a different audience depicting Ben and his father visiting a zoo.  Ben has no hair and his father refers to him as “miracle boy.”  It is clear that we are watching a father and son, and that the son has cancer.  The film has a narrative of them doing a variety of things at the zoo, but there is no story.  The brain chemistry of the viewers did not vary and they did not become notably generous to the charity.  This film had no impact.

Building Empathy by Reading Fiction

October 1, 2015

Empathy is an important skill, which we should all strive to continue to develop.  Colvin notes in his Humans are Underrated:  What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will that reading fiction provides an enjoyable means of building empathy.  However, this benefit should only derive from reading certain types of fiction.  For example reading Tom Clancy novels would probably not be beneficial.  As clever, interesting, and thrilling as they are, the characters tend to be superficial.  What is needed is fiction that has interesting characters that requires you to understand them, empathize with them, and understand why they interact with the other characters the way that they do.  Most good literature contains such characters.  And Shakespeare was not only a genius at using the English language, his characters are complex and interesting.  Much of human nature captured in his plays is still relevant today.

I would think that writing this type of literature also would be beneficial.  An interesting exercise would be to try to write some fiction regarding people you know.  This might be helpful in understanding them better and being more able to empathize with them.  Of course, you should be quite guarded regarding whom you might show your writing to.  People might be offended or even start to believe that you are lying to them.

If you read the healthy memory blog post  “Experimental Evaluation:  A Key Theme in REDIRECT,” you’ll see how writing can be therapeutic.  “Redirecting Personal Narratives” shows the general benefit about writing about yourself.  So a variety of types of writing, not necessarily certain types of fiction, can be beneficial.

I would also think that watching certain movies can facilitate the development of empathy.  I am not writing about action films or films loaded with special effects.  Rather these would be films with interesting characters for whom you would develop empathy.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Humans Are Underrated

September 29, 2015

Humans are Underrated:  What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will by Geoff Colvin purports to relieve any concerns we might have of being replaced by computers.  His argument is that the human understanding of interpersonal relationships and empathy are essential skills that humans have that will never be replaced by computers.  I would also argue that the human understanding of interpersonal relationships and empathy are skill that are limited to small groups.  The history of the species is one of warfare and conflicts, to include enslavement and attempts at exterminating other groups.  He contradicts himself by also stating that no one should ever say what computers can’t do.  However, even if computers can never achieve empathy, there will still be a massive displacement of humans by computers.  If this is your primary interest then you should read another book reviewed in the immediately preceding healthymemory blog post, The Second Machine Age:  Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brunjolfsson & Andrew McAfee, a book that addresses the problem and proposes solutions in an accurate and thorough manner.

Nevertheless, there is much of value and interest in Colvin’s book.  I shall hit some highlights here and address some other topics in future healthy memory blog posts.
He argues that our brains were built for understanding and interacting with others.  He argues, correctly, that empathy is the foundation of  the other abilities that increasingly make people valuable  as technology advances.

Colvin also notes that although computers will never be able to incorporate empathy or other interpersonal skills, IT can nevertheless be used to train interpersonal skills.  Many examples are taken from research done for the military.

He also writes of the importance of narratives.  This is an especially important topic and warrants its own future post.

Colvin makes a compelling argument that females have better interpersonal and empathic skills than do males.  The number of females on a team contribute positively to the performance of that team.  And the best teams consist exclusively of females.  So it is likely that females shall provide the lead in the future.  We are already seeing movements in that direction as there is a higher percentage of females in college than males and a higher percentage of female graduates.

Colvin ends on an optimizing note encouraging us all to grow and improve.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Book to Be Read with Caution

September 23, 2015

And that book is, A Whole New Mind:  Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel H. Pink.  First of all, one should be suspicious of any book making such an outlandish claim, but perhaps outlandish claims sell books.  I’ve heard that this book is being used in an introductory psychology class.  I find this to be especially disturbing.  I think Introductory Psychology is a very important class.  I wrote the Correspondence Course, Introductory Psychology, for the University of Utah before I left and continued teaching it for several years.  Using Pink’s book in an Introductory Psychology Class would seriously handicap students taking more advanced courses in psychology, and would not provide foundational information about Psychology to be a good citizen and to live a healthy, productive life.

First of all, here is a very coarse description of the two hemispheres of the brain.  The left hemisphere processes language, is logical, and is a serial processor.  The right hemisphere is intuitive, wholistic, and engages in parallel processing.  This is a crass oversimplification, and the functions of the two hemispheres can be reversed in certain individuals.

Pink argues that past successes have been due to left hemisphere processing, that is responsible for logical thinking which is germane to scientific, engineering, and business success.  However, his claim is that computers can now do those tasks better.  He also notes that many computer tasks are being outsourced to countries whose labor costs are much lower.  But humans are better at tasks that require empathy and the interaction with other humans.  This last statement is true.  Pink and others claim that there will be sufficient demand tor these tasks that there should be no fear of being replaced by computers.  Therefore right-brainers will rule the future.

The claim that empathic skills will be in  sufficient demand such that right brainers will always be employed is a common theme.  The next post will review another book The Second Machine Age:  Work Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies  by Erik Brunjolfsson & Andrew McAfee of the MIT Sloan School of Management, will also argue that there is a definite need for the empathic skills at which humans excel.  However, they also make a strong case that there will be a significant unemployment problem and discuss ways of dealing with it.

Throughout history humans have used both hemispheres using the different hemispheres as appropriate.  Intellectuals apparently make heavy use of their left hemispheres, and artists heavy use of their right hemispheres.  The goal should be to use our Whole Mind, that is both hemispheres, to best advantage.  Computers provide support, we call this transitive memory in the lingo of the health memory blog.  Nevertheless, the ultimate processing, making decisions, needs to be done by humans using both hemispheres.  The left hemisphere has an especially important role to play in the the control of emotions, which is important to the development of empathy.

Nevertheless, there is some virtue to Pink’s book.  He includes many exercises that focus on developing skills in which the right hemisphere dominates.  This is commendable.  Developing right brain skills is a worthy goal, always remembering that the whole brain needs to be used, and one hemisphere should not be used to the of the other.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Successful Strategies for Compromise

November 25, 2012

Compromise is key to a wide range of human interactions, from a marriage between two individuals, to legislative bodies, to negotiations among nation states. A recent article1 summarized empirical research into effective strategies for successful compromises. One effective strategy is perspective-taking, that is seeing the world through another viewpoint. Another strategy is to try to empathize with the party with whom you are negotiating. 152 participants played the role of either the buyer or seller in the sale of a gas station. Prior to the negotiation half the buyers were told to focus on the feelings and emotions of the seller (the empathy group), whereas the other half were told to consider what the seller was thinking (the perspective-taking group). The deal was complicated because the buyer’s maximum allowed expenditure was less than the seller’s minimum acceptable sale price. The optimal agreement here was for the seller to accept a lower price for the station in exchange for future monetary considerations, such as a guarantee of employment for the seller. The perspective-takers were much more successful in striking a compromise. About 76 percent of this group reached the ideal solution compared with 54 percent of the empathizers. In another study over the terms of employment, perspective-takers were able to achieve strong outcomes for both sides, whereas empathizers produced deals that hurt their own interests. Other research has discovered that you need not be naturally fair-minded to consider the opposing viewpoint. Even gentle reminders about perspective-taking can be enough to lessen the problems of a selfish mindset.

Another study gathered a coed sample of participants for an experimental negotiation that simulated a divorce settlement. The goal was to determine an equitable distribution of nine items. Some of the participants were told to be egoistic and to work toward the best personal outcome. Half of these participants were also told to consider the other person’s perspective during the deal. The results indicated that egoistic participants who used the the perspective-taking strategy had fewer impasses and also ended up with higher quality group outcomes.

Optimism, anticipating a successful outcome to the negotiation, is also an important factor. One experimental negotiation involved Israeli participants and a Palistinian research confederate. The negotiation involved the funding allocation for a security fence between Israeli and Palestinian communities. Half the Israeli negotiators told just to do their best to reach an agreement. The other half were given the same instruction, but were also told that every other team of negotiators had been able to achieve a successful agreement. The Palestinian negotiator, a confederate of the experiments, made the same starting and counter offers to each Israeli negotiator. About 82 percent of the Israeli negotiators given the positive expectation were able to achieve a successful negotiation, whereas only 34 percent of the control group, the ones just told to reach an agreement, achieved a successful outcome.

Unfortunately, this effect of optimism does not bode well for the outcome of negotiations that have been going on for many years without success. But in any case, negotiators have to be motivated and be willing to compromise for negotiations to succeed.

The Congress in the United States has been at loggerheads for quite some time. If compromises are not made, there is the real risk that the country will fall off a financial cliff. Unfortunately, there are many members of congress who refuse to compromise and have signed pledges refusing to perform certain acts. These congressmen are anathema to a democracy. All legislators need to compromise otherwise democratic governments collapse. The public blames congress, although it is the public that ultimately is to blame, either for not voting or for voting for candidates who do not compromise.

1Jaffe, E. (2012). Give and Take: Empirical Strategies for Compromise. Obsewrver, October 2012, 25,8, pp. 9-11.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Importance of Fiction

November 16, 2011

An Article1 in Scientific American Mind extolled the value of fiction in understanding others and in learning to empathize with others. It presents a variety of data, both behavioral and brain images, that support this contention. I also find this intuitively plausible. Fiction takes one into the minds and feelings of others. You develop a sense of the characters in the piece as to what motivates them and why they do what they do. The article reminded me of an old television series, Remington Steele, about two private detectives, one who has an encyclopedic knowledge of movie plots. Any given case they need to solve reminds him of a relevant movie plot which led to the solution of the crime.

I’ve long thought that an understanding of Shakespeare’s plays would provide an very thorough understanding of humans and their interactions. Certainly, Shakespeare is not required, but I don’t think that all fiction provides this understanding. Tom Clancy writes thrilling novels, but his character development is a tad thin. The fiction that is beneficial in helping us to understand and to interact well with others has characters who reveal their thoughts and feelings.

My degrees are in psychology, and I believe that many students choose psychology as a major because they want to understand and interact well with others. I think these students would both benefit more and enjoy more a major emphasizing literature. I think that too many of us psychologists are not as well practiced in interpersonal skills as we should be (I exclude clinicians and counselors here). But I do think that psychology is a good major for someone who wants to understand science. Psychologists study everything from individual neural cells to large groups of people, and they need to know experimental design, statistics, and mathematical modeling. Unfortunately, the understanding of students in the physical sciences and engineering tends to be constrained to their respective disciplines. I hurry to add, however, that I know many personal exceptions to this statement.

I become extremely annoyed when I do not here psychology in the category of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math ) disciplines as it is regarded as a soft discipline. Psychology is involved in all these disciplines. Moreover, when you consider the critical problems we face today, you should find that most fall into the so-called soft areas of science.

1Oatley, K. (2011). In the Minds of Others. Scientific American Mind, November/December, 63-67.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.