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10/25/2015

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Kasey Cannon

I found the section on empathy very fascinating. In particular, I found the studies that show that people use their own emotions to understand how it feels for others to be in a similar state to be very interesting. For example, in Singer and colleagues study, they recruited couples and measured empathy by assessing brain activity in the female partner while painful stimulation was applied either to her own or to her partner's hand. The results showed that the "pain matrix" was activated both when the subjects themselves experienced pain and when they saw a signal that their partners had experienced pain.

The results of the study previously discussed demonstrate the significance of understanding one's owns feelings. As discussed in the textbook, training the capacity to understand our own feelings would go hand in hand with increasing the capacity for empathy. On the flip side, deficits in understanding our own emotions would be associated with empathy deficits. I find it interesting that just simply becoming more self aware could help people become more empathetic towards others.

Ali Norton

The discussion of empathy also particularly stood out to me. The notion that training ourselves to understand our own feelings relates to our capacity for empathy made me consider the different ways in which we can control or alter our understanding of others. Continuing with Kasey’s comment of being “self-aware”, I wonder the extent of the relationship between our own self-awareness and environment. If we need to focus on being more self-aware in order to increase our empathic capacity, how can our choices of environment including social situations, education, etc. impact our awareness of our own emotions. Further, the discussion of the “Individual Differences in Empathy” made me wonder how the mechanisms in the brain formulate as we gain self-awareness, and if there is an age at which this development is critical, or if it can continuously to be learned and developed over time.

Hampton Ike

The discussion on the theory of mind particularly caught my attention in this chapter. The author takes great care to establish the difference between the theory of mind and empathy. “ ToM or mentalizing differs from empathy in that the former does not denote a sharing of another person’s affect but rather a cognitive understanding of another person’s intentions or belief” (517). One of the examples used to display the difference between empathy and ToM is through looking at those who fall under the autistic spectrum and those who are psychopaths, these individuals tend to be capable of understanding other people’s intentions or beliefs but at the same time do not experience their emotions or understand their feelings. One of the early tests for ToM was with false belief tests and children, I found this interesting as I had never really thought about how kids cognitively develop with respect to understanding other people’s thought processes. The children would be told a story of how child a places a ball in a basket but child b moves it to another place, the child would then be asked where child A will look for the ball. After further research and using the new imaging devices to measure the brain at work, researchers can more accurately discuss the development of different aspects of ToM. “the ability to understand mental state concepts like desires, goals, and feelings develops earlier than the ability to represent more abstract contents of mental states, such as beliefs… the former relies on functions of the mPFC, whereas the latter is specifically associated with TPJ functions” (518). It was somewhat difficult to conceptualize ToM on a standalone basis, as I feel like emotions almost always play a factor and influence my own personal ability to “mentalize”. The text also discusses the idea that one tends to set their base level mentalizing as their own mind and can therefore fall trap to “anchoring and adjusting”. This reminded me of our class discussion the other week on how we irrationally think that the way we see the world what we view as beautiful, morally right, or any number of these issues is objective and everyone views these topics on the same scale as we do. It was also interesting to read that the mPFC is also is also involved in the brain process of introspection.

Michael Fitzgerald

I found the section about envy and schadenfreude to be very interesting. They are two major social emotions that seem to be going against what we would expect to happen with empathetic abilities. However, what was really interesting to me was that they are closely related to revenge and altruistic punishment when fairness preferences have been violated. It shows that these are not emotions that contradict theory of mind, but just react in a different way. A person does not feel envy or schadenfreude because they are simply selfish people; it happens because they believe that the hierarchy (or perceived hierarchy) is unfair. When a person is envious of someone else’s success it is because they see something as being contradictory to fairness. The person does not believe the other person “deserves” their success because they are “no better” than themselves. When a person experiences schadenfreude in a situation instead of empathy it is because the “fairness” part of their brain had a stronger reaction than the sharing feelings part of their brain.

Matt Kinderman

As I was reading the section on Theory of Mind development among children and the various experiences, I recalled a segment from a NPR TED Radio Hour segment that I heard had recently listened to called “Unstoppable Learning”. The radio program explored different research concerning early childhood development. The program was what got me really interested in learning more about education and technology. In this blog post, I’ll briefly go over some of what was covered and the implications.

The relevant section came from a Ted talk and interview with Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC Berkley, and a prominent researcher early childhood cognitive development. She discussed the revolution over the last 30 years of thought on babies’ brains: we previously thought babies were just small adults without developed minds and now we are learning their brains are sponges of information like “the most brilliant scientists”. Babies are observing and experimenting on everything we take for granted, constantly thinking of all current surroundings. Scientifically, she says there’s babies possess lots of neurotransmitters for learning and plasticity but the inhibitors haven’t developed yet (that allow humans to focus on specific tasks).

She then wanted to test ToM based on the fact that kids really like to eat some things and not others. She administered broccoli and goldfish to the babies and then had her assistant try both but with exaggerated expressions of satisfaction for the broccoli. By 18 months, these babies were able to give the experimenter broccoli even though it was gross to the baby. The baby could understand that “I like crackers, but the other person likes broccoli.” This is earlier than even our book text suggests and forms the basis for empathy, and perhaps even altruism, developing between 15-18 months.

She observes that humans have very long period of uselessness relative to other species. She hypothesizes that this is to give the mind more time to develop and explore, which is the distinguishing characteristic of humans relative to other species—the mind. As far as policy implication, she encourages parents to be more focused and exploration and creating a loving environment not getting legs up for tests. Creating more “exploration and play” as opposed to more standardized test sort of learning is crucial, as is creating environments where poor children can embrace this exploratory phase. She closes by saying we take too much time to make babies think like adults when maybe we need adults thinking more like children—an open minded, sponge of information that is inherently curious about the world.

Here’s a link to a column she wrote for CNN 4 years back that is more or less my above summary but in her own words: http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/23/opinion/gopnik-ted-children-learning/

Madison Smith

While reading the beginning section on empathy in the chapter, I kept wondering why they were acting like empathy was a trait that all people had equally. Luckily, they addressed that on page 522 with the individual differences in empathy, which I found to be of particular interest (and also a bit over my head). I guess what I am wondering is can people empathize, but not do it well? How do we know when these parts of the brain are being activated when someone is having an empathetic response that it is the right one? For example, if someone is feeling a particular type of sorrow, what if a person isn’t able to empathize with that because they have never felt a sorrow of that sort, but they can empathize with someone who is feeling pain because they know what that feels like. Like Ali, I am wondering about how time effects empathy. It seems like the older people get, usually, the more empathetic they get because they have seen and felt more emotions that allow them to understand their own emotions more and therefore could be correlated with more activation in the AI. Going further, it makes sense that you can feel more empathy for people in your in-group, but I still feel like empathy is something that has more variance for each individual than the chapter is necessarily explaining.

Katherine Hodges

In the section on mentalizing other emotions and empathy, I was very interested in the theory that suggests there are functional differences in judging states similar and dissimilar to ours. Studies are showing that when we see a person with a perceived similar mental state, our mPFC is active. But when we observe a dissimilar mental state, a dorsal area of the mPFC is more active. Understanding that we process mental states in two different ways neurologically purely bases on the state's comparison to our own mental state is provocative. The authors go on to mention that area activated in dissimilar mental states could involve outside knowledge and stereotypes from the observed world. This egocentric bias is common in psychology, but is more compelling when different areas of the brain can be associated with the theory.

The concept that we use outside knowledge and stereotypes to characterize dissimilar mental states from our own seems to fall in line with common sense reasoning. If I do not have a basis to understand someone else's mental state, I have to sort the information I am receiving into some category to simplify the information. These categories are often stereotypes of people. Although stereotyping gets a bad reputation, it is necessary for us to categorize information in order to make sense of social contexts.

Lizz Platt

This chapter brought up a great deal of information on emotions I had yet to consider. Specifically, the section focused on studies about individual differences in empathy is something I had never thought of. Madison mentioned that from the beginning she wondered about the differences in empathy. However, other than people diagnosed with Asperger’s, I had never considered that there were empathy differences between individuals. I assumed everyone had trouble watching the ASPCA commercials in the exact same way I do. Not only do people experience empathy to different degrees, but also 10% of the population is thought to have alexithymia, a lack of emotional awareness. Less than 1% of the population has Asperger’s and, within that 1%, approximately half are observed to have alexithymia, according to the text. This information is fascinating in itself but even more fascinating that, by using an fMRI, neuroscientists can see the distinct sections of the brain affected. Individuals with alexithymia show less activation in the AI, one of the parts of the pain matrix. Considering this information with the work Professor Casey has mentioned with sea turtles would be interesting. Going further with this idea, I would be interested to see how people with differing levels of empathy act after an interaction with sea turtles. Do those with higher levels of empathy have a higher willingness to pay for conservation? Are they more likely to donate money to a conservation fund directly after the interaction? Do people with alexithymia have the same willingness to pay before and after an interaction? How do personal preferences interact with individual levels of empathy?

Asher

I also, like Hampton, Matt, and Katherine, found the section on ToM – or “mentalizing” – and specifically how ToM contrasts with empathy and compassion (sympathy). In particular I found the discussion of psychopathy and autistic disorder fascinating. Though I disagree somewhat with the chosen definitions of the conditions listed in the glossary (over which there is in fact significant debate), the differences in terms of understanding and co-experiencing emotions/affect and state of mind was a noteworthy finding. Psychopaths have an unusually heightened capacity for ToM but a stunted capacity to experience empathy and sympathy (compassion), making them highly dangerous and manipulative individuals.

I also found the contrast between envy (a negative feeling associated with a perceived fortune for another) and Schadenfreude (a positive feeling associated with a perceived misfortune for another). In thinking about this, I think it’s unfortunate that the authors or indeed the research they looked at did not discuss sympathy/pity (or as the book calls it, compassion) which is a negative feeling associated with a perceived misfortune for another, and also compersion, which is a positive feeling associated with a perceived fortune for another. More research into these four types of co-experiencing (for lack of a better word) would be of great interest and import.

Genny Francis

I also thought the section on empathy was interesting, and I thought Lizz brought up a good point in her comment about whether empathy has an impact on willingness to pay for conservation. Would an individuals level of empathy toward sea turtles have a direct effect on their willingness to pay, and could it also be influenced by the levels of empathy of people in their social group? The book talked about how people had higher levels of empathy toward people in their ingroup, but would this also mean they might be more empathetic toward groups that other people in their ingroup are empathetic toward? For example might an individual’s willingness to pay for conservation increase because other people in their social group have high levels of empathy toward sea turtles?

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