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On Empathy, Science and Religion

Mar 13, 2012

One of the things we all have in common is the experience of difficult moments. Almost all of us have suffered difficult times in grade school or early family life, a broken heart in romance, disappointment in work. People that were important in our lives have passed away, or will in the future.

We have happy experiences in common too. But the universal moments of sadness fill our stream of empathy. I think we often forget how much we have in common, and it ought to make us treat others gently and kindly.

But just as a thought experiment, let's imagine speaking of this in the language of neuroscience, and describing how difficult life situations trigger the release of neurochemicals. Those neurochemicals act within particular brain regions and give rise to sadness. Could I give a satisfactory description of why we should feel connected to one another on account of these neurochemical events we’ve all experienced? Something’s lost in translation, or at least nothing very much is gained.

We could speak of sociobiology, and speculate on how empathy and the altruistic behavior that flows from it can have indirect benefits on the propagation of our common genes.  We could even search for empathy-related genes and reveal the proteins that they code for, and how these proteins give rise to neural circuits whose activity gives rise to empathy.

But all of this would be like describing the beauty of Beethoven’s 7th symphony in terms of the harmonies employed, the chord structures that give rise to the harmony, the notes that make up the chords, the sound waves making up the notes, the human auditory nervous system that interprets these sound waves as auditory experience, and the ways in which particular types of auditory experience produce activity in brain pleasure circuits. Something has been left out. Descriptions of experience at lower levels of analyses aren’t a substitute for the experience itself. These types of descriptions don’t capture the idea that we share deep experiences, and are connected in meaningful ways. In the very process of analysis, the thing in itself slips away from us.

How about approaching it from a religious perspective? Empathy and kindness toward others may please God and bring us rewards in heaven. But do I need to be rewarded for treating others with empathy?

I may identify with your plight because I see the Christ within you. But do I need to look for the Christ within you in order to find a point of connection? Isn’t it enough that we’re all people doing our best to make it through the life situations that confront us?

Neither science nor religion provide the language that captures our point of deep contact with one another. Looking into a microscope or up at the heavens can, I think, be a distraction from what stands directly in front of us: other people.


  1. It is a modern dilemma, a clash of angry "free will" debates between atheists and the religious. I think the first problem is the same as "happiness" studies. What do we mean by that term? Accordingly, what do we mean by empathy? Is it kindness? Pity? Respect? The Golden Rule? I don't think we can define what we see on a brain scanner without the distinction.

    Also there are the small scales (brain regions) and the huge scales (species evolution). Regarding the latter, Darwin has been greatly overstated. I think it's more likely that humans developed empathy due to their need to hunt animals larger than themselves.

  2. Yes, it's true that empathy could be hard to distinguish from those other feelings in a controlled, scientific setting. But even if one imagined the ability to accurately identify its neural underpinnings, and the evolutionary pressures that may (or may not) have contributed to it ...
    I'm more impressed by the fact THAT empathy exists, than by how and why it exists.

  3. Oh, no doubt it is a remarkable funcion of our experience. Maybe the saving grace of our species. I wonder also how far it will go - if we can suggest parallel universes, why not intuition?

  4. I agree with you that both science and religion can be huge distractions from the importance of relationships. Especially when you see religion for what it truly is - man's way of trying to reach God. You can get so wrapped up in the details that you miss the human experience.

    I'm no expert, but I feel that science is about the facts. Discovering, experimenting, formulating hypotheses, etc. And religion is about the law. Discipline, keeping track, maintaining the spiritual quota, etc. Neither of these can truly explain or capture the essence of our amazing ability to connect with others...or to empathize, love, forgive, and show mercy, compassion and tenderness.

    And honestly, would we want them to? Religion reduces human beings to anxiety-ridden robots at best and maniacal terrorists at worst, while science tries to prove that everything we are boils down to a chain reaction of physical/chemical processes. We are so much more than either side could imagine.

    Wait...I just got a mental picture of myself trying to explain to my teenagers that the beautiful act of falling in love is nothing more than a series of hormonal impulses driven by the subconscious physical desire to ensure the survival of our species. Hmm...don't think it would go over very well, lol!!

  5. To be honest, I had an experience like you're imagining about describing love in a reductionist manner.

    I was a graduate student in California working in neuroscience, and my girlfriend was a counseling psychologist with strong spiritual view of life. One day, when talking about the brain and mental life, she asked me "So, do you think that brain activity is responsible for love?"

    The truth is, in a way I do believe that all of our inner-events can be described in terms of underlying brain events. But whether or not reductionism is possible for love, this perspective doesn't help us much in appreciating important interpersonal experiences - like love, friendship, and real caring.

    Anyhow, my answer to her question wasn't going to do me any good in our relationship - so I told her I had to go out to the store to pick something up. I had the feeling that my answer was going to put me in the position of a cold-blooded, materialist neuroscientist. (And really I'm more of a warm-blooded materialist neuroscientist) :)

  6. Everyone having things in common reminds me of Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about us all being connected.

    The whole Universe. How we are all made of matter and atoms from exploded starts and essentially not only are we in the Universe, but the Universe is in us. So the vastness of the Universe shouldn't make us feel small, but big - as we are part of it.

    Its just kind of poetic and reassuring to think about. We really are all connected.

  7. That's a nice image.

  8. Francis Collins comes to mind...and his book "The Language of God"...and stardust from where we all possibly began. I also think of CSNY and their song "Woodstock" (which I just discovered was written by Joni Mitchell).

    I may have mentioned before, HeartMath. I've been intrigued by the work at HeartMath...and the heart's role in decision making.

    I recently watched a documentary entitled "I Am Fishead: Are Corporate Leaders Psychopaths?"

    I was surprised that the documentary went in the direction of empathy, and it brought in how anti-depressants can dampen empathy. I'm still thinking about some of the ideas presented. The main concept that sticks out to me is the ripple effect, age old and simple.

  9. 1P- I always liked that song "Woodstock".
    I just opened up some pages of HearthMath on my browser tabs - it looks interesting. You (and heart-math) mention the heart's role in decision making. I've also wondered what it would be like to live a life using the 'heart' as a guide - I guess the real question comes when 'heart' and the 'head' give different advice. :)

    It's really interesting the idea that antidepressants might blunt empathy. I'd never heard that - but I can imagine it.

    Is the ripple effect the idea that when we treat others kindly, that has a positive influence on them that gets passed on to others they interact with? (and negatives ripple as well). I think there's a lot of truth to that.

  10. Yes, regarding the ripple effect. I think of recycling. It's just one can to me, but a million mes = a million cans. That little decision has an effect. (ripple)

    Regarding the heart/head thing...HeartMath (and probably other places) has gone into the study of the 'brain within the heart'. That's what I find intriguing....that the physical heart actually helps in the decision making process. That it's not simply a metaphor. I know, it may sound out there...but it is a fascinating concept and the studies HeartMath is doing are interesting ... at least to this lay person.

    Have you ever read about organ transplant patients and the way the recipients change and take on aspects of their donors?

    I only read one book where case studies were shared: "The Heart's Code" by Paul Pearsall. (Not related to HeartMath though Pearsall has a few sentences that mention HeartMath in the book.)

    Here's a link regarding the transplants and cellular memory that I found just now with a search:

  11. I think about it differently. For me, following your heart is metaphor. And a meaningful one.

    I took a look at the Paul Pearsall case studies, and they are really compelling and interesting. Still, it would take more evidence to convince me that memories and personality attributes are stored in the heart itself. Although I do think that feedback from the heart to the brain does strongly influence our emotional 'states'.

    It would surprise me if the Pearsall idea were true. But I've been surprised plenty of times.

  12. Yes, I always thought of it as metaphor too...until I began doing some reading regarding HeartMath's studies. I first read a book by one of the founders of HeartMath entitled "The HeartMath Solution"...which I ran across in one of my serendipitous encounters. So, if your studies ever begin to go in the direction of the "brain within in the heart"...I'd be interested in your findings.

    The organ transplant cases don't just happen with heart transplants, but other organ transplants as well.

    Interestingly, when I was reading Pearsall's book years ago, I met at gentleman at Borders. We were sharing a table because the cafe was crowded. He was looking at some gardening and flowering magazines. I mentioned something about the magazines and he stated it was a recent interest of his and that his son thought it was funny how he was suddenly interested in flowers.

    During our conversation he shared with me some of his life story which included a transplant within the last year (I forgot what organ now). He shared with me about his transplant (an intimate subject for him). I hadn't brought up what I had been reading about when he began to share.

    This sudden interest in flowers had begun after his transplant. If I recall correctly, his donor was a teenage girl...but that is all he knew about his donor at the time.

    I saw him a few times after that over the following weeks. But then didn't see him anymore.

  13. 1P - It's funny that the issue of people 'changing' in meaningful ways came up in your comments. I'm working on a post about what it means when we say that so-and-so has 'changed' or when we say that people 'don't change'.

  14. I look forward to your post.

    A fun word to think about:
    Change (to be different than before) and
    Change (the money you get back in an ex-change.)


  15. Hey again Jon... :)

    This popped up on my computer screen this morning...the brain and heart copulate... ;D

  16. To all -- 1Ps link isn't as X-rated as it sounds. It's pretty cute.

  17. May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

  18. Thanks Edwin.

    I checked out the Culture of Empathy website and it really does look great. I recommend a visit.

  19. "Descriptions of experience at lower levels of analyses aren’t a substitute for the experience itself." I have a lifelong and all consuming need to do this- apply description and analyze, getting down to the very root. It fools some people that I make decisions based on logic :) its just a past time. Someone analyzed me once and said- logic is what you do and doesn't seem to have anything to do with who you are :D

  20. oh as for the empathy and reward...any "good" done for the hope of reward is automatically disqualified from the virtue column...and is now put on schedule one in the vice column

  21. ".any "good" done for the hope of reward is automatically disqualified"

    Yes -- I agree. (The only exception is if making the other person feel good, or relieving their worry, is the reward you're seeking).

  22. Takes so much energy to keep track and tabulate and compile what you should have coming back to you anyway. I can understand feeling hurt if you don't get something back but for God's sake acknowledge that its unbecoming at the very least. People do realize that for the most part I think...except when it comes to romantic love...apparently its socially acceptable then. Based on my definition, romantic love may have to come out of the virtue column :) I'll create a 3rd column put it in the addiction column, not sure it belongs in the vice column.

  23. Wow, Jon if someone like you would avoid a question in this manner (the one your girl asked you)all hope is lost that a man would answer a question even if he made a judgment that she couldn't handle the truth. Would you have done the same today?

  24. But then again, I suppose intuition and feeling can make you less likely to be honest if it makes you able to gauge someone's reaction. If you couldn't predict their reactionor didn't care, you might have blurted out the truth in clueless oblivion. Hmmm I guess there are advantages to hanging out with the clueless types besides low expectations :P

  25. When I came back from getting cigarettes I did answer her. :)

    I became the 'materialist'. But that actually didn't end up being one of our problems.

  26. I had this image of Jack Nicholson yelling "you can't handle the truth" from a few good men :)

    So glad you did eventually answer her....was it the walk, the retail therapy or the cigarettes that made you so brave? :)

    Did she detect the avoidance? or did she believe her question struck you with an immediate nicotine hunger? At least she let you leave :)

  27. but you answered her and relatively quickly too phew the world makes sense again. If you would do that, what is the average man supposed to do

  28. Your source memory isn't as bad as you say then jon :D

  29. One of the reasons I remember it so clearly, is that she had a view of the world where there were the people who were 'spiritual, empathetic, caring, nurturing' on one hand, and then there were those who were 'materialist, reductionist, western-medical-model, male-dominated'. This conversation threw me firmly into the latter. However, over some time she saw me as a materialist that wasn't so bad after all. One day, she'd told her therapist that I had gone to retreats by Ira Progoff -who had been a follower of Jung, and wrote about creativity, the spirit ...- and her therapist told her that if I'm interested in Progoff I can't be a completely unopen person.

    These were during my years in California.

  30. You must be a different person on your blog because you're firmly in the spiritual, empathetic, nurturing category to me...can't think what you could possibly say to convince me otherwise (that must be the J part of the INFJ :) )

  31. Neuroscience is pretty ambitious in general but I found out there are mice models of empathy and psychopathy! What can't the mighty mouse do!