The Greater Good: Session 2
Writer, journalist, disability advocate; blogger for Psychology Today
Writer, journalist; contributor to n+1, The Brooklyn Rail, and Modern Painters
G. Anthony Gorry
Professor of Computer Science at Rice University and Professor of Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine
Professor of Biology at the University of Chicago; author of Medical Neurobiology
Recently, several colleagues and I attended a presentation regarding the challenges faced by veterans returning from war with significant disabilities. As with many discussions of disability-related issues, it was intense.
The speaker, a nurse, told the story of her son, who returned from Iraq with serious injuries, resulting in the amputation of both legs and severe anoxic brain injury. She talked about the trauma, his physical pain, and the trials of his long recovery. She described his struggle to relearn basic skills like reading, writing, and even speaking, the pain of his early attempts to use prosthetics, and the final decision that had to be made to abandon his efforts to walk. She talked of his struggles with emotional regulation, post-traumatic stress disorder, and hyper-vigilance.
She was a good storyteller, and as I listened, I found myself imagining myself in his place—feeling his loneliness, frustration, isolation, and pain; imagining the evenings he must have sat alone, unable to sleep, his neural mechanisms on high alert; jumping at every noise, expecting calamity at every moment. I was deeply moved.
The speaker’s vivid, passionate call to action was met with a standing ovation, which I was only too glad to give. After the session came to a close, my colleagues stayed behind at our table debriefing. But I faced a challenge. While my colleagues seemed to have recovered from the strong emotions of the presentation, I hadn’t.
As with many people on the autism spectrum, I have issues with sensory hypersensitivities that strong emotion tends to amplify. Suddenly facing the roar of a ballroom full of discussions, loud music and announcements blaring over the P.A., and the clash and clank of dishes being cleared from tables was acutely painful. I flinched at the crash of a plate in a bus pan, felt the tension building in my muscles and subtle twitches taking place in my hands and legs.
But my colleagues continued their conversation and did not seem to notice. I did not want to be rude by interrupting or abruptly leaving, so I did my best to tolerate the discomfort until the conversation finally came to a close.
In the past, I might have been frustrated, even angry, at my colleagues’ obliviousness. I would have thought that they lacked empathy. But they were clearly not unempathic people—during the presentation, there wasn’t a dry eye among us. The reality, I now know, is that they couldn’t read the signals of my distress. They didn’t know that I was feeling it until I told them. Once I did, their empathic action was instantaneous.
A lifetime of experiences like this has taught me to question the assumption of empathy as automatic. Is it really? Can a person truly show automatic empathy if the person doesn’t “speak” the same nonverbal language as the person they are reading? What if a smile didn’t automatically mean the same thing to the recipient as it did to the smiler, or if the recipient had a disruption in the motor skills necessary to reciprocate? What types of higher-order thinking may be needed to counteract such dynamics?
This leads to the question of how assumptions about others affect empathy. For example, if someone assumed that I, as someone on the autism spectrum, was unlikely to be able to “step into the shoes of another” and experience “fellow feeling” with the speaker and her son—what assumptions would that drive regarding my behavior? Would it make someone less likely to pick up my distress or more likely? In other words: how does the assumption that another person lacks empathy affect your empathy toward that person?
PANELISTG. Anthony Gorry
Human inventiveness forged a path from oral culture to writing, then on to print and now electronic media. As this journey continues, so continues a profound change in our culture, and in us: the emergence of disembodied sociability.
Our empathetic faculties are increasingly engaged by others who are neither kin nor companions and who are often fictions. Newspapers, books, art, movies, television and other media have thrust us, if only imaginatively, into the lives of others far removed. Computers are the latest and most protean of what Donna Haraway calls “machines of sunshine,” which, although they “are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of a spectrum,” can erode the boundaries between reality and artifice, beguiling us with increasingly elaborate settings for work, entertainment, and escape. Through their auspices, we meet with people far away, enter complex simulations, collaborate and access previously unimaginable stores of information and knowledge. These experiences fascinate us, and what we learn of them stirs our emotions, even when what they present consists only of lines of text or a flickering on a screen.
When analyzing social interaction, I tend to focus on how differential position—having more or less economic, social, and cultural capital—affects the scope of available ways by which one person can try to apprehend or engage with another. My default line of thought tends to be to wonder about the ways in which objective difference—for example, the difference in status between employer and employee—structures interaction. Employers and employees have distinct interests, no matter how empathetic either might be to the other in any one case, and interests are impervious to assumptions.
But between any two people trying to have a conversation or among any group of colleagues, there will be differences of resources, abilities, and status. Lynne's eloquent post reminds me of the necessity of what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called "thick description": a nuanced, textured view of what actually occurs in actual lives. Even two people with roughly equivalent social capital may find themselves cut off from each other by a gap in their ability to comprehend the other, and certain skills can in particular cases bridge fissures that would otherwise seem to render communication impossible. In her comment to the Forum, Tammy Kacmarynski describes her experience as a person with Asperger's syndrome thus: "I absolutely reason through these typical everyday events, at least until I have learned the context of the smile." That kind of scrupulous attention to the manifold intricacies of mundane interaction strikes me as a perfect example of "thick description."
In considering empathy, it is critical to remember its evolutionary roots. Mammalian young are born helpless, dependent on their mother for milk, immune defense, thermoregulation, and protection. The young’s lives depend on mom’s attention and care, absolutely and completely. If mom does not recognize that an offspring has a problem—cold, hungry, left behind—and do something about that problem, the offspring will die. In these circumstances, empathic understanding by the mother of the young’s condition and needs is not optional. Rather, feeling empathy and acting caringly upon that feeling are the difference between life, passing on one’s genes, and death, an evolutionary dead end.
An individual who needs help must signal that need. Ergo, babies cry. A potential helper must then recognize the distress of the one in need. Babies’ cries are hard not to recognize as distress and parents are moved to respond. Conversely, most parents do not go to help a baby who is not crying, accepting silence as evidence that all is well.