ReReading 2.2


Another post about my re-reading Langer, this one not about what I did not remember but about what I misremembered. For a long time I have thought of empathy as beginning in mammals and setting the stage for symbolization. Empathy in this view is broadly conceived as the awareness of another’s interiority and then feeling what the other feels based upon their empathic communication and our own prosocial identification with them. The advent of symbolization transforms this ability, empowering it through imaginative means, but is also based upon it. Unless we are aware of another’s interiority and can identify with it, symbols are merely mental structures without communicative purpose.

I thought I had drawn this from Langer until a few days ago, when I re-read her idea that empathy is emotional contagion among non-human animals and that she terms the human capacity sympathy. Oops. The term emotional contagion is still used today by the more reductionistic among us. Think of trees filled with monkeys when one sees a tiger and calls out and then the whole tribe joins in. I don’t like the term ‘contagion’ because it connotes a diffuse process, happenstance vectors of excitement composing a cloud of social response. I term such calls ‘evocative’, i.e., they evoke rather isomorphically a particular response. Von Frisch’s bee dance is another example. Empathy is evocative and more, as can be seen, say, in dyadic interaction between primate parent and child, between mates, between tribe members of different standing in the social hierarchy. Here contagion is certainly not appropriate.


The interaction is too focused and nuanced according to the mental states and processes of the actors involved. Consider one more counter example to the concept of contagion. Watch dogs at play and you will see them feint, acting one way to elicit one response from the other before changing the action to one more intent and strategic in the effort to gain advantage. Empathy, not contagion.


How did I diverge from Ms. Langer so markedly when so much of my thinking grew from my readings of her work? Well, I figured that out so I hope you are comfortable because this train of thought is a local along old tracks. Back in the day when she published her 3 volumes of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, in the late 60s and 1970s, and I was a younger man learning about all of this through linguistics, speech and language pathology, and neuropsychology, we ‘knew’ several things that were true as far as they went but left much to be desired. And some did not go very far at that. We thought that no new neurons formed in the adult brain, that the right hemisphere was mainly silent or that the right brain operated on a holistic, gestalt basis (artistically, so to speak) while the left side operated verbally, logically, and that we only used 10% of our brain capacity. This last is my personal favorite for boneheaded mistakes, obviously wrong even then and still repeated today. Ouch.


Well, we learned much in the next 40 years. First we learned that some had right hemisphere learning disabilities due to developmental aberrations or trauma. We learned that damage to the right hemisphere resulted in unilateral neglect, i.e., the intact left hemisphere still monitored the right perceptual field but the left was unknowingly neglected while damage to the left had much less effect because the right hemisphere was monitoring both sides all the time anyway. We learned that the right side specialized in emotional communication. And we learned that a deficit in empathy was an important component in Asperger’s syndrome, psychopathy, and the psychological sequelae of family violence.

Oh my, how to keep this short. People with Asperger’s syndrome are often quite bright in particular ways, especially those involving pattern recognition and memory, but they are mystified by the emotional coin of human interaction. Psychopaths are often keen observers of other’s emotions but do not identify prosocially with the other; rather they use their empathic skill instrumentally to get what they want regardless of cost to the other. Even further, some are twisted enough to enjoy the cost to the other. Simon Baron Cohen’s book, The Science of Evil, provides an excellent statement of this science. Finally, witnessing family violence is a prime factor in the development of child and adolescent psychopathology, including the appearance of sexual aggression. While this often occurs in a context of child neglect and abuse, even the witnessing of marital violence can bruise the child’s developing empathic capability and lead to problems with emotional regulation and healthy relationships.

So as I learned about these phenomena I evidently departed from Langer’s conceptualization without realizing it. No problem as I still recognize in my thinkng her great insights into the human mind as she explored the nature of our aesthetics. And art does involve empathy, big time, through presentational symbols. Just another benefit of re-reading; make it so.


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