The Case Against Empathy

It’s hard to imagine empathy being anything but beneficial. It has become one of the most championed mental states in the neuroscience age: the ability to feel what someone else is feeling and, if all goes well, extend a hand altruistically or compassionately.

It’s hard to imagine empathy being anything but beneficial. It has become one of the most championed mental states in the neuroscience age: the ability to feel what someone else is feeling and, if all goes well, extend a hand altruistically or compassionately.


This is the clean-cut version of empathy. I feel what you’re feeling; I get it. Thinkers call for empathy when facing international crises, such as continual turmoil in Gaza: if Israelis could just feel what it’s like to be a Palestinian mother, if the Hamas leader could just understand what a sympathetic Jewish father goes through, none of this would be happening. 

Yale University professor of psychology and cognitive science Paul Bloom thinks a lot gray resides in such a black-and-white definition, and that there is more danger than good adopting such a simplistic view of empathy. He argues exactly this point in the latest issue of Boston Review.

At the heart of his article lies an important distinction between emotional versus cognitive empathy. Briefly, the former is literally feeling what another is experiencing, while the latter implies sympathizing with the other—understanding what’s going on without necessarily going through the same emotional whirlwind.

The exact term is empathetic distress. Bloom cites a study conducted by neuroscientist Tania Singer and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, himself a former scientist before leaving that world in the seventies to devote his life to meditation. Ricard was asked to focus first on compassion while having his brain scanned by an fMRI machine. During that time, brain regions associated with empathy were not activated.

During the next meditation he focused on empathy. While the proper neural regions lit up, Ricard felt drained after just a few minutes. As he said at the time,

The empathic sharing very quickly became intolerable to me and I felt emotionally exhausted, very similar to being burned out.

Interestingly, Boston Review invited fourteen thinkers to contribute twelve essays debating Bloom on his ideas. While a few were sympathetic, most were not. Unsurprisingly, each focused on their personal area of expertise: Brown University PhD student Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig invoked Christian mysticism; Psychiatry professor Chrsitine Montross focused on medicine; author Simon Baron-Cohen honed in on the Gaza conflict, as did neuroscientist Sam Harris, who was very much aligned with Bloom, though with a completely different take on Israel than Baron-Cohen. Bloom then replied with a closing essay. 

Without diving too deeply into the particulars, the main thrust against Bloom was done by heralding the value of empathy, mostly by pointing out that our emotions influence all of our cognitive endeavors, including the more rational-minded empathy Bloom ultimately values. Yet I don’t believe this is exactly what he was talking about.

Firstly, it’s important to note that emotions are feelings. These body states—various rises and drops in hormones and chemicals moving us away from homeostasis—are eventually turned into thoughts through the cognitive process. We then associate the feeling with the person or event that caused it to arise. Being able to separate the feeling of an emotion from the cause of it is a big part of the form of meditation that Ricard and others practice—the mindfulness tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

Just as each of the writers responded from the viewpoint of their own discipline, I find myself naturally turning to yoga when contemplating empathy. In this, I find Bloom completely correct in his distinction.

Empathy is a popular word in yoga classes. Yet I’ve found that such empathizing—feeling the pain and suffering of others—is more often than not a selfish act. It lets the listener turn the attention to their personal suffering. Instead of acting as a conduit for their friend to siphon their emotions through, it quickly becomes about the corresponding distress in the listener. Everyone dumps, no one cleans up the mess.

Cognitive empathy, by contrast, is much more valuable. On occasion I have a student going through chemotherapy. Having gone through cancer earlier this year, I can listen to their challenges and understand both rationally and emotionally what they are experiencing. This does not mean I have to then go into the specifics of my disease. I can merely state, ‘Yes, I’ve been there, and here are some ways you can adjust.’

Even if I had never gone through chemotherapy, I can still imagine their pain. It might not be the same—there would be no connection in regards to the physical feeling of chemo—but understanding that the person is having a rough time and moving forward from that space is an essential component of expressing empathy.

At the end of his initial essay, Bloom compares empathy to anger, something a few commentators voiced frustration over. Yet again, I think he was spot on. Recent research has shown that expressing anger lowers levels of cortisol in one’s blood. Focused anger has long been a catalyst for positive change, especially if you consider protest music through the ages. Embodied rage lies at the heart of civil and women’s rights and numerous other injustices that have plagued humanity. 

Anger itself is not a negative emotion. Neuroscientists investigate all emotions by their motivational direction; any of them can be harmful or helpful depending on context. Empathy should be treated no differently. If it is to turn into those ‘higher’ states of expressing consciousness, such as altruism and compassion, there must be both a degree of detachment from what the other is feeling, as well as an understanding that whatever is going on is not about you. Adding distress to distress does not help anyone. 

Image: Feng Yu/shutterstock.com

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Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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