The empathy spectrum

As I grow ever more reclusive in my old age, I’ve had time to consider the many causes. Once in a while, my idiosyncrasies remind me of an elderly gentleman in my old neighborhood. puzzleHe was struggling to haul his trash can to the curb as I walked past his house on my way to the library one day, so I stepped into his yard and offered to carry the load for him. Although it would take every bit of his strength to bump the thing across his lawn to the street, he wouldn’t let go of the bin when I reached for it. His tone of voice made it clear that no amount of neighborly persuasion would have an effect, so I simply stood and chatted with him—or made an effort to, in order to cover my embarrassment—for a few seconds before saying goodbye. He might have reacted as he did for any number of reasons. I didn’t blame him for being stubborn. I actually admired him just a little.

sculpture and clouds
Photo courtesy of Olga Shevchenko

The scientific theories that attempt to explain human behavior fascinate me, and I’m fortunate to have several acquaintances I’ve never met (is there a word for them?) who share my interest. puzzleI just finished reading “The science of empathy” by Simon Baron-Cohen (because it was recommended by Jake Murray through Russ Donda on Facebook). According to Baron-Cohen, “The key idea is that we all lie somewhere on an empathy spectrum. People said to be ‘evil’ or cruel are simply at one extreme of the empathy spectrum.” He goes on to describe the extreme, or “zero degrees of empathy,” which I believe is rare. Yet his examples of how certain individuals developed borderline personality disorder—one of the disorders characterized by “zero degrees of empathy”—imply that childhood abuse underlies the problem.

“Given the association with neglect and abuse in childhood, there is evidence that early stress affects how well the hippocampus functions, and how active the neural systems are that respond to threat,” says Baron-Cohen. “Prolonged exposure to stress isn’t good for your brain.”

This makes sense, to a point, but some of the behavior that can lead to a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, such as feeling suffocated by close relationships, is behavior commonly observed in lots of people, including those who have too much empathy. What of them?

puzzleIn “Asperger’s theory does about-face,” Maia Szalavitz describes a dysfunctional response to feeling too much: “A groundbreaking study suggests people with autism-spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s do not lack empathy—rather, they feel others’ emotions too intensely to cope.”

I’ve taken a few simple online tests, like Baron-Cohen’s Autism-Spectrum Quotient and the male-female brain continuum, because Baron-Cohen is also noted for his “extreme male brain” theory of autism. To my surprise, the test results always indicate I’m utterly average for a female, which doesn’t help to explain why I can get so overwhelmed by a hyper-awareness of other people’s emotions that I want to spend 99% of my time alone. Trying to understand people is exhausting!

6 Replies to “The empathy spectrum”

  1. Enjoyed your thoughts. I remember being stunned when a Myers-Briggs expert talked about how some people GET energy when they speak to an audience. I thought everyone was like me, feeling drained after leading a workshop or giving a lecture.

    Stress does not need to be extreme to reduce empathy. Stressful workplaces, due to elements such as a major restructure or a nasty manager, may result in employees reducing their usual empathy as a survival technique. Otherwise, the situation would be overwhelming.

  2. How did you manage teaching, Marsha? It must have been exhausting. I understand completely. I just spoke with someone who has eight years of experience in social services and is feeling the effects. The changes among my friends who’ve retired from what could only be called a toxic work environment have been striking. We all knew what we were getting into, but the long-term effects on our psyches were difficult to recognize until we got out, got away, and started laughing and enjoying life again. Old age has some benefits!

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