Tafra Lymme (lymme_a_bean) wrote in academic_empath,
Tafra Lymme


Hi everyone! Nice to meet you! So, who am I, you ask?

First off, I’m something of a geek, though you’d never be able to tell from my bio. I have an academic background in... a lot, including coursework in neuroscience and cognitive science. Career-wise, I’m between things right now (read my bio), but I’m very much an adult. I’ve never been under “psychic attack,” at least, nothing has ever happened to me that I’d think of as such. I also have no experience with “Guardian Spirits” of any sort. I do not follow any discipline like magick. In truth, I’m a recovering reductionist.

I’ve been an empath my entire life, and began writing about communication between minds when I first learned to write, as a small child. I’m here because I’m deeply searching for meaning in my unusual sensitivities, and for a way to live in balance with myself and others. I usually approach empathy from a holistic, even Eastern, perspective, but this does not mean I do not have respect for and great familiarity with other paradigms, such as science. It also does not mean that I believe interpersonal energy is the same stuff as electromagnetic energy (don’t get me started). I like to approach my empathic experience from multiple perspectives and paradigms, depending on my audience, or on convenience; I believe there are many “correct” ways to describe the same thing.

Below is my full response to the Gallese article. Enjoy!

In their paper Mirror Neurons and the Simulation Theory of Mind-Reading, (Gallese and Goldman, 1998), Profs. Gallese and Goldman advance the theory that a class of neurons called Mirror Neurons (MNs), recently discovered both in humans and non-human primates (Gallese, 2003) [1], underlie the human ability to mentally represent the mental, emotional and physical states of others- skills the authors refer to as “mind-reading” and “empathy,” respectively.

The MNs discussed in the paper are located in the premotor cortex of macaque monkeys. The premotor cortex is involved in the conception and initiation of movement and movement sequences (Freund, 1984) [2]. The particular MNs studied in Gallese and Goldberg’s macaque monkeys fire both when a particular action is performed by the recorded monkey as well as when the same action, performed by another individual, is observed by the recorded monkey. The authors then propose a theory for the function of this mirror system in humans.

For the sake of this essay, I will assume that the authors are correct that humans have an analogous mirror system to that of macaque monkeys, and that the evidence given by the authors for such a system is accurate. The authors proceed to describe two theories of “mind-reading,” namely “theory-theory” (TT) and “simulation theory” (ST). Under TT, a theory advanced by functionalists, normal human observers act as scientists in their understanding of the minds of others- they observe others’ behavior, and in response, they construct mental models of what the others’ underlying mental states must have been. In ST, in contrast, the mental model precedes the theory- observers use pre-existing mental models, based on their own minds, by which to understand others’ intentions and others’ mental states.

The authors argue in favor of ST, and propose that MNs may act as the neurological basis for the simulation. They contend that, as with monkeys, a human’s MNs fire while he/she watches another person performing a task, and an inhibition mechanism prevents him/her from acting out the action him/herself, us giving the observer a model of the other person’s actions. MNs are consistent with ST and not with TT- MNs are not “theoretical.” They create in the observer a state that literally matches the state of the target. The authors argue that the function of this mirroring system in humans should not be limited just to physical imitation, but should be extended to mind. They propose that MNs might play a critical role in the neurological basis for simulating the minds of others, including the ability both to predict the behavior and emotions of others, as well as the ability to “retrodict” emotions and intentions from actions.

There are a few problems here, as well as with the underlying philosophy more fully expressed in Prof. Gallese’s more recent paper The Manifold Nature of Interpersonal Relations: The Quest for a Common Mechanism (Gallese, 2003). Most obviously, the authors have not shown any MNs that are are activated by observation of subjects experiencing mental or emotional states; the only MNs studied involve physical acts such as grasping, even the studies in humans. As of the date of publication in 1998, the theory that MNs are involved in mental/emotional simulation was mere speculation. However, later research has uncovered evidence in favor expanding a the theory of a “mirror system” at least to the experience of physical pain, as a possible neurological correlate to sympathy. (Singer, 2004). [3] Experimenters in Professor Singer’s experiment, using functional imaging techniques, assessed brain activity of volunteers when they experienced a painful stimulus and compared it to the brain activity in the same volunteers when they observed a signal indicating that a loved one, present in the same room, was receiving the same painful stimulus. They found that the entire “pain matrix” was not activated in the second condition- in particular, the regions corresponding to sensory qualities were not activated. However, brain regions that correspond to the affective qualities of pain were activated. The experimenters suggest that these affective regions may play a role in second-order representations of bodily homeostatic states that underpin core representations of self. They also suggest that it is only this affective region (and not the somatosensory regions) that mediate empathy, by which they mean sympathy. They are not discussing possible mechanisms by which physical sensations of one person are literally experienced by another.

The significance of Singer’s findings for Gallese is that her work raises the possibility that the regions that were activated during both phases of her experiment- the affective regions- may work analogously to the mirror system Gallese found in macaque monkeys. Because Singer’s system involves emotional aspects, it supports the theory that mirror systems, of one type or another, serve a broader cognitive purpose than simple imitation. I know of no studies, however, where the stimulus “mirrored” was purely emotional or mental in nature.

I turn, therefore, to the philosophical assumptions behind Gallese’s work. I begin with a discussion of terminology. As is all too common in academia, Gallese chooses terminology that makes his theories seem more spectacular than they are. According to Gallese, “Mind-reading is the activity of representing specific mental states of others, for example, their perceptions, goals, beliefs, expectations, and the like. It is now agreed that all normal humans develop the capacity to represent mental states in others, a system of representation often called folk psychology.” Essentially, he renames “folk-psychology” as “mind-reading” for the sake of his article, and gives no rationale for this decision. Likewise, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition defines empathy as “1. Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives. See Synonyms at pity. 2. The attribution of one’s own feelings to an object.” The first appears to be the definition of empathy used by both Gallese and Singer- it is not “incorrect” in a literal sense, but it should be apparent to the readers of this Livejournal community that what is being described here is sympathy in the first case and psychological projection in the second, both of which are entirely different emotional creatures from the empathy we all know and love (or hate, as the case may be). Any empath knows that he/she is not “identifying with” another’s situation, feelings and motives, but literally experiencing the feelings themselves, along with other things. Empaths know that they can, and do, experience the emotions of others without feeling any sympathy whatsoever, and also without engaging in psychological projection, as the term is ordinarily used (ST over-applied to inanimate objects). Gallese’s work, and that of others, is wonderful for what it is, but let’s be clear about what it is, and is not.

I think it is fascinating to study the neurological correlates to sympathy, to pity, to theory of mind, and to psychological projection. But I also think it is very important that we do not let the words themselves convince us that we are discussing something that we are not, namely, our unique experiences as empaths.

To move on, the article in question, and Gallese’s material in general, smack of reductionism. At the very most, Gallese has discovered neurological correlates of mind-modeling. It is likely that the system of simulation discussed by Gallese, Singer and others is activated in the minds of empaths as we observe others, just as it is activated in the minds of any other non-autistic people. But I also believe that something additional, something rare and distinct, occurs for empaths, because our experience is so irreducibly different from that of most other people, both in a qualitative sense and in a quantitative sense (hypersensitivity).

Again, I would like to stress that it is a good use of time for scientists to study neurological correlates of human experience, whether they are studying vision, hearing, cognition, mathematical reasoning, “psi” empathy or anything else. That is part of my reason for joining this community. But it is critical for me to stress that it has never been proven by these authors or others that neurological simulation activity is the basis or cause of empathy as they know it, let alone for empathy as we know it. At most, the authors demonstrate a correlation, not causation. They have not provided an explanation for empathy. This distinction is both philosophically and practically important. I personally do not believe a reductionist view, at least standing alone, can “explain” empathy as we know it.

To study empathy academically is at least as much about studying consciousness as it is about studying the neurological correlations to conscious experience. To reduce our empathic experience to a system of “mirror neurons” is not only philosophically flawed, but it also ignores the consequences of true empathy on one’s definition of self- consequences which reach every aspect of an empath’s life in the world, whether or not he/she accepts it.

Gallese talks about self, too. His 2003 article discusses self and social identity quite a bit. To quote a representative piece:

"We now know that there is no such thing as an objective reality that our brain is supposed to represent. For example, there are no objective colours in the world, colour being the result of the wavelength reflectance of objects, the surrounding lighting conditions, the colour cones in our eyes, and the neural circuitry connected to those colour cones. There is no colour out there independent of us.

"The same argument holds for interpersonal relations. There can be no other persons out there independent of us. When we try to understand the behaviour of others, our brain is not representing an objective external personal reality. Our brain models the behaviour of others, much the same as it models our own behaviour. The results of this modelling process enable us to understand and predict what the behaviour of others is." [Emphasis in original text]

There can be no persons out there independent of us? I think Prof. Gallese is confused. If he were about to discuss Zen, nonduality of self, Ken Wilber and Buddha, I would agree, sort of. But no, Gallese has fallen into a common philosophical trap, that of confusing the model with the thing itself- here, confusing one’s model of mind with the minds of others themselves.

There is no color independent of us because objective/subjective is a false dichotomy, which Gallese seems to sort of grasp, before losing it again. It is not that there are no persons “out there” independent of us, it is that there is no “out there” as distinct from “in here”. That, in my opinion, is the essence of the empathic experience, the “nondualization” of sensory experience- emotionally, mentally, physically or energetically. Self itself is not atomized. We each generate experience, and yet this experience is simultaneously “ambient”- both subjective and objective, and yet neither- so we are, at once, both ourselves and each other. Furthermore, I have personally observed that most people are to some degree capable of perceiving this nondual quality of experience, even if only subconsciously. The few people I consider to be “empaths” are those of us who differ from others so dramatically in our unusually acute conscious perception of the emotions and energy of others- on a daily basis- that it changes our lives and identities as deeply as is possible, for better, or for worse.

[1] Gallese, V. (2003) The Manifold Nature of Interpersonal Relations: The Quest for a Common Mechanism. Published online.
[2] Freund, H.-J. (1984) Premotor Areas in Man. Trends in Neuroscience 7, 481-483. Quoted from Rosenweig, Leiman, Breedlove, Biological Psychology, Second Edition, 1999, p. 303
[3] Singer, T. (2004) Empathy for Pain Involves the Affective but not Sensory Components of Pain. Science, 303, 1157-1162
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