Saturday, May 21, 2011

fascinating, strange, and wonderful

A truly gripping post at Lower Wisdom. The opener:

This post is more personal than normal, and very long. The current medical consensus is that autism is caused, in part, by a malfunction of the mirror neuron system. My personal experience growing up tends to support this theory.

I was born with an over-active empathy system. I would look at a person’s face and feel exactly what that person was feeling. I couldn’t inhibit it, so I was at the mercy of wherever my eyes landed. This was very stressful, and I spent a great deal of effort learning to avoid these involuntary empathies. I have many distinct memories of this learning process. For a young person, the easiest way to control my feelings was to control my eyes. I only looked at faces I could trust, and avoided the rest. Looking at faces was dangerous.

We grew up without a television. It was only when I was 16 that my mother explained why. When I was two years old, my parents had a TV. Apparently, some of the people on the TV would set me off, causing me to freak out inconsolably. My parents solved the problem by getting rid of the TV.

You'll definitely want to read the rest. To be honest, I might have been-- at least in my younger days-- one of those narcissistic teachers (referred to later in the post) who would have assumed that such behavior was directed personally at me. I'd like to think that I've changed, but I've never faced this sort of challenge as a teacher-- although I did come close re: a girl with Asperger's back in 2005, during my first or second semester at Sookdae. In that case, I didn't take the student's behavior personally, but I was initially surprised by it, having never dealt with it before.

My question to Mr. Allen, though, is whether he believes his empathic experiences truly reflect the interiority of the people whose faces he has beheld (and still beholds, since he seems able to switch his ability on and off). I ask, first, because plenty of Koreans consider themselves gifted with nunchi-- a sort of socially oriented percipience that's all about reading faces and situations, and responding to them accordingly. I tend to think that the proportion of nunchi-blessed Koreans isn't as high as Koreans think it is. What's really happening, in many cases, isn't veridical perception so much as a "reading into." This is most apparent in intercultural situations, where Koreans think they know what the foreigner is thinking, but in fact are off the mark-- sometimes by a substantial margin.

I also wonder about this ability because of what Mr. Allen writes later in his post: he recalls feeling empathy for cartoon characters. To me-- and I truly mean no offense by this, because I'm trying to be as clinical as I can, here-- this indicates an inability (during Mr. Allen's childhood, but not now) to separate reality from fantasy, and calls into question whether a person can really "look at a person's face and feel exactly what that person [is] feeling."

I'm not discounting the possibility of such empathy; in fact, at the risk of sounding condescending, I think it is possible to be super-empathic. It would be inconsistent of me to write a post about how the similarities of our internal wiring point to the idea that we experience the world in very similar ways, and then to turn around and question whether super-empathy is possible.

But the question remains, and I ask it out of personal curiosity: to what extent does such a level of empathy lead to veridical insights about others' interiority?



JSA said...

Wow, very perceptive comments! First, let me say that I don't harbor any ill feelings toward the teachers who had to deal with me. I think their actions are very understandable in hindsight, and I only use language like "screamed" and "full of hate" because I am relating from the perspective of my young self. That's what I perceived at the time, and it was very real for me, even if partially non-veridical.

Which gets to your point about "nunchi" and misreading. As you might guess, this has been a lifelong interest of mine, and I've devoured any research I could find. One thing that is clear from the research is that young children often "blur" their empathic responses when looking at other people's faces, because they haven't acquired a very nuanced repertoire of personal experiences to compare against. For example, young children can't easily distinguish between fear, irritation, and anger in a person's face. So it's virtually certain that my involuntary empathies were non-veridical (or at least heavily blurred) at times.

Second, I came to roughly the same conclusion as you did about the cartoon characters. That is, it wasn't the veridicality of the empathy that was the problem; it was the involuntary nature of it. I don't think it is so much a failure to separate between reality and fantasy as a failure to inhibit or suppress the empathy. I knew without a doubt that the cartoon vegetable wasn't real, but he was choking to death! So it was a failure to put a firewall between myself and others, whether they were fake like the cartoon or real like my soccer-playing classmates. IOW, distinguishing between yourself and others is at least as important as distinguishing between yourself and cartoons!

It turns out that all people involuntarily empathize upon sight. When you watch someone bite into an apple, the exact same neuron in your brain fires which fires when you bite into an apple yourself. It appears that mu-waves in the brain are used to inhibit your response -- to say, "that's not me". So in my case, it was probably a malfunction of the mu wave system.

JSA said...

Finally, your point about cross-cultural mirroring is excellent. While we don't need to expend much effort to have confidence that our perception of a color like "yellow" matches reasonably with other people's, general empathy requires a lot more work. Veridicality of empathy is largely an empirical matter that can be iteratively tested and refined. As very young children, we're not so good at it, but we get progressively better through experience. Empathizing with an apple bite is easy; knowing when someone feels loss of face is trickier.

I work with a lot of foreigners, and most of my friends were born overseas, but it's questionable how "good" I really am at cross-cultural reading. In part because there is a lot of cultural homogeneity between people from the global commercial centers -- people from Mumbai, Shanghai, and Cairo who end up working internationally have more in common with each other than they do with villagers from their own countries. And your level of intimacy with friends and colleagues is limited. On the other hand, my ex-wife is a black woman who was raised Nation of Islam, and my current wife is Beijing born and bred. So I've had to build some competency cross culture.

Another important consideration is that the concept of "nunchi" combines both the apprehension of raw emotion (which is a mirror neuron thing) and assessment of social situation (which is an associative memory thing). To get really good at reading people, you need good mirror neurons, good episodic memory, and lots of training to associative memory. I think different cultures have different levels of emphasis on mirror versus associative. For example, from my experience dealing with Japanese, I think they have a much larger component of the associative memory requirement for being able to read people. Koreans are probably somewhere between Japanese and Chinese.