Wednesday, 20 April 2011

empathy erosion

Last night I was lucky enough to be at a talk by Simon Baron-Cohen at the Royal Institution. And it was a fabulous way to spend 90 minutes on a warm Spring night in London. (What a great Christmas present! Thank you.)

Professor Baron-Cohen is probably best known as an expert in autism, but he's also interested and works in the field of psychopathic behaviour.

And in his talk last night, he proposed a fascinating idea: that we should think less about 'evil' and more about 'empathy erosion.'

The Professor's latest book Zero Degrees of Empathy is just out (you can buy it here) and his talk was one hell of an appetiser for it.

If you're interested, then here's an article he wrote in The Observer this March, which will give you an idea of where his thinking is, plus some great stories and examples that will help illuminate his ideas if (like me) you're relatively uninitiated in the science of autism and empathic response.

So, his content was fascinating. And essentially his key points were three simple ones:

First, our capacity to empathise is on a spectrum. Some of us do it more, some less.

Secondly, where we lie on that spectrum depends on how well what Simon Baron-Cohen calls our ‘empathy circuit’ functions.

Thirdly, empathy is something we can learn. (But it's helped or hindered by the genes we're given.)

Nothing particularly revolutionary there.

Except that his work seems to be proving these things to be true. These are true things. Not assertions with make-up on to make them presentable. Not hunches that might buckle under any real pressure. These things that we might have suspected were real - are actually real.

So that got us all thinking.

And it got us asking some questions too.

Like: if empathy erosion is what allows someone to glass someone else in a pub, then might that same lack of empathy be required (or at least helpful) to be a fighter pilot?

And if we perceive (say) a physical disability as a stroke of terrible bad luck and something to be worked with and adapted to and sensitively considered in hundreds of ways, from buildings to social situations, shouldn't we also consider those who suffer empathy erosion in the same way?

And is it possible for someone to have their empathy eroded to the extent that their ability to harm or abuse another living being without so much as a flicker of remorse, regard or regret becomes... irreparable?

There were some big old questions knocking around. Which in my book makes for a good night.

But I found the evening more than just fascinating.

It felt incredibly relevant to me. Almost personal. I felt moved.

It got to me.

The scientist got to me.

He must have got to me because I found myself afterwards that evening and during the day today re-evaluating what I do and why I do it.

Listening intently, I began (then or now) to realise three things about myself and my work:

1) Compassion is becoming more important to me.

2) I am extremely lucky to love what I do.

3) I need to work harder if I want to achieve anything like my ambition.

But I'm not going to wang on about that now, because they're thoughts that are forming and need a bit of space.

And I won't try to distill the content any more here either, because it's not the content of Professor Baron-Cohen's talk that's got me.

What's stayed with me more than any of what he said, is how he said it.

That's what struck me really profoundly.

This was a self-confessed scientist talking. Someone who believes first and foremost in theory, evidence and measurement.

But his talk was more than the presentation of a hypothesis; more than a case to be made, proved or disproved.

Underneath his elegantly composed sentences, through the careful poise and structure of the 60 minutes, beyond the sheer meaning of what he was saying lay something else. Something other than logic and layout.

I listened carefully. Really carefully. With my eyes and my ears.

And I heard and saw that this was a man who cared deeply about the purpose of his work. A man for whom what he was doing had cause, reason and intention.

How could I tell this?

What did I hear? What did I see?

Perhaps it was just a 'sense' of something? An aura? A romantic notion or self-projection?

Perhaps it was one of these?

Bollocks was it.

I heard and saw some tangible, measurable, scientifically gaugeable evidence that he was a compassionate man.

I saw the tilt of his head to the side when he was asked a question about restorative justice in Rwanda.

I noticed the wicked smile that flickered across his face as he considered his answer to a question about whether the English law might be an ass when it comes to dealing with teenage criminals. (My words, not his.)

I heard the change of tone in his voice from something gentle and tender to something warmer and richer when he talked about how important it is that we consider how we bring up and socialise children.

This was a compassionate man. We heard him. And we saw him.

And I would like to thank Professor Simon Baron-Cohen for lots of things to do with how he spoke, not what he spoke.

Things that inspired me.

Things that will stay with me, long after I've forgotten which parts of the brain it is where empathy sits.

I want to thank him for his preparation, for his years of hard work.

I want to thank him for name-checking all of the people who've worked with him along the way.

I want to thank him for crediting everyone (by name and institution) who's doing any other work in his field that he referenced.

I want to thank him for his consideration of the audience and our varied levels of understanding of what is a huge subject.

I want to thank him for being explicit about whether he was answering with fact or speculation.

And I want to thank him for carrying with him and showing us so clearly that he was more than a man of science, he was a man of passion.

And a man of compassion.

So thank you Professor Simon Baron-Cohen.

You got to me.

And you inspired me.

P.S. Oh and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, I've written to you asking if I can record a conversation with you. Because I think you're working with and thinking about something that's truly important and truly a difficult subject to deal with. And I'd like as many people to hear you think aloud about it.

You're a busy man I'm sure so I'll understand if you don't have time.

I'll be empathic to how busy you are.

I promise.

But maybe you'll be empathic to me too.

And say yes.

(He said yes. Sort of. I'm working on it.)