Blog of Sara Jakša

Reading Notes: Two Roads to Empathy: Insights to Cognitive Neuroscience

This chapter from the book Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives talks about the two different ways of empathy: one based on the automatic and the other on reconstruction process.

The chapter starts with trying to define empathy. The shortest definition that they used was that 'empathy is an affective reaction more appropriate for other's situation than ones own'. They defined empathy as having the four point write below:

  • affective state
  • dependent on other person
  • elicited by observing or imagining other person's situation
  • and being aware that the source is that other person

though the author did try to disprove some of them. They also asked what could be the reason for lacking empathy and they came up with the following three causes:

  • inability to use simulation to understand other people
  • lack of curiosity about other people's mental states
  • lack of concern for other people's feelings

Now to talk about the two paths. The first one is part of the automatic process. It is limited to make people feel empathy for just specific feelings, like pain, touch and discuss. While there does not seem to involve any conscious processing, they can be influenced with people's beliefs, like for example if the person beliefs the other deserves it for being unfair or if they know that pain is the way to get healed.

The second path refers to mentalizing. It requires a person to be able to imagine the situation from the other person's perspective, so in a way it is similar to the theory of mind or simulation. Because it is dependent on the episodic memory and reconstruction of memory can depend on the current factors, this kind of empathy can be egocentric. But unlike the automatic path, this one is able to produce empathy for wider variety of feelings.