The empathy machine: Sherlock was right – new research shows that seeing through another’s eyes takes a detached mind not just a warm heart

November 17, 2012


What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Sherlock Holmes? It might be a deerstalker, a pipe or a violin, or shady crimes in the foggy streets of London. Chances are, it’s not his big, warm heart and his generous nature. In fact, you might think of him as a cold fish — the type of man who tells his best friend, who is busy falling in love, that it ‘is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things’. Perhaps you might be influenced by recent adaptations that have gone so far as to call Holmes a ‘sociopath’.

Not the empathetic sort, surely? Or is he?

Let’s dwell for a moment on ‘Silver Blaze’ (1892), Arthur Conan Doyle’s story of the gallant racehorse who disappeared, and his trainer who was found dead, just days before a big race. The hapless police are stumped, and Sherlock Holmes is called in to save the day. And save the day he does — by putting himself in the position of both the dead trainer and the missing horse. Holmes speculates that the horse is ‘a very gregarious creature’. Surmising that, in the absence of its trainer, it would have been drawn to the nearest town, he finds horse tracks, and tells Watson which mental faculty led him there. ‘See the value of imagination… We imagined what might have happened, acted upon that supposition, and find ourselves justified.’

Holmes takes an imaginative leap, not only into another human mind, but into the mind of an animal. This perspective-taking, being able to see the world from the point of view of another, is one of the central elements of empathy, and Holmes raises it to the status of an art.

Usually, when we think of empathy, it evokes feelings of warmth and comfort, of being intrinsically an emotional phenomenon. But perhaps our very idea of empathy is flawed. The worth of empathy might lie as much in the ‘value of imagination’ that Holmes employs as it does in the mere feeling of vicarious emotion. Perhaps that cold rationalist Sherlock Holmes can help us reconsider our preconceptions about what empathy is and what it does.

Though the scientific literature on empathy is complex, a recent review in Nature Neuroscience by a team of researchers from Harvard and Columbia including Jamil Zaki and Kevin Ochsner has distilled the phenomenon into three central stages. The first stage is ‘experience sharing’, or feeling someone else’s emotions as if they were your own — scared when they are scared, happy when they are happy, and so on. The second stage is ‘mentalising’, or consciously considering those states and their sources, and trying to work through understanding them. The final stage is ‘prosocial concern’, or being motivated to act — wanting, for example, to reach out to someone in pain. However, you don’t need all three to experience empathy. Instead, you can view these as three points on an empathetic continuum: first, you feel; then, you feel andyou understand; and finally, you feel, understand, and are compelled to act on your understanding. It seems that the defining thing here is the feeling that accompanies all those stages.

The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning. I assure you that the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three children’

‘Sympathy’ is an idea with a deep history ­— in ancient Greek,sympatheia means, literally, ‘with suffering’ — but ‘empathy’ is a newcomer to popular use. The word was coined by the British cognitive psychologist Edward Titchener as late as 1909: ‘Not only do I see gravity and modesty and pride and courtesy and stateliness,’ he wrote, ‘but I feel or act them in the mind’s muscle. This is, I suppose, a simple case of empathy, if we may coin that term as a rendering ofEinfühlung.’ To Titchener, empathy was a kind of ‘feeling into’ someone else’s emotional state.

Soon, the word was being used by therapeutically minded psychologists such as Carl Rogers, the American psychologist and a founder of the humanist approach, who wrote in his book Client-centred Therapy (1951) that therapists needed to ‘live the attitudes of the other’. But while the term grew quickly in currency — the psychoanalyst Stanley Olinick termed it a ‘buzz word’ in 1984 — it remained for a long time relatively amorphous and fluid in definition and intention.

In 1986, the psychologist Lauren Wispé tried to pin down the notion of empathy in a systematic way. ‘Of course,’ she wrote, ‘the important questions are why individuals are moved to sympathy or empathy, under what conditions, and for whom.’ Despite her commitment to a fresh, objective look at the concept, she defined empathy from the start as being based on a feeling, a compulsion: we are moved, under the right conditions and with the right people at hand. The possibility that we might not be moved, that we might instead choose to think and act in the interests of another without the attendant emotional push isn’t considered.

But is this necessarily correct? The basis of empathy is being able to see things from someone else’s point of view. Empathy lets us ‘walk a mile in another man’s shoes’, look at the world through the eyes of another, or any number of other now-clichéd phrases. But while that perspective-taking seems intimately tied to the emotion of the thing — you walk in someone’s shoes to feel their pain, look through their eyes to understand their feelings — it need not be. As recent research suggests, there are times when becoming too emotionally involved actually stifles our empathetic capacity.

What would it look like if we were to imagine a personality that was deeply empathetic — and yet wholly unemotional? This person would be, I think, just like that emotionless paragon we invoked earlier: Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest fictional detective. Holmes is cold and logical. Holmes is detached. As he explains when Watson remarks on the attractiveness and saintliness of a certain young lady, ‘It is of the first importance not to allow your judgment to be biased by personal qualities.’ He explains the importance of leaving his own feelings out of his calculations: ‘A client is to me a mere unit, a factor in a problem. The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning. I assure you that the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three children for their insurance-money, and the most repellent man of my acquaintance is a philanthropist who has spent nearly a quarter of a million upon the London poor.’

Holmes, it seems, is a mere problem-solving machine, hardly human at all. But he is also a man of inordinate creativity of thought. He refuses to stop at facts as they appear to be. He plays out many possibilities, maps out various routes, lays out myriad alternative realities in order to light upon the correct one. His is the opposite of hard, linear, A-to-B reasoning. If he were to stick to such an approach, he would be no better than an Inspector Lestrade or a detective Gregson — those Scotland Yard dullards who approach crime in a linear fashion, without his sparkle and imagination.

In sterilising his empathy, Holmes actually makes it more powerful: a reasoned end, rather than a flighty impulse

In fact, his success stems from the very non-linearity and imaginative nature of his thinking, his ability to engage the hypothetical just as he might the physical here-and-now. Think of The Valley of Fear (1915), Conan Doyle’s final Sherlock Holmes novel, in which Inspector MacDonald, or Mac, as Holmes affectionately calls him, bungles along with the obvious leads — looking for a missing bicyclist, following up with hotels and stations, and generally doing everything an energetic detective might be expected to. Holmes instead asks to spend a night in the room of the crime. Why? Musing in the atmosphere where the crime was committed helps him to see the world as the criminal did, to think as he might have done. Imagination is central to his reasoning powers.

So Holmes is an expert at the very thing that makes empathy possible in the first place — seeing the world from another’s point of view. He is entirely capable of understanding someone else’s internal state, mentalising and considering that state, and exhibiting prosocial concern. Indeed, he is a master of it. At the end of ‘The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor’ (1892), it is Holmes, not Watson, who best understands the motivations of the bachelor in question. Watson remarks wryly that ‘his conduct was certainly not gracious’. And Holmes replies with a smile: ‘Ah, Watson, perhaps you would not be very gracious either, if, after all the trouble of wooing and wedding, you found yourself deprived in an instant of wife and of fortune. I think that we may judge Lord St Simon very mercifully and thank our stars that we are never likely to find ourselves in the same position.’…

Read it all.

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