“Functional brain imaging shows that some of the same regions of the brain are activated by personal pain, at left, and by empathy over the pain of a loved one, at right. But other areas are not activated by empathy.” Original caption.
The Concept Contamination problem.
Empathy is a word concept. You will not find empathy or any other emotion in the brain. The brain produces electrochemical pain signals. As children we are taught to identify emotion-words with pain, and to convert the experience of pain into subjective interpretive states. We interpret pain to “mean” what we are taught that it means –
Example: A child is hungry; it experiences pain signals alerting it to eat. No one is paying attention to its overt physical requests for food: crying, whining, pestering an adult, or snatching nonfood items and chewing on them. If it is lucky, the caregiver will realize that the child is hungry and will provide nourishing food. Maybe the caregiver just wants the child to quiet down, and supplies whatever is at hand, to that end – a donut, leftover French Fries, a soft drink loaded with sugar. Maybe the caregiver is uncaring and yells, “Stop crying, you’re being bad, selfish, annoying, you’re giving me a headache, if you don’t stop whining, I’ll give you something to cry about – I’ll lock you in your room with no supper.” Another common response is bribery: “If you are a good boy and stop crying, I’ll give you a cookie.” The child quickly learns that a primary survival mechanism, pain, is associated with a host of words that determine how that pain is received and responded to by those upon whom its life depends. In so-called “primitive” cultures the child is simply fed, because it’s understood that children need to be nourished. End of story.
This is the power and danger of language – to remove us from a specific concrete universe into supernatural illusion. The United States has become obsessed with a cult of emotion, divorced from physical reality, and hopelessly juvenile and narcissistic. This pathology is encouraged because it makes people vulnerable to control and manipulation, especially in groups. Rational functions are ignored or discouraged. Children are deprived of fundamental care; pain is no longer “real.” Pain has been converted into a vocabulary of supernatural emotional states that don’t exist. When children experience pain, which is perfectly normal and finite if addressed, are trapped inside a word prison in which pain never ends. Nature be damned.
If emotions exist in our brains, why then does emotional experience differ between individuals and between cultures? The concept and experience of emotion is learned from one’s culture, the social context and family.
Emotions are words that describe the subjective interpretation of activation of the pain circuit in the brain. If you tell a child that its behavior is making other people angry and annoyed, and reject them (and their pain) as abnormal, unlikable and defective, is it difficult to imagine what the result will be?
Is it not possible that the highly subjective experience of pain-emotion-empathy, is simply different in Asperger individuals?
From “Body Sense” Psychology Today: So, if physical and emotional pain have similar neural signatures, why not take Tylenol (acetaminophen) for grief, loss, or despair? People who had experienced a recent social rejection were randomly assigned to take acetaminophen vs. a placebo daily for three weeks. The people in the acetaminophen condition reported fewer hurt feelings during that period. When their brains were scanned at the end of the treatment period, the acetaminophen takers had less activation in the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex.
How does the pain-empathy-emotion scheme play out in Asperger individuals? My experience…
Asperger individuals retain the primary pain signals that serve to enhance survival and are linked with fight or flight: personal pain is physical pain. Social typicals who inhabit a supernatural word-created universe, expect us to identify pain with their words – a vocabulary of emotion that interprets, diffuses and masks pain to further social aims. Asperger individuals appear to be stupefied by this demand, because we are stupefied by this demand.
I do react to the injury or suffering experienced by another person: if the event is sudden, severe and visual, and especially includes sounds of pain, an immediate and intense electrical jolt will travel from the base of my spine and down both legs. I do not identify this as empathy, but as the pure animal ‘flight’ reaction to danger. If the cause of distress is injustice, neglect, cruelty, inequality and mean behavior the pain is real and profound; it’s longer lasting and more generalized. These acts are not abstract word concepts to me, these are specific pain-producing acts on the part of human beings toward each other and are simply incomprehensible.
Modern social humans have “socialized pain” just as they socialize every aspect of human behavior and experience. Being subjected to pain – how severe and how often has everything to do with an individual’s or group’s position in the social hierarchy – pain is apportioned according to class status on the social pyramid.