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Friday, May 14, 2010

See Me, Hear Me, Feel Me, Touch Me

At Herrick Hospital Grand Rounds this week, we heard a presentation by Robert Levenson. PhD about his on-going research on empathy-a subject that has received some attention on this blog.
Using the line from a well-known song as a way to organize his findings so far, he divides empathy into four types:

1. See Me
refers to the ability to interpret ques, such as body language, tone of voice, actions or even, non-action.  You are able to see a person sitting across from you-perhaps a stranger-waiting at the social security office, the pharmacy, the bank, etc.  You notice him fidgeting, then see his eyes darting about, maybe he's sweating some; you can deduce that he is nervous or apprehensive about something.  You don't necessarily care, but you can notice and interpret the signals.
2. Feel Me
happens when the other's state is picked up by you.  You empathize emotionally.  You actually feel, at least a degree of, what the other is feeling.  It may be that their, let's say loss, triggered memories of a loss in your own life.  Or possibly you just experience the contagiousness of emotional states (I first noticed this myself, years ago, in a waiting room for an internship interview with other candidates).
3.Touch Me/Heal Me
This is when one or both of the above have taken place and you feel sympathy.  "Pro-social behavior" occurs.  Your concern for another stirs you to do something to reduce their distress.
One note:  Helpful behavior can also occur without feeling sympathetic.
Also, one research result is that the older people get, the less apt people are to accurately discern as in #1.  And yet, at the same time, as they age, they become more likely to help once they become aware of someone suffering.
On the other hand, as people mature ( and gain experience), while the gradual cognitive decline may lead them to miss some cues, they are better able to pick up nuances and subtleties (maybe #2).
Of course, Dr Levenson couldn't explain all these sub-types of behavior, but, that's what research does, gets the facts.
Second note:  Some individuals are gifted with being especially perceptive.  Maybe you know someone like this.  Some may become helping or health care professionals or teachers.  Therapists have all three systems firing, but, they have to discipline themselves in the treatment room.  It sometimes happens that a therapist has to say to a patient who is suffering, 'you brought this on yourself' because it nudges them forward in their growth.  The therapist may be sitting on their own tears of sympathy.  We have to go against our own instincts to be helpful to the patient.  It can be, at times, a "heroically selfless act" to work as a psychotherapist.
Dr Levenson also pointed out that there are some individuals, particularly adept at assessing the interior state of another, who may use this information for manipulative purposes.
Note three:  a person can, for various reasons (brain injury, character disorder, etc.) have problems in any one of the systems listed above.  It is possible to have a problem in one and have the others functioning fine.  If you notice that in yourself, it would be a useful issue to present to your therapist.

Suffice it to say, 'fight or flight' (anger or fear) are not all there is.  We are complicated creatures.

Credit:  Robert Levenson , PhD, Director, Institute of Personality and Social Research, Professor, Department of Psychology, UC Berkeley, May 10, 2010

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