Empathy in Flux

All is flux.” – Heraclitus

Before criticizing someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you do criticize them, you are a mile away… and you have their shoes.”      –Jack Handey

Stop motion photo of a girl jumping rope. A few moments of an individual life. (Photo by Harold Edgerton).

My advisor in graduate school, Mike Little, once shared with the class that he fantasized about a machine that would provide instantaneous biological data just by having a person walk through it. As he described it, the machine would work something like an airport metal detector, only instead of revealing any concealed objects, it would assess the types of variables that biological anthropologists salivate over – anthropometrics, body composition, blood pressure, hormonal profiles, presence of infections, etc. If only…

I also think the value of such a machine would be tremendous. In addition to cutting down the time and tedium involved in data collection, we could recruit larger samples from a wider array of populations, increasing our statistical power and confidence in our data. We could also cut down the discomfort and invasiveness of our volunteers who patiently endure our probing. All for our precious data. Think of how much easier our IRB protocols would be.

As long as we’re fantasizing, I’m going to one-up Mike here with a thought experiment that goes beyond data and biological anthropology and extends into empathy. While his hypothetical machine would be wonderful at collecting cross-sectional data, we would still have only a snapshot of the biological status of the person at a given moment. Such a picture would be inherently limited if a person’s status had changed significantly over time. What about the day before, or after? Or weeks, or years? What if our hypothetical volunteer had just come from running a marathon, or given birth, was ill or dehydrated, or had just gotten into a heated argument? How representative would our data be then? Even if we screened out such cases, we’d still only have the tip of the iceberg on the biology of each remaining person in our dataset.

For some biological variables, such as adult height, this wouldn’t matter much since they are relatively constant. Others like blood pressure, body water, or hormonal profiles fluctuate in a continuous, homeostatic process of give-and-take. Of course, even height changes over time, as we pass through various stages of growth through prenatal development, infancy, childhood, adolescence, etc. Human biology research has made strides to account for these changes by incorporating a longitudinal approach and following people over time by using things like ambulatory blood pressure monitors, accelerometers, or diet/ activity diaries. But even these are usually done over a period of days or weeks.

What if we could have unlimited data over a person’s lifetime? And what if we had not only data on variables like body composition, but also behavior and cognitive and emotional states – something like an open diary or an ambulatory fMRI machine? And what if we had these data sequentially, so that we could find a few predictor variables that could account for a disproportionate amount of the variance in things like health, longevity, or even happiness?

Though this scenario may sound Big Brother-ish or dystopian, I suggest this not just to fantasize about omniscience through biological data, but also to present a thought experiment in empathy. Time, for the most part, is invisible to us. When we meet someone new, we have something akin to Mike’s metal detector machine – a few pieces of data at one point in time. From their behavior, we know (or think we know) a person’s psychological state or personality at the moment. But unless we ask or they volunteer, we have little knowledge of how representative their behavior is and how it fits with their track record or what they’re personal histories are. We are quick to assess the type of person they might be in terms of their kindness, intelligence, sense of humor, etc.


However, as Forrest Gump famously put it: “stupid is as stupid does.” I think this is an often misunderstood piece of folk wisdom. My interpretation of this is that one can evaluate actions without leaping to evaluations of states of being. Certainly one can do stupid things without “being” stupid. To believe another person “is” stupid (or any personality trait you can imagine) is to claim one has found the signal among the noise, while ignoring a LOT of complexity, the deviation around the mean. In short, we have just a cross-section in the totality of that person’s life. Even Hitler laughed. Even Gandhi had periods of depression. Certainly, we have more than a snapshot of these particular individuals’ lives, but we don’t have that for everyone we meet. How different would our impression of others be if we had that longitudinal data in front of us? Of course, for most people the amplitude of one’s personality does not fluctuate that widely. Most people are consistent in either being kind, or funny, or complete assholes. But context and variation are essential. Perhaps data from our imaginary ambulatory fMRI machine could verify our snap impressions, working something like a combination of a mood ring (an actually functioning one) and stop-motion photography seen above. 


The larger point is this: everything has a history, not only individuals, but also cities, cultures, species, elements, mountains, and stars. Even light has a history. Writing about the concept of marriage, James Peron said this:

The moment someone tells me “marriage has always been” something or another, I know they are ignorant of the actual history of marriage. It has never “always” been anything. It has taken different forms, with different social rules attached. Those forms and rules changed as the function of marriage changed.”

The same holds true for biology in general. Birth, growth, reproduction, decay, death, descent with modification. Organisms themselves are in a constant state of flux, ceaselessly turning over energy and matter. Elsewhere, Richard Dawkins has used this idea to suggest that organisms are more like ‘waves’ than permanent ‘things.’ As an example, it’s been estimated that 98% of the atoms in our body are replaced annually (the exact percent doesn’t matter as much as the concept). Dawkins had some fun with this by reminding us that the memories of our childhood selves are just that – memories. The person you were then no longer exists in any physical sense. All of that matter has been replaced gradually, piece by piece. Yet, here we are, with memories from our disintegrated and reconstituted former selves.

I wonder if consciously tapping into a longitudinal perspective would prove valuable not just in understanding biology and health, but also in increasing empathy, reminding us that single slices of a person’s life are never enough to fully understand the complexity of a person. In our time lapse photography, there are many frames missing.


Forgive me if this post seems convoluted. It made sense to me when I wrote it, on a blustery January day interspersed with writing letters of recommendation for students, listening to heavy doses of Florence and the Machine, and playing board games with my toddler son. (If you want to empathize more with my state of mind at the time I wrote this, play Parcheesi with a 4 year-old and listen to Cosmic Love). I may feel differently about this tomorrow, or whenever, depending on my song playlist and how the New England Patriots fare in tonight’s playoff game, and a hundred other variables. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then … something, something multitudes.


7 thoughts on “Empathy in Flux

  1. Thanks for reminding us of the importance of empathy. It is equally, perhaps more, important to be aware of the fragility of empathy. The guy you meet over a beer at sunset is great. You seem to have exactly the same views on everything you care about. You exchange contacts. You really want to keep contact with this alter ego. A week later he ‘steals’ your girl-friend (or in your case, Patrick, maybe your brother’s bike…).

    I suppose one can empathise with oneself but generally empathy takes at least two. And empathic ‘likes’ are far more likely to enter conflict than opposites who attract — another generalisation, and all generalisations are dangerous. Empathy is great, but like all that tastes nice today, can kill you tomorrow.

    Societies have been trying to match people up ever since Man first decided he wants to know who is the biological father of his child. Most societies still have some mechanism for evaluating the suitability of couples before marriage or sexual encounter. Even the incest taboo can be explained in terms of ‘negative-empathy’ — ‘not getting too close to those to whom you are too close’. Coupling is generally considered — like democratic decision — far too important to be left to individuals involved. So society introduces involvement of families, brokers, fortune tellers, legal systems, and whole communities before two people can climb into bed and do what comes naturally. A one-night stand can be empathy at its fullest. I don’t say it can’t, exceptionally, lead onto a great long-term relationship. But resorting to statistics, we know that 50% of marriages determined by the individuals directly involved on the basis of empathy or ‘love’ fail. Very few arranged marriages fail. Okay, maybe such marriages are really boring wastes of life devoid of love or lust — one religious group even do it through a hole in a sheet — but involving a community in important decisions tends to ensure children are looked after, raised in a group of related ‘like-minds’ (the empathic element), given values and responsibilities, and maybe feel they belong, even if they don’t empathise with everybody they have/have to interact with. Each of us has to learn how to relate to those to whom we cannot empathise, preferably without violence and with respect for somebody who is a complete arse-hole. That might lead to some kind of empathy — or it might lead to social-avoidance. Never mind either way. Societies have been constructed based on empathy and I’m sure all in them had a real positive feeling — the group of people anxious to get to paradise in Jonestown was I imagine the archetype of the empathic society.

    So, let empathy take its course as an oft-temporary and transient feeling, enjoy it if it comes along, but recognise that society does not consider it a building block of the maintenance-mechanism. And if empathy disappears as quickly as it spontaneously springs to life, take it in your stride. If there were such a thing as an empathy-meter, I would guess that most people in any family, functioning group, business, society would score low on the scale. That’s why we have social structure.

    • It’s true that empathy is inherently fragile. It’s difficult to attempt the leap into the mental state of another, and it will always be an imperfect attempt, since we cannot see the thoughts of another, only their words and actions. Perhaps it is an act of bravery to even make the attempt, to let down our guard and temporarily tell ourselves that another’s emotions are worth hearing about as much as our own (or at least something close to our own).

      As you say, empathy is transient (again, all is flux), and social structure compensates for this. In our moments of insight, we’d be better served if we set up our structures to be more empathetic.

  2. Pingback: Long Anthropology Blogs - 15 January 2012 | Anthropology Report

  3. Patrick. I think you have touched on something — dare I say it — profound: our ability as individuals (one-offs) to see and feel beyond ourselves. I have been using the term ’empathy’ thinking of two or more individuals and the relationship existing between them, but I must adjust that: a single ‘individual’ can empathise (a subjective feeling) with the objective world around him or her. That beautiful time alone at dawn on the Plain of Jars, or a walk through your local park. Putting such feeling into words is bound to be a bit clumsy and inadequate. We use the same word ’empathy’ to describe social relations and individual-environment relations. The same word is also used for a charismatic leader’s rapport with the public — Hitler certainly had empathy with the masses (he also is reported to have had great empathy with and been faithful to his partner, not to have eaten animals because he didn’t like to kill them — which sounds quite empathic). Politicians and dictators have tried to make a science out of empathy and usually succeed in demonstrating the ‘tipping-point’ between empathic and pathetic. Cosmetic or real, some sort of empathy is a crucial part of any TV interview. Like everything, attempts are made to market and teach empathy, and certainly a lot of people get taken for a ride. I don’t know any way to revalue the term ’empathy’. It makes no sense to talk of empathy in terms of real and fabricated. To each his own: empathy, whether with another person or a piece of music, is subjectivity reaching out and finding and feeling a response, a mirror of sorts. No questions of morality: perhaps a serial killer can empathise with another serial killer — Silence of the Lambs stuff. Would that ’empathy’ were indeed on the supermarket shelf. But it’s not. Perhaps it’s all those things that go along with Snoopy (happiness is a warm puppy etc). Perhaps it’s really getting through to another mind or a world that some call God, some call nature — but presumably only the nice parts: it would certainly take an exceptional zen-master to empathize with a tsunami. If only we could tap into empathy full-time; we would learn a lot. But I guess it’s in the nature of the concept that empathy remain spontaneous — ‘objectively subjective’. Never mind. It’s a good feeling while it lasts, and grasping after more of it would only push it away. Nice though, to be reminded it exists. Next time it happens, I’ll try to be conscious of it and see if it hangs around. Thanks Patrick.

  4. Interesting and thought provoking post! I am taking Human Biological Variation with Mike Little this semester. I wonder if he’ll mention his idea about the magic machine. 🙂

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