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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD Clinical Psychology, DPhil., MA (History)


Interpersonal Neurobiology: What is Empathy?

Paul Kiritsis - Tuesday, September 30, 2014

There’s something about the prefix ‘em’ that inspires interdependence, synergy, and mutuality. In fact, certain members in the family of words containing it–words like embody, embed, empower and our focal word empathy–certainly evoke the cosmic phenomena of cohesion, energy transfer, and information exchange. Initially, I had defined the word empathy as “the ability to relate to another human being, drawing from a pool of collective memories and experiences” however my immersion in the intellectual discourse afforded by Daniel Siegel’s Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology (2012) and Barbara Rogoff’s The Cultural Nature of Human Development (2003) inspired an immediate revision to something far more comprehensive in its ontological latitude.

Bathed in this newfound interdisciplinary light empathy reveals itself as the harbinger of all identification, be it physical, neurobiological, psychospiritual and so forth; through this dynamic process, inanimate and organic singularities may enter interrelational worlds and spaces and form informational discourses, thus allowing the evolutionary cycle to creatively shape, move, and sometimes recycle genetic and phylogenetic footprints across time through emergence and diversification. In my opinion, the act of empathizing is tantamount but not limited to forming a mutually beneficial, rewarding, and interactive relationship with inanimate and organic bodies perceived as external to self; to detecting, responding, and partaking of energy transfers coagulated by the emergent, self-organizing processes of our collective mind; and to compassionately honouring genetic and phylogenetic multiplicity as an integral mechanism for the conservation of a random, shape-shifting system of information.

Contrary to what some might believe, this contemporary concept of empathic resonance was not absent from the worldview of prior civilizations. To the Alexandrian world of late antiquity, for instance, empathic resonance was the “sympathy” underlying and connecting all created Nature, the Eros-glue which bound the physical and paraphysical realms together, and to the divine singularity. This idea went on to dominate the shared cosmogony of the Western esoteric traditions and is most discernible in the discreet system of symbolic, qualitative correspondences between purely physical (i.e. metals, stones), organic (i.e. plants, trees, animals) and mental (i.e. anger, jealousy, fear) denominations. The dialectic of the esoteric imperative has no qualms about stipulating an underlying interconnectedness based on shared ancestry, and furthermore, on the unquantifiable pathways through which all informational intercourse transpires. The kinetic force able to generate information change and transformation is likeness, a leitmotif best contextualized (in my view) by the axiom “like attracts like”–imbued with some level of ‘consciousness’, everything is intrinsically wired to seek out its embodied complement, become enamoured of this mirror image, and subsequently create a dyadic or interactive field for the constructive exchange of information. In retrospect it appears both modern developmental neurobiological and primordial esoteric creeds decree that empathy holds the information universe together, quite literally in fact. 

Let’s proceed with some tangible examples of empathy, keeping in focus the existing synergy between mind, the regulatory emergent process; the embodied mechanism or brain; and the interpersonal sharing in relationships which makes the flow of meaningful information possible. The first is an example of empathy at the cellular level, the second is an example at the psychological level, and the third and fourth are examples at the sociocultural level.

Cells, the basic building blocks of life, possess a rudimentary consciousness allowing them to respond to environmental signals that may be electromagnetic or chemical in nature. Responses are enabled by a functional system of receptor and effector proteins within the cell membrane known as Integral Membrane Proteins (IMPs); the first type are akin to physical senses and carefully monitor the internal and external milieus whilst the second mobilize behavioural responses associated with cell functioning, the regulation of cell shape and motility, the synthesis of molecules, and gene activation. We could call receptor-effector proteins the brains or intellectual centre of the cell because they align all possible behavioural responses with self-preservation and opportunism, two qualities intrinsic to more complex organisms. In his empirical study of cloned endothelial cells renowned stem cell biologist Bruce Lipton demonstrated this rudimentary intelligence through his empirical study of cloned endothelial cells; through two types of histamine receptor proteins on these cells, a H1 and a H2 switch, it was deduced that activation of H1 was synonymous was a preliminary caveat warning the cell to gravitate away from an environment deemed noxious whereas activation of H2 communicated knowledge of a nutrient-rich humus nearby, a patent call for the opening of its ion channels. This is what I call cellular empathy; the cell cannot be separated from its nucleus, organelles, and membrane, nor from the relationship it has with its surrounding environment. If it is permanently separated from the dynamic whole it dies.

Similarly, the human mind, or psyche if you like, cannot be separated from the somatic self, our physicality, and the relational world. Humans are born with a cerebral cortex largely immature in terms of neuronal numbers, connections, and axonal pathways and undifferentiated in terms of function, hinting at the tremendous role the formative environment and the interpersonal interactions play in shaping how the cognitive and emotional self might be experienced in relation to external reality. We must always remain cognizant of the notion that self-appraisals, negative and positive, play a fundamental role in determining the state of heath, wellbeing, and longevity of the respective individual. Researching the history of Australian mental asylums and orphanages at the Victorian Public Records Office in Melbourne last year, I noted how many infants and children were being incarcerated simply because they had contracted contagious diseases. According to the clinical notes complete isolation interspersed with the occasional impersonal touch of a doctor, a nurse, or a warden, and only then for the sake of administering a hypodermic injection or assessing symptomatology, was the best possible strategy for guiding these underprivileged children back to health. But in separating each child out and denying him or her empathic communion as to prevent contagion, the doctors were inadvertently creating the perfect breeding ground for negative sentiments like disconnection, rejection, and isolation. Solitary confinement is not our natural mode of subsistence; we are social beings that require emotional nurturance through physical touch, body language, and the prosodic cues of semantic language (even though we might not understand them as infants) in order to grow. In its complete absence, psychological stress would have kicked in like an unconscious reflex action and then spread like the bubonic plague. Without ever understanding the exact nature of what was transpiring the children themselves would have spiralled into clinical depression, a top-down process (level of mind affecting matter) leading to the complete cessation of neural development and integration, then cell apoptosis, and eventually death. The clinical notes provide an accurate reflection of this judgement, for recorded in pages and pages of nineteenth and early twentieth century clinical files from children’s cottages in the Australian state of Victoria is the sobering outcome, “DIED”. Again the aforementioned cosmic maxim rings true: if it is permanently separated from the dynamic and relational whole it dies.

            Empathy, or lack thereof, frequently manifests in our sociocultural interactions as well. Having recently relocated to America from Australia for the purpose of completing a doctorate degree in psychology with Sofia University, I occasionally verbalize thoughts that are quite ethnocentric in character. On many an occasion I have chided some local acquaintances  about the ‘aberrant’ (in my eyes) tendency of some Americans to overuse the word ‘like’ and the phrase ‘Oh my God’ without realizing that I am in effect making a valuated judgment on linguistic patterns that are dissimilar to my own. When invited to discuss the similarities and differences between Australian and American culture, I also find myself defending linguistic nuances characterizing Australian English, whilst concurrently reducing the American equivalents to atypical deviations. Frequently, I’ll mention that Americans have an ‘accent’ and how corrupt American society is in general. These are all fragments of a non-empathic attitude birthed from biased sociocultural assumptions about the American ethos. They have been assimilated unconsciously through skewed secondary sources, usually the media, without any grounding in the empirical science of direct observation and experiment. When accompanied by intellectual reason the perceptual kaleidoscope of introspection definitely goes a long way! Even when non-empathic judgement is not indigenous to our mode of cognitive operation, we can engage and demote other sociocultural activities without conscious knowledge of the fact.

            Similarly, there was an absence of empathy when Daniel Siegel’s interdisciplinary group of psychologists, anthropologists, biologists, mathematicians, and a host of other scientists failed in establishing a consensual definition for ‘mind.’ (Described on pages xx-xxi of the introductory chapter to the Pocket Guide.) Heavily entrenched in their own disciplinary approach and in the language afforded by that approach, these academics and scholars could not disidentify from their own theoretical preconceptions and foundations enough as to recreate a deeper, shared, and more comprehensive one sensitive to all disciplines that were represented. With the lines of communication and cooperation closed, creative solutions that may have evolved creatively from a confluence of information within the relational bubble are precluded from ever taking root. Thus we might say the scholars present at Siegel’s study group were all entrapped within mutually exclusive vacuums of disconnection–they were all self-centred and selfish, as far removed from the rudimentary qualities of empathy as one can get.

            Empathy is life-bestowing.



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