Sunday, June 05, 2011

Kim Wombles - Interview With Simon Baron-Cohen on Zero-Empathy, Autism, and Accountability

Kim Wombles at Countering . . . (Countering autism misinformation and various woo while offering kickass kumbaya and a positive perspective (and lots of flowers!)) recently interview Simon Baron-Cohen about his newest book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. I have not had a chance to read the book yet, but the more I see about it, the more I want to make the time to give it a read.

Baron-Cohen makes a distinction - that I believe is useful - between zero empathy negative (sociopaths, psychopathy, or borderline personality disorder [I disagree that they have zero empathy]) and zero empathy positive (autism spectrum). I had not seen this distinction made before.

Here is the beginning of the interview - the intro and first question:

An Interview With Simon Baron-Cohen on Zero-Empathy, Autism, and Accountability

Simon Baron-Cohen "sat down with me" this week via email and graciously took the time to answer my questions stemming from my review of his new book, The Science of Evil, that appeared on my blogs last week. What follows is a response that is every bit as thorough as my original review; between the two (and I recommend you read both as a complete piece), there's 15 single spaced pages of material. I thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity and I think readers will, too. There's even dueling databases, which I absolutely loved, below!

My questions are in italics; SBC's in regular font.

How would you outline the major sections in your book and how do you see these sections meshing together into a cohesive narrative?

The key theme in my book is that when people commit acts of cruelty, a specific circuit in the brain ("the empathy circuit") goes down. It can go down temporarily (for example, when we are stressed) or in a more enduring way. For some people, this empathy circuit never developed in the first place, either for reasons of environmental neglect and/or for genetic reasons. But whatever the reason this circuit in the brain did not develop in the usual way, or is not functioning in the usual way, it is the very same circuit that is involved. I argue that when we try to explain acts of human cruelty, there is no scientific value in the term 'evil' but there is scientific value in using the term 'empathy erosion'.

The related theme is that the functioning of the empathy circuit determines how much empathy a person has, and that empathy is "normally distributed" in the population: from zero degrees at the extreme low end through to six degrees at the extreme high end. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, but the book explores the different routes that can lead a person to end up at zero degrees of empathy. In particular, there are some medical/psychiatric conditions that cause this outcome and most are negative (Zero Negative). These include the personality disorders, such as psychopaths and people with Borderline Personality Disorder. Link
But one is surprisingly positive (autism spectrum conditions) because although they struggle with empathy, they do so because they have a mind that is exquisitely tuned to spot patterns (rules) in the world. I call this "systemizing", and in people with autism or Asperger Syndrome the "systemizing mechanism" is tuned to an extremely high degree. This can have remarkable advantages when trying to figure out how a system works (hence Zero Positive), but leads to disability when applied to the world of people and emotions, because people and emotions are hard (if not impossible) to systemize.
Go read the whole long interview - very interesting stuff.


KWombles said...

Thank you for the link to my interview with SBC. I appreciate it.

Edwin Rutsch said...

May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.