Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Simon Baron-Cohen: Evolution of Empathy

This is Simon Baron-Cohen's talk at the Evolution and Function of Consciousness Summer School ("Turing Consciousness 2012") held at the University of Montreal as part of Alan Turing Year.In this talk, Baron-Cohen looks at the development of empathy from the womb to adulthood and examines what can go wrong - which can lead to autism/Asperger Syndrome and potentially even to sociopaths and psychopaths.

Simon Baron-Cohen: Evolution of Empathy

Empathy is the drive to identify another person's thoughts and feelings and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion. Empathy comes by degrees, with individual differences evident in the traditional bell curve. We now know quite a lot about which parts of the brain are used when we empathize and how empathy develops in children. We also know that early experience affects empathy, but so does biology: hormones in the womb, and specific genes. There are several ways in which one can lose one's empathy, clearly seen in psychiatric conditions such as the personality disorders, including the psychopath. We discuss how people with autism and psychopaths show opposite empathy profiles. Finally, the discovery that there may be 'genes for empathy' implies that empathy may be the result of our evolution.

Relevant Books/Papers/Websites:

Baron-Cohen, S, (2011). Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty. Penguin/Basic Books.

Baron-Cohen, S (2003). The Essential Difference: men, women, and the extreme male brain. Penguin/Basic Books

Baron-Cohen, S (2009). Autism and Asperger Syndrome: The Facts. Oxford University Press.

Simon Baron-Cohen and Sally Wheelwright. (2004, Apr). The Empathy Quotient: An Investigation of Adults with Asperger Syndrome or High Functioning Autism, and Normal Sex Differences. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 34, No. 2.
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