Lately, I’ve had several things I wanted to write about, but nothing I had the energy to write a complete post about. In lieu of writing full posts, I’ve decided I’m just going to empty the backlog with some short summaries of some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately.
I just had a conversation with a friend of mine about a partner of hers. A few weeks ago we had a lot of conversations about this partner, and she had expressed to me a few times that she was nervous about not being very attracted to this partner physically. I noted to her, today, that she hadn’t mentioned that issue in a while, and asked if that was because it had changed or not. She responded that, yes, it had changed, and that she was now finding this partner incredibly attractive all the time. It was really cool being witness to a change like this as it happened.
I’ve been wanting to write something just to remind myself that this happened: the woman I have most recently started dating gave me a very distinct first impression over about 30 seconds of conversation at the beginning of our date. Over the course of the rest of that date, I got a stronger and distinctly different impression — one that was much more compatible with me than the first impression had been. Then, over the course of the following date, my impression changed again (not to a negative impression, but to one that was markedly different from the second impression). It’s not a particularly interesting story except that I tend to have a very high opinion of my ability to develop highly accurate snap impressions of people I meet in person, and this particular dating experience has somewhat flown in the face of that. Data about my brain I wanted to write down so I remember it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy recently. At some point, I want to write a full-length post about this, but for now just a short summary: I’ve been mulling over this idea that empathy is, like all those other things I wrote about in the brain skepticism post (pain, depression, etc.), a model. Roughly: that empathy is a mental model of the state of another person’s brain that can cause us to experience emotions. That is, when someone else is sad, and you recognize the visual cues that signify sadness, you form a mental model of them as a person experiencing sadness, and whatever process creates that mental model also produces a corresponding emotional experience in you.
I find this idea intriguing because it presents an interesting perspective on why certain groups of people have so much trouble empathizing with other certain groups. For example: why are so many religious people convinced that atheists are just angry at their god? I think this model for empathy implies a fascinating explanation: if someone lives in a world where, in all of their experience, the existence of a deity is self-evident, then maybe their system has no idea how to simulate the mind of an atheist. Maybe the best it can do is to posit things like “angry at God”, and, as a result, not only is that the explanation that seems plausible to them, they might even experience an emotional reinforcement in the form of an “empathetic” emotional experience of being angry at God produced by their inaccurate model.
In a nutshell, what I find interesting about this is that it reframes my concept of the idea of “failing at empathy”. When people assume completely inaccurate things about other people, by this model, it’s not that they aren’t experiencing empathy — the very same process is happening as when empathy works — it’s just that their empathy engine isn’t producing accurate results.
This is obviously a hypothesis formed out of purely anecdotal speculation. It’s the worst kind of just so story. I just think it’s fascinating as a hypothesis, and I would be curious to learn about reasons it might or might not hold any actual evidential water.