The Empathy Machine

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From Aeon: We typically think of empathy as an emotions-based state that involves feeling another’s distress or joy. However, cognitive, rationalist empathy involving reasoned perspective-taking may be even more powerful.

“There is a profound cognitive leap that we are able to make. It starts with egocentricity and the world ‘as it is to me’. It lands on other-centredness and the world ‘as it is for you’. Divorce empathy from emotion – let’s call it a sterilised empathy – and you have the seedbed of logical reasoning and creative thought. Empathy and creativity share an important, even essential feature: to be creative, just as to be empathetic, we must depart from our own point of view. We must see things not as they are but as they might be. And the value of that ability extends far beyond the simple fact that some of our neurons light up when we see someone else suffering – or that we feel compelled to help when we commiserate with another human being, be he alive or fictional.

Sterilised empathy might not be sterilised so much as expanded, from an emotional ability to an essential element in creativity and problem-solving. The emotional element in empathy is itself a limited one. It is selective and often prejudicial – we tend to empathise more with people whom we know or perceive to be like us, or simply when we have more mental space to bother. Empathy can be all the more powerful and creative in its cognitive form when it is independent of context and emotional outpouring.”

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