Thursday, 23 March 2017

A bereaved dog owner's attempt at embodied empathy

In some strange way, although very sad, it seems somewhat apt that my dog Dusty (inset image) was ‘put to sleep’ on the same morning I was scheduled to attend our discussion session on Jacob von Uexküll’s (1937) Umwelt Theory.  Dusty was my dear and close companion for over 11 years and I miss him terribly.  Relaying Dusty’s passing to Gary, another of my best (human) friends who also experienced the recent loss of his dog (Shadow), I recalled Louise Barrett’s (2016) assertion that ‘animals in different ecological niches, with different bodies, and different nervous systems solve the problems they face in unique ways’ (p.11).  I also remembered my colleague Mary Joan’s response, who asked: if this assertion is correct, how can we follow Barrett’s argument to account for our feelings of empathy towards other animals?  

Bringing these things together, with Dusty and Shadow’s passing providing concrete grounds for the cultivation of empathy between my friend Gary and I, I’d like to briefly explore the possibilities for an embodied account of empathy.  I’m hopeful my approach illustrates something about the radical ambitions of Embodiment and the challenges it faces.  Perhaps my doing so may also ease our shared burden of grief a little.  

Cognitive science invariably encompasses some fields of study (most notably certain aspects of psychology and the early work on artificial intelligence) that expound a computational or representation-heavy view of cognition.  As such, it inherits something of a legacy of fascination with the stuff-of-the-mind and with those who use it – or res cogitans (Descartes, 1641).  These views typically deem the activities of the mind/ brain as independent of the body and its environment.  Also, the mind/ brain is taken to act as a mediator for human experience and action via mental processes.  Adding to this legacy is behaviourism’s ambition to be free from the seemingly messy, unreasonable and irrational character of human emotion (Lakomski, 2008).  

It should come as no great surprise then how some treatments of the affective domain are relatively scant among earlier, more ‘traditional’, accounts of cognition.  As Barrett notes, on such accounts ‘The brain alone is what matters, because it is the brain alone that takes inputs, processes information, computes outputs, and so generates the mind’ (p.12).  So, where might empathy fit in?  

An article by Elisa Aaltola (2014) proves helpful here who, in seeking an account of empathy that serves as a suitable basis for the formation of moral agency, presents a few common flavours of empathy worth recalling.  

Cognitive empathy concerns deploying representations of other peoples’ mental states.  For example, when I see Gary’s face sink as I recount my memories of Dusty I ‘instantly perceive or infer’ that he’s sad (p.245).  Importantly here, in a rather detached way, I’m not sharing Gary’s feelings of sadness, but simply recognising that he seems sad.  

Affective empathy involves harmonising my feelings with Gary’s emotional state.  Here Gary’s sad emotional response ‘resonates’ with me in a powerful and vivid way, it ‘reverberates’ within me almost as if his sad feelings were actually my own (Ibid.).  However, as much as Gary’s emotions resonate with me, they’re not directly mine and invariably their affects cannot be such that I could claim to be feeling exactly what Gary is feeling.  

Projective empathy combines cognitive and affective aspects and holds that ‘inference leads to an affective dimension, with the help of imagination’.  Staying with our previous example, here I simulate Gary’s feelings of sadness by imagining what he’s experiencing and by projecting my narrative onto him in an attempt to understand his ‘inner life’ (Aaltola, 2014, p.246). 
‘Thus, the three relevant definitions that emerge for empathy are perception/inference, resonance, or simulation. Cognitive empathy enables us to directly perceive or infer the mental states of others, whereas affective empathy allows one to resonate with those mental states, and projective empathy invites us to simulate the states in question’ (Ibid.). 
All of this seems to make reasonable sense until we appreciate how embodiment proposes to recast the relationship between the subject, the object, the brain, the body and the environment via a re-imagining of their role in cognition and in ways that oppose an over-reliance on internal representations.  From this perspective the brain is posited as ‘one part of a complex dynamically-coupled system: the brain is always brain embedded in a body, embedded in an environment, and it is the complex of all three that constitutes the cognitive system’ (Barrett, 2016, p.15).  Proponents of embodied cognition posit our propensity for social interaction as predicated upon our on-going perceptual experience.  We respond in a given (situational) context by engaging such ‘perceptual capacities [...] as facial imitation, detecting and tracking eye movement, detecting intention behavior, and reading emotions from actions and expressive movements of others’ (de Bruin, Strijbos and Slors, 2014, p.175).  

In light of these considerations, a number of key controversies arise that are implicit to the three versions of empathy I previously set out.  Each description of empathy requires me to evaluate Gary’s emotional state.  Thus, Gary’s experience becomes more or less mediated through, and posited in terms of, my theorising.  As such, some possibilities emerge for the reinforcement of a number of familiar contentions.  Not least among which is how strong demarcations of Gary/ Me may invoke the polemics of object/ subject-type dichotomies that can lead to ‘atomism and detachment’ (op. cit.).  Also, subjugating Gary’s feelings to my interpretation can grossly undermine both his role in our empathy-building relationship as well as his initial emotions.  Furthermore, presupposing that I engage a mental model to determine my appropriate response to Gary’s feelings: (i) either for ‘how people would normally react’ or; (ii) by ‘putting myself in Gary’s shoes’, requires some degree of mind-reading (de Bruin, Strijbos and Slors, 2014).  Any explanation that relies heavily on my theorising about Gary’s emotional state can further exacerbate issues associated with the primacy of the mind/ brain, its separation from the body and inadvertently diminish the importance of pertinent contextual factors.  

It follows then than something of the spirit of empathy as involving ‘enactive, embodied mutuality between individuals’ should be seen as distinctly absent from our previous three accounts of empathy.  In contrast, by emphasising the inherently ‘expressive’ and ‘inter-subjective’ qualities of human interaction, embodied empathy concerns ‘bringing the other into oneself, or the self into the other’ (Aaltola, 2014, pp.248-250) without an explicit need for mind-reading or simulation (op. cit.).  

Relating these ideas back to our concrete example, embodied empathy holds that I possess a capacity to directly perceive Gary’s emotional state (as opposed to inferring it), perhaps by reading his facial expressions and bodily movements.  My perception of Gary’s emotional state has a direct bearing on how I respond.  Both my perception and response are necessarily framed by our shared context.  Here there is a situational interdependency between perception and action which has a pragmatic character (de Bruin, Strijbos and Slors, 2014).  What most clearly distinguishes embodied empathy from our previous three models is how it acknowledges our shared experience.  The detached sense of distance from which I objectively interpret Gary’s emotions is replaced by a harmonious mutuality and inter-subjective intimacy and immediacy of perception and action.  Clearly this makes it difficult to assert a strong need for internal representations to mediate our actions. 

Twelve short weeks on this course, without my having a firm background in psychology or philosophy, to cover an expanded understanding of cognition (with all its contention), is not enough for me to assert a defensible argument in any particular direction.  I also fully recognise how I’ve have only been able to barely scratch the surface of the many and varied accounts of empathy and embodiment.  Nonetheless, I’m hopeful that I’ve at least been able to capture something of the radical departure that embodiment offers from traditional (psychological) accounts of cognition. 

I certainly can’t say that I miss my dog Dusty any less though, but I do think my friend Gary and I have a better sense of each other’s grief and I find that quite comforting.  


Aaltola, E. 2014. Varieties of empathy and moral agency. Topoi, 33(1), pp.243–253.  

Barrett, L. 2016. Why brains are not computers, why Behaviorism is not Satanism, and why dolphins are not aquatic apes. The Behavior Analyst, 39(1), pp.9–23.  

de Bruin, L., Strijbos, D. and Slors, M. 2014. Situating emotions: from embodied cognition to mindreading. Topoi, 33(10), pp.173–184.  

Descartes, R. 1641. Meditations on first philosophy, translated by Cottingham, J. 1996. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Lakomski, G. 2008. Cognition versus emotion? Revising the rationalist model of decision making [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 13 March 2017].  

von Uexküll, J. 1934. A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: a picture book of invisible worlds IN: Schiller, C. (ed.) and Kuenen, D. 1957. Instinctive behavior: the development of a modern concept. New York: International Universities Press. 

No comments:

Post a Comment