Monday, March 30, 2015

Getting a new body

Sergio Canavero, an Italian neuroscientist, asserts that he can transplant a human head on the body of a donor whose brain has died but whose body is still healthy. He thinks that he will need a preparatory period of about two years and then he can do the transplantation. Or so he says. Canavero has found already a candidate who wants to give his head for the operation: A Russian man called Valery who suffers from a serious neuromuscular disease. Will it be possible? Then I am not thinking of the technical possibility of the operation. Such a transplantation will certainly not be possible within two years but sooner or later it can be done and I am convinced that it will be done. But what will we get then? Canavero and his future patient seem to think that we’ll “simply” get another Valery (or who else will be the patient) with the same head as before but only with another body, and nothing else. But is this what we’ll get?
The basic idea that it works this way goes back to the philosophy of René Descartes (1598-1650). According to him, man consists of two entities, joined together: a body and a mind. This view is called Cartesian dualism or substance dualism. It says that body and mind are two different substances, and fundamentally they can be separated. What really makes up our personality is our mind in this view. If it were true, it would imply that we could put a head (which is supposed to contain the mind) on another body, indeed. The only practical question would be whether both parts will well grow together and then form a material unity.
However, is it true? Is it possible to change the body for another one (where “body” means the part below the head) just as we can change clothes? Of course, we like one pair of trousers more than another pair, because it fits better or because of its colour, but basically they all fit. I think that getting another body is not that simple. If you get another body you’ll become another person.
In an article on personal identity I discussed the case of two runners who swapped bodies. In order to make the present case more plastic let me suppose that our Russian patient Valery gets the body of a woman. Or, making the case even more plastic, let me suppose that Valery, a white man, gets the body of a black woman (or a black man; actually it’s not important for my argument). I think that this makes clear that there are other aspects in a body change than merely the technical aspects that the head and the body must technically fit together (the “wires”, like spinal cord and blood vessels, must be connected) and that the body must not reject the head (or the other way round). There are also wider medical aspects and there are psychological and social aspects as well. As for the wider medical aspects, for instance every body has an endocrine system that has an important effect on how the body works. It is not so that we have a system for our head and another one for the body, but we have one for the whole. It regulates in an important way how the body works and how it behaves. There are individual differences between one man and the other and these have a deep influence on what kind of personality we are, for example whether we are a man or a woman, our sexual behaviour and much more. As for the psychological and social aspects, how you look like, how you behave and so on have such an influence on how you are treated and on the kind of person you are that it is hard to imagine. Ask a black man in the USA about what it is to be black in a society where the standards are white, and he (for example Barrack Obama) can fill hours with his stories.
Here in my blog I can present my arguments only superficially. I don’t have the space to discuss them in detail. However, also when Valery would get the body of someone who is more like him (so the body of a white man) problems of the kind I have just touched would still exist, albeit it maybe in a lesser degree. What I want to make clear and put forward is this: If someone gets another body, she or he does not simply get another body. It’s not like getting another coat in a different design. Of course, some “technical” problems have to be solved: the “wires” have to be connected, you have to learn to walk again etc. etc.; but Canavero seems to think that after a year or maybe two years you’ll be back on stage as before. Just this “as before” is the crux of the matter, for the change of getting a new body will not be marginal but substantial: A new person will be born. But also: another person has died. Is that what we want? That’s what a body transplant is about and not about whether we’ll be able to connect the wires.
Sources: De Volkskrant, March 21, 2015 (“Sir Edmund”); Surgical Neurology International 2013, 2015; my “Can a person break a world record?”, on:

Monday, March 23, 2015

Happy words

Maybe you’ll not remember it, for it’s already five years ago that I wrote it, but once in a blog I told how I ride better with a smile on my face when making a bike tour. This is exactly in line with what I newly wrote about the movements of the body and the way you feel, and especially about the relation between the expression on your face and your feelings. Of course, this has a wider application than only the practice of sports. Trainers in interpersonal communication, for instance, make use of the relation between bodily expression and feeling. They advice to adapt your physical expression to the situation you are in. Then you do not only make a better impression on the others present, but you feel yourself also better adapted to the circumstances and you feel like you are supposed to behave. But if such a relation exists, especially between facial expression and feeling, then it must also be easy to integrate this phenomenon in your daily life. For, as I see it, you can do this when you do something you have to do anyway: talking. Just choose the right words and you’ll become happy. Not by choosing words with the meaning of happiness but by choosing words that have a happy sound, or rather a sound that you can only utter by smiling. How does it work? To quote Darwall: “Subjects who are asked to pronounce phonemes involving muscle activity implicated in characteristic emotional facial expressions tend, when they comply, to feel those very feelings.” For instance, the sound o is made with another expression of your facial musculature than when you say an e and therefore they give you different feelings, when you pronounce them. Is it mere chance that saying words like “sorrow” and “gloomy” arouse corresponding feelings within you? Apparently it is not only the meanings of the words that do but also the muscles in your face. But, surely, it can also work in the opposite direction. Saying an e is done by producing a smile and smiling makes you happy. So, say “cheerful” and you’ll feel cheerful.
What does this mean for us? There are many ways to try to become happy. One of them is the way we talk: Simply use “happy words”, so words that you have to pronounce by producing a smile on your face. Say “pleased” and not “glad”; “grief” and not “sorrow”; or – something else – “street” and not “road”. If you do, you’ll feel much better, only by the way you speak. Or, as Darwall says it: “There is more to saying ‘cheese’ than we might have imagined.”

Source: Stephen Darwall, “Empathy, sympathy, Care”, in Philosophical Studies, vol. 98 (1998): 261-282 (quotations on p. 265). ( )

Monday, March 16, 2015

Empathy and sympathy

Two weeks ago I published the photo above by way of illustration for my blog. I had taken it especially for this occasion and it was supposed to express the idea of empathy. But does it really do? Empathy is a complex notion that has got many different interpretations. We have seen this yet in my blog last week. Within limits it is a bit arbitrary what meaning we should give it. However, I think that one thing has become clear from my discussion: Empathy refers to a kind of reflection of another’s emotion or experience within me. After the discovery of the so-called mirror neurons this needn’t be something vague but we can give it a physical foundation, as I have done so in my blogs as well. Empathy makes that I am a bit like the other whose feeling I reflect. Empathy can reflect all kinds of feelings, from cheerfulness until sorrow and a lot in between.
In a photo I can express only one kind of empathy; I cannot express empathy in general. Even then, I think now that the blog photo two weeks ago is not to the point, for it doesn’t show a kind of reflection of the feeling of one person in another person. This doesn’t mean that the photo is a complete failure, for it does express something that is often confused with empathy (so also by me). We see a hand on a shoulder in a gloomy picture (it’s on purpose that I had made the photo rather dark and that I had made it black-and-white). But such a hand on a shoulder is generally not supposed to mean that the “hand-person” has the same feeling as the “shoulder-person” but that former is concerned about the latter and that the former cares for the latter. In other words, the photo expresses sympathy.
Although sympathy and empathy are related, they are different. For explaining this, let me quote Stephen Darwall’s definition of sympathy. According to him, sympathy “is a feeling or emotion that (a) responds to some apparent threat or obstacle to an individual’s good or well-being, (b) has that individual himself as object, and (c) involves concern for him, and thus for his well-being, for his sake.” In short, sympathy refers to feelings for another person that is in a difficult situation and needs help or support. Nothing of all this is necessary for empathy. The other doesn’t need to be in trouble or have a difficult time. I can also share the joy another experiences (for having passed an exam successfully, for instance), and I am happy because the other is happy. I can also feel empathy when I am watching a play in a theatre. I just feel, also if I don’t have a personal relation to the other. In case of sympathy I am concerned for the other but not because I reflect the feeling of the other within me but for his or her sake. I care for the other also when I don’t have the feeling of the other. For instance, the mother of a person I know has died and I am present at the funeral for expressing my sympathy, but this doesn’t imply that I am sad. I simply show care for my acquaintance because I know that my presence will be very much appreciated by him. Being worried or concern are words that best express our feelings when we have sympathy for someone. Therefore we can say, in philosophical terms, that when we have sympathy we see the other from a third-person perspective, because we know what the other feels but we do not necessarily share this feeling, unlike in the case of empathy which supposes a first-person perspective, for only by becoming the same as the other in a certain way, we can know what the other feels.

Source: Stephen Darwall, “Empathy, sympathy, Care”, in Philosophical Studies, vol. 98 (1998): 261-282 (quotation on p. 261). ( )

Monday, March 09, 2015

On the meaning of “empathy”

In my blog last week, I remarked that scientists do not agree about what empathy involves. In fact, they give it many interpretations. In an article on its features and effects Amy Coplan gives a list of the most popular ways empathy is understood:
(A) Feeling what someone else feels
(B) Caring about someone else
(C) Being emotionally affected by someone else’s emotions and experiences, though not necessarily experiencing the same emotions
(D) Imagining oneself in another’s situation
(E) Imagining being another in that other’s situation
(F) Making inferences about another’s mental states
(G) Some combination of these possibilities.
As Coplan notes, this big number of conceptualizations of empathy is quite problematical for what are we talking about, when we use the word “empathy”? Even if one gives a clear definition in a treatise on empathy, it remains confusing that the concept can be understood in so many different ways. In this blog I cannot end the confusion, but I want to make some comments on the different meanings of empathy listed by Coplan, hoping that it helps to bring some order in the mesh, although my comments must be short.
Leaving out (G), which is a bit of a hotchpotch, we have six different interpretations. Originally the concept has been coined in Germany at the end of the 19th century, where it has been developed by Robert Vischer and Theodor Lipps, who talked about “Einfühlung”. Einfühlung means something like feeling into. Let’s keep it in mind.
Take first interpretation (B): to care about someone else. I think that this interpretation of empathy is too wide. One can care about another for many different reasons and one doesn’t need to feel into the other for that, which minimally supposes some kind of emotionally sharing. Interpretation (B) needs to be specified, for example, by the other interpretations (or some of them), like (D): Imagining oneself in another’s situation. However, such an imagining must be more than simply intellectual. For instance, a judge has to assess why the suspect robbed the bank because he needed money. Such an assessment will be purely intellectual. Referring to what I said in my blogs about mirror neurons, in order to talk about empathy here, a certain kind of internal simulation of the suspect’s reasons by the judge is imperative if we want to talk about empathy. Even more, since mirror neurons are also motor neurons that start moving the muscles expressing the empathy, for instance on the face, one could talk about a kind of internal vibration in case of empathy. I think that one cannot expect that the “feeling into” of a judge goes that far. As for this, there is not much difference between imagining oneself in another’s situation and imagining being in his or her situation (=E). Also this interpretation supposes too much about what empathy is.
This “feeling into”, or “being emotionally affected by” as Copland says it, is explicitly mentioned in interpretation (C). However, thinking of the recent discovery of mirror neurons, (C) contains a contradiction, for in view of these neurons being emotionally affected involves at least a minimal experience of these emotions within by the observer. The latter is implied in interpretation (A), which sees empathy as a kind of – what I have called – “internal vibration”. But then we are already halfway interpretation (F) (namely making inferences about another’s mental states), assuming that we can use our own mental states then in order to explain the mental states of the other.
My comments on the six possible interpretations of empathy presented by Copland don’t bring us a final definition. However, they show some aspects that must be part of such a definition, explicitly or implicitly. If we see empathy with another as a kind of feeling into, then at least we share that person’s feelings, emotions and experiences in the sense that we are emotionally affected by them and simulate them internally in some way and have a kind of internal (muscular) vibration (if not an expression of the feeling on our face). In short, empathy is emotional resonance of the other within us.

Amy Coplan, “Understanding Empathy: Its features and effects”, in: Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie (eds.), Empathy (see blog last week); pp. 3-18.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Why women have more empathy than men

Empathy is a rather faint concept. Scientists do not agree what it exactly involves and they haven’t succeeded yet to define it clearly. For this blog that’s not important. Let’s say that empathy is feeling what someone else feels; that it is a kind of feeling that makes that one understands and feels the emotions of another person, because one imagines the situation he or she is in. Then one gets the same emotion as the other, although usually in a lesser degree. One sees that the other is sad or just happy, which makes that you feel sad or happy as well. It’s the same for other feelings or emotions, like pain, regret, fear, anger and so on. It can even work that way that only seeing a happy or sad person makes you becoming happy or sad. Everybody has such experiences, but how does it work?
Empathy has been studied at least since the end of the nineteenth century but the discovery of so-called mirror neurons in the brain some hundred years later has thrown a new light on it. Mirror neurons are a kind of neurons that become activated, when someone sees another person performing an action. However, they have also another function, for mirror neurons become also activated when you yourself perform an action. So mirror neurons both help recognize actions and they are motor neurons in the sense that they play a role in moving your muscles for performing the same actions. They have a double function. Even more, when you see somebody performing an action, also then they make that you start moving the related muscles. Often this happens unconsciously and you don’t notice it and you keep sitting in your chair. But who hasn’t experienced being present at a concert and seeing the drummer tapping his foot and starting to tap your own foot? Or you see persons dancing in the street and you stop to watch them and you start to move as well or even joins them? Mirror neurons make that you tend to copy and simulate the behaviour of other persons; openly or within yourself.
Mirror neurons play an important part in learning but also in recognizing emotions. When you see an emotion on the face of another person, your mirror neurons register the emotion and make that you start copying it. When you see that someone is happy, you get a feeling of being happy, and if she smiles or laughs, you start to smile or laugh, too. If you see that someone is sad you also tend to feel sad, and maybe you start to cry with him or her. Also your face expresses the emotion concerned.
It’s interesting that this process doesn’t work only in one direction. It doesn’t work only from emotion to movement but also from movement to emotion. For instance, make a smile and immediately you tend to feel better; suppress smiles where you are supposed to be serious and you’ll feel so. In other words, there is relation of interdependence between what you see being done, what you do in relation to what you see then and to what you feel.
It’s just a hypothesis but I think that all this has a consequence for the relation between empathy and sex. In most cultures women are free to express their emotions and feelings, at least to a large extent, while men are supposed to keep them in check and not to show them too much. However, suppressing showing your emotions means suppressing the movements of the muscles related to these emotions. But if you suppress the movements of the muscles that are related to certain emotions you tend to suppress the emotions as such as well. If you don’t laugh you feel less cheerful than when you do, and if you don’t cry you feel less sorrow than when you do cry. Anyway, this is so compared to persons in the same circumstances who do perform all these physical expressions of their feelings.
Above I described empathy as feeling what someone else feels. As we just have seen, it belongs to having a certain feeling that you move your muscles in the right way. Basically it is an automatic process but you can steer it and just that’s what you do when you suppress to start crying when you see someone else crying; or when you try to suppress that your face becomes sad when you see someone in sorrow; and the same for happiness and for other emotions. However, when you suppress the physical expression of an emotion you suppress the related feeling as well, like, for instance, the empathy you actually feel for someone, if something has happened to that person. And since in most cultures men are allowed not to show their emotions as much as women can, the upshot is that men feel less empathy than women do in the same circumstances.

More on empathy in Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie (eds.), Empathy. Philosophical and psychological perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.