The Silence of the Lobes

The hoariest of old koans [1] asks, what is the sound of one hand clapping?  This appears to have inspired an article on the Science Daily site about some research into the neurobiology of empathy, where the quoted researcherʼs name is “Coan”.

People need friends, Coan added, like "one hand needs another to clap."

Coan, koanish and corny; I approve. :-)

But:  What is the sound of one unempathic person clapping?  Or, more accurately ... what is the empathy-equivalent of the sound of one hand clapping in an unempathic person, or indeed a friendless empathic person, and are these distinct?

As the contrary does not seem to be demonstrable, I will assume that there are people who are genuinely unempathic, others who only have “learned” or rules-based empathy, or are so overwhelmingly empathic that we canʼt handle it and so become emotionally distant — alternatives which it may not be possible to distinguish reliably.

The answer probably remains “silence” in all cases, but perhaps for different reasons.  It may be silence in different places.  Functional MRI scans apparently show low activity in the brains of people with lower than average empathic abilities, and according to this study, in the brains of people with normal empathic abilities when asked to empathise with non-friends.  The study did not cover empathic people with no friends as a specific group, but most of us (learned-empathy, unempathic, instinctively-empathic, excessively-empathic) can probably imagine what thatʼs like.  Silence where weʼd like a sound?  Or perhaps in the case of schizoids, blessed silence where everyone expects noise to be welcome?  I donʼt know, not being schizoid — but blessed silence with respect to people who arenʼt our friends is something weʼre probably all familiar with. [2]

Anyhow, what is the point of this?  Not just that we might be able to construct koans in future about the potential of one neuron pulsating and never getting a response.  I am insufficiently expert in neurobiology to be able to guess where this will all go, but this study seems to be the first Iʼve come across which really distinguishes differing empathy performances in ‘normally’ empathic subjects.  In doing so, it seems to me that it provides indirect confirmation of the validity of determining empathic function via fMRI.  As noted earlier, it may not be possible by any other means to distinguish those who have instinctive empathy from those who have an originally rules-based form of empathy which has simply become hardwired through habituation.  I do not know whether any fMRI studies have been attempted which might tease out that distinction, but Iʼd be interested to see it.

Perhaps even more interesting would be the possibility of distinguishing people with sub-normal empathy by other measures; if it is possible to learn empathy by observation and habituation, is it also possible to lose it by the same means?  Would it be possible to distinguish an absence from a loss with fMRI?  And finally, would it be possible to distinguish people with excessive empathic sensitivity, blocked off through habituation?


  1. This is not anyoneʼs username for anything as far as I know but it probably should be.  
  2. Maybe there are also people for whom no form of silence is ever welcome, but Iʼd suspect someone like that will be a lot more dysfunctional than most schizoids.