Category: science fiction


Back when I was trying to figure out if Asperger’s syndrome could explain some of the things about how my brain works, I found that some of its traits, like focused interests and social anxiety, described me very well.  One thing that didn’t seem to fit at all, though, was the trait of “lacking empathy.”  My difficulty has tended to be hypersensitivity to others; if others are upset, I’m upset.

In online discussions between people with autism or Asperger’s, I’ve seen a lot of people express similar thoughts.  While a few claim that they do indeed struggle with the concept of empathy, many others say that they don’t think that the description of autistic people as “lacking empathy” is right.

I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to this apparent discrepancy, but I’ve thought about it a lot.  This post will be a rather loose collection of those thoughts:

1.  It matters a lot what you think the word “empathy” means.

One reason that I don’t like the “lacking empathy” description is that people can have very different definitions of the word.  I always thought of empathy in terms of caring about another person’s feelings.  If you empathize with someone, it means that you care about what they are going through enough to imagine yourself in their place and feel some of the same emotions as they do.  Paul writes in the book of Romans that followers of Christ should exhibit this trait:

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”

When I read about Baron-Cohen’s theory that autistic traits are linked to difficulty developing a theory of mind, it bothers me because the concept of a person with no empathy is scary to me.  According to the theory, a person with an impaired theory of mind would have more difficulty putting themselves in another person’s place.

2.  What would a person with no empathy be like?

I imagine that a person with no concept of empathy would see other people as unreal or hollow, as cardboard cutouts with no feelings of their own.  Such a person could be very harmful to others, because there would be no reason for them to interact with others except to please or entertain themselves.  That sounds more like a sociopath than an autistic to me, and I think that linking the two would be a severe misunderstanding.

Based on what I’ve read from others who have experiences with sociopathic behavior, a sociopath will often come across as very charming and charismatic; they know the right “buttons” to press to get the responses they want from a person, but they don’t really care about them.  I think that’s pretty close to the opposite of an person with autism or Asperger’s.  They might be awkward, standoffish, or even rude because they have trouble with the social norms, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t care about others.

3.  Maybe psychologists are using a different definition of “empathy.”

Some of what I have read indicates that what I have been calling empathy is really sympathy.  Here’s how Wikipedia’s editors defined empathy, for example:

Empathy is the capability to share and understand another’s emotion and feelings. It is often characterized as the ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes,” or in some way experience what the other person is feeling. Empathy does not necessarily imply compassion, sympathy, or empathic concern because this capacity can be present in context of compassionate or cruel behavior.”

This definition seems to indicate that empathy is purely the ability to sense or know what another person is feeling without them telling you, and that whether you care how they feel or not is a totally separate matter.

I have a little trouble understanding this concept, though– if I am “sharing” another person’s happiness or sadness, and if have put myself “into their shoes,” how is it even possible for me to simultaneously not care about how that person feels?  If I truly didn’t care that another person was sad, why would the fact that I know they are sad make me sad?

On a message board, I read the following attempt by an person with Asperger’s to explain what empathy means, and I thought it was interesting:

“I believe empathy is one of the biggest problems for aspies. Others’ feelings, motivations, hidden agendas, interests, plans, goals are a mystery to us, we lack the intuition to capture them, we lack the antennae to tune into them.

This is not to be confused with lacking compassion. Once I know what another may be going through, I am extremely compassionate.

Empathy is the ability to figure what the other is feeling. It’s what good salesmen are best at. They intuitively know how to catch your interest, what will hook you, what will make you feel at home with them. They’re not necessarily compassionate. The fact that they can figure you out easily doesn’t mean they care for your sufferings.”

This leads me to another question:

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I’d like to share a funny clip from one of my favorite TV shows, Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Data is an android who wants to become more like a human.  In this story, two of his friends are getting married, and he wants to be ready to dance at their wedding.  He has heard that the ship’s physician, Beverly Crusher, knows how to dance.  Logically, she is a good person to ask for a dancing lesson.

(This clip also includes a short scene at the beginning involving a misunderstanding, but I’m mainly interested in the long dancing lesson scene in the middle.)

As an android, Mr. Data’s brain is an incredibly powerful computer that is excellent at recognizing and reproducing patterns.  He only has to see something once to learn it, and he has a perfect memory, so he will not forget.  That’s why it is so easy for him to learn to tapdance; all he has to do is copy Beverly’s steps.

In some ways, my Asperger’s brain can be a bit like a computer, in that it learns most naturally in a step-by-step process.  (I don’t have the advantage of Data’s perfect physical coordination or memory, though, so learning to tapdance would be nowhere near that easy for me!)

But when it came to learning to dance with a partner, even Data’s supercomputer brain was having trouble keeping up!  Why?  Because it is still using step-by-step procedures to describe how to dance, and every new thing Data has to keep track of means that the procedure has to become more complicated.  In the course of this scene, he learns that he needs to

  • move his feet along with Beverly’s
  • not step on her feet
  • lead the dance
  • improvise new steps
  • do all this without watching his feet
  • not hold Beverly too tight
  • smile; look like he’s enjoying himself

And this doesn’t even mention trying to talk to the person he’s dancing with!  Each one of these things multiplies the complexity of the program Data’s brain uses to describe how to dance.

I sometimes wonder if this story was written by someone familiar with Asperger’s (of course, back when this was written, they probably wouldn’t have known what it was called).  I think it provides a great example of how it’s possible to be super-capable in an area that many people find hard, but to have great difficulty with something seen as “easy.”

Beverly was surprised that Data had so much trouble dancing with a partner when he learned tapdancing instantly.  But Data’s procedure-based thinking doesn’t lend itself to learning to dance.  A good dancer isn’t consciously thinking about any of the things in the list I gave above; at some point, it becomes innate and the dancer relies on intuition and emotion to stay in step.

That can be a very difficult leap for a person with Asperger’s to take; my brain wants steps and procedures to follow.  And keeping track of all of the steps and procedures to participate in something like a conversation or a dance can be absolutely exhausting!

What else was Beverly surprised that Data didn’t know in this scene?  He didn’t know that tapdancing isn’t usually done at weddings!  The thinking that led him to ask Beverly for a lesson was totally logical, but the possibility that people could mean different things by the word “dancing” didn’t occur to him.

One thing that is admirable about Mr. Data in his quest to become more human is that he doesn’t let embarrassment discourage him.  (Of course, not having emotions may give him a bit of an advantage there.)  If he gets something wrong, he just adjusts his thinking and tries again.  It can be a lot harder for those of us with emotions to risk embarrassment when we’re trying something new, but sometimes it’s the only way to learn.  It helps a lot to have patient teachers like Beverly in this scene, or like many of mine in real life.