Problematic research: If you don’t feel empathy for a patient, is the solution to fake it?

If you don’t experience empathy for another person, this 2014 Harvard study showed how to use your cerebrum to manipulate your limbic system into displaying a proxy of empathy.

Is this what we want from our human interactions? To have a way to produce an emotion the same way that an actor would as they read their lines?

The focus here was on how to finesse the effect of “no empathy.” Because the researchers didn’t define a lack of genuine empathy as a symptom of a fundamental problem, they absolved themselves from investigating any underlying causes.

Nice trick in the academic world.


In the real world, in which we are feeling human beings, what may be a cause of no empathy?

Let’s say that someone is in a position that helps people. They have daily encounters where they may be expected to be empathetic, but they seldom have these feelings for others.

An origin of that person’s condition may be that in the past, they needed help as a matter of survival, and they weren’t helped. Their unconscious memories of being helpless impel them to act out being helpful in their current life.

The person’s frequent reaction to any hint in the present of the agony of not receiving help back when they desperately needed it is to act out what they needed to have done back then. Helping others also gives them momentary distraction from their painful memories. But the relief is transitory, so they repeat the process.

Let’s say that the person’s unconscious needs pressed on them, and they made a career choice of actively helping people. They’re usually too caught up in their own thoughts and feelings and behavior, however, to sense the feelings of the people they’re helping in the present.

The person knows that something isn’t right, but they don’t know what the problem is. They see indicators such as: their actions that should feel fulfilling aren’t, they seldom feel empathy, and so on.


Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy helps patients therapeutically address the origins of such conditions. A symptom such as lack of empathy for others will resolve as historical pains are ameliorated.

Or we can do as this study suggested: produce an inauthentic display – and thereby ignore the lack of empathy as a symptom – and never address the causes of no empathy.

http://www.pnas.org/content/111/12/4415.full “Episodic simulation and episodic memory can increase intentions to help others”

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