Wiring Heights: LUSSO Interviews Professor Simon Baron Cohen
‘Suffering is implicit in major decisions that political leaders have to make in times of upheaval. Not everyone making these decisions is psychopathic.’
Any self-respecting geek knows that the Voight-Kampf empathy test is used to find replicants hiding amongst the general population in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Testing for blush response and pupil dilation, through 30 to 40 cross referenced questions, the androids soon trip up. Violence often ensues. “Did you ever take the test yourself?”, Rick Deckard, the hero, is asked by his beautiful but artificial love interest, Rachel. She’s just failed the test and is a tad upset. Whether Deckard can tell is hard to discern. After all, he is a bloke.
So. To remind us all – empathy is not sympathy. For example, I can absolutely imagine how sublimely awesome it must have felt for Adolf Hitler to stand at the lectern overlooking the improbably architectural lines of 500,000 adoring Nazi adherents at Nuremburg. No doubt a fine moment to reflect on his past in the doss houses of Vienna or the prison cell of 1924. How far he had come. I certainly don’t have any sympathy for what happened to him in that Berlin bunker. Quite the opposite. Good riddance. Empathy allows us to understand other people’s thought process. In so doing, it can be a force for good – but it can be used to manipulate and dominate others.
Like his cousin, comedian Sacha, Professor Simon Baron Cohen is used to people getting angry with him. Specifically, at his research. As one of Britain’s leading clinical psychopathologists, his area of expertise is in the very structures of the brain that define many, if not all aspects of our personalities. In his book The Essential Difference, he incurred the wrath of feminists for suggesting that men and women do indeed have different brains – at different ends of an empathy spectrum. Men are better at systems and logical problem solving but generally lack their female partners’ ability to understand and communicate with people on an emotional level. This is due to evolutionary and environmental factors. Mindblindness suggested that those at the extreme end of this spectrum, autistics and people with the higher functioning variant, Asperger’s Syndrome, lack what is known as a ‘theory of mind’. Again, this caused some controversy, since other low empathy conditions also display this trait. Being a scientist, Baron Cohen deals in empirical phenomena and data. Genes with names such as the aggressor gene MAOA and serotonin transporter gene SLC6A4 fill the pages of his books alongside brain areas that act as the ‘empathy circuit’, such as the ventromedial prefontal cortex (vMPFC) and the middle cingulate cortex (MCC).
Baron Cohen has also developed an empathy test for understanding brains. His EQ test features 40 multiple choice questions that result in a score that defines where you sit on the empathy spectrum. Men tend to score lower than women. Autistic people lower still. I took the test and scored 52. As a man, this makes me very touchy feely. There were no questions about my mother or turtles.
His most recent book, ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy – a new theory on human cruelty’ seeks to take the word ‘evil’ out of our common usage and allow us a dispassionate perspective on malignant behaviour in all it’s forms. He proposes ‘six degrees of empathy’ and explains that empathy comes in various forms. At one end, cognitive empathy and at the other affective. Tellingly he defines conditions which have low affective empathy, such as psychopathy and antisocial disorders (which may lead to criminal behaviour) as Zero Negatives.
He sees autism and other areas of low cognitive empathy as Zero Positive. They tend to make positive contributions to civilization. The Zero N’s, less so.
Your research tends to create a lot of negative reactions in people. The idea that it negates free will and imposes a biological deterministic fate.
“People want to feel in control of their own behaviour. My position is more moderate in that it interacts with experience and environment. There is interaction at all levels.
There’s a difference between cognitive and affective empathy – which is not to say there’s only two positions – there’s a spectrum. But to be reductive there are two clear areas which define the two major clinical groups. What we may call people with Zero Negative empathy are those who suffer from personality disorders such as psychopathy, narcissism and borderline personality disorder. They may have very high levels of cognitive empathy – they can appreciate others may experience feelings. They may even divine what those feelings may be. But they have very low levels of affective empathy. They just don’t care.
Conversely, people with autism may be the opposite. They don’t get jokes and can’t read between the lines to get the meaning . But they have high levels of affective empathy. If they are informed that someone close is suffering, specifically if they have been the cause, they get upset themselves. Mentalising others’ thought processes is their weak area.
This can be debilitating. Things we take for granted – getting a job, having a friend – are hard for them. At the other end of the spectrum, the Zero N’s can also suffer.
What do we do if we can identify those who are Zero Negative? Are we to utilise our burgeoning scientific knowledge and make some kind of Clockwork Orange intervention? And furthermore, doesn’t it ask us to reconsider human rights in totality. Those with low levels of human understanding can’t be bound by the same laws as those with high levels?
“This blurs the line between the health care system and the prison system. At an immediate level, someone with low empathy can hurt people. As a clinician, my role is to help those with problems. It’s clear that prison doesn’t help rehabilitate brain circuitry. An individual who has problems with self-control won’t be made better by incarceration.
You speculate that civilization has been made better by autistics and Aspergers’ cases.
Well yes, you can historically speculate that. They have brilliant attention to detail and are great at systematic thinking. This is incredibly helpful for seeing patterns and for innovation. Industry and technology may well have been driven by that.
Conversely, do we see that narcissism, psychopathy and low affective empathy may have driven culture and politics, as books like Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test suggest? The dark energy that creates the civilization?
“I suppose so, yes. It’s the depressing side of our humanity. Influential leaders seek to get what they want at any price so yes, reduced empathy would be a most effective attribute.
In business, too. Risk taking and the belief that what you are focussed on is the most important thing at all costs may well be admirable qualities.”
Since we are talking on the day of her funeral, I ask about Margaret Thatcher and her empirical training as a chemist. Does this indicate low empathy with high systematic thinking. Ever the clinician, Baron Cohen is loath to comment. If he hasn’t studied an individual face to face, he cannot and will not pass judgement.
“Maybe her family had a different view. That she was a loving mother and a kind friend. Peoples’ actions cannot be the indicator of their neurology, much as it’d be convenient to think that.
Events like Hiroshima or the second Gulf War are interesting. Suffering is implicit in major decisions that political leaders have to make in times of upheaval. Not everyone making these decisions is psychopathic. Sometimes one has to just turn down those areas to do what needs to be done and focus on a specific target or job at hand. The concentration camps worked on a similar level. In the chain of command there were individuals who had one job – get the Jews on the trains, collect the belongings – people who really were obeying orders. The impact of their contribution is lost in the setting of targets and details.”
Baron Cohen asserts that even an individual who displays 1% of empathy can be said to be human and worthy of approval at some level. He seems not to follow the psychologists that wrote the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical manual of Mental Disorders – the DSM IV. Their collective opinion on the so-called ‘Type B’ disorders that comprise Baron Cohen’s Zero Negative group, is that they are essentially untreatable.
“I’m not sure there are fixed individuals. I think there’s a continuum – we all shift and slide along it. The MAOA-L gene, when present, tends to create aggressive individuals who have had traumatic upbringings. The MAOA-H variant not so much. We can all have a bad day and lose our ability to empathise, through stress or threat. Yes, there are those who suffer from more profound traits, but even they could be movable. There are individuals who we can only show love to, but we might have a neighbour we can vilify without much effort. The extreme of this is the cliché of the Nazi camp guard who reads bedtime stories to his children.
Yes, certain individuals are harder to treat, due to areas of the brain that are harder to ‘unwire’. On the malignant side, an individual with across the board low empathy may have devices to cover it up some of the time, but ultimately, won’t be able to hide it.
We have to decide whether people need treatment based upon how happy they are and whether they are a danger to themselves or others. On many occasions, those with psychopathy or other negative forms of empathy don’t present themselves to psychiatric professionals because they really don’t think there’s anything wrong with them.
Normally, only those severe enough to have committed a crime or threatening others enter the system.
Autistic or Asperger’s sufferers do tend to get treatment, but not for their main ‘condition’. Clinically speaking, autism sufferers may develop secondary depression. There’s a sadness caused by social isolation. I also write about those with what I call ‘pathological altruism’, those that empathise too much, who may well just invest too much in those around them. That’s not good either.
“The National Autistic Society can help people find work or housing. They can put those who might be termed ‘abnormal’ into a job that really suits their systematic thinking. This is a whole new approach to society. Utilising everyone’s unique skills for the benefit of us all. A NAS survey discovered that a few years back that 90% of adults with autism are unemployed. These are people with high IQ’s and fantastic focus, but they can flunk interviews or they don’t fit in with other workers. If they are identified as a disability group they can avoid the stresses of being considered ‘weird’ and make a real contribution.
I like that Einstein quote that if you judge a creature by its tree climbing ability then a fish will always seem very stupid.”
Do you feel that children’s modern immersion in technology or consumerism has a role to play in making them less empathetic?
I think this is overstated. I don’t see evidence of this. There’s a lot of social interaction that comes with using computers now. I think adolescent brains need more research. The general idea is that they’re self centred. This is not recent. My interest is not on a social level, but in finding out what’s happening in the brains of young people. Hormones have a major impact on neurological development. And teenagers’ brains are swimming in them. Maybe we should find a way to accept that until even the age of 25, young people are in a process of change.
And how might neurological insight might just lead to medical interventions that – here’s that dangerous term – cure both Zero Negatives and Positives? A treatment more gentle than A Clockwork Orange’s Ludovico Technique?
I would hope that a greater knowledge of ‘neurological diversity’ builds greater tolerance to those who don’t fit in the mainstream, without any need for medical intervention.
However, if you have a toddler who is brilliant at building contraptions out of Lego, but doesn’t appear capable of human interaction, you wouldn’t want to just say ‘ahh, well, he’s just different.’ There is a window of development and we should use it.
Wouldn’t the ‘Neuro-Diverse Identity’ movement consider that fascistic?
They would and there are ethical issues. But parents make decisions which are interventionist all the time – hot housing, music lessons, changing schools – but if we think an intelligent child might well benefit from having social skills then, yes, I don’t see it as a problem.
Can you perceive of a ‘cure’ for these conditions?
“I wouldn’t want to look to cure people who may be happy in a certain environment. Put the fish in the tree back in water and it will happily swim. We need to find a way to socially integrate everyone in a way that maximises our human potential.
If we can do that by avoiding medical engineering we would have improved as a species and would be a step closer to utilising everyone’s unique talents in that process.”
Whether there is a utopian future of common ground and cooperation amongst all the low and high empaths of the world or a dystopian Blade Runner/Clockwork Orange one, where we are divided and engineered remains to be seen. I ask the professor one last question:
“Ever taken the test yourself?”
“No. I’m not naive to it, so the scores would not be meaningful.”
Good answer. He knew I’d like that. Or did he…?
Professor Baron Cohen is the Director and a trustee of the Autism Research Trust, committed to improving our clinical understanding of autism and its variants.
For more information visit autismresearchtrust.org. For help with diagnosing or adapting to autism or Asperger’s visit the National Autistic Society at www.autism.org.uk.