A&O – EMPATHY – web notes



web notes



ART & ORGANISM speaks to a central function of art: the discovery and creation of connections between individuals. 

A dramatic expression of connectedness is empathy:

In our A&O web notes on CONNECTIONS between INDIVIDUALS, the ideas surrounding empathy are highly significant; at that site we build on the famous comment by Eugene Delacroix (painting [is] no more than the pretext, than the bridge between the mind of the painter and that of the spectator.”) … in other words, ART CONNECTS MINDS. And a deeper level than words alone. 

And now we can appreciate the larger meanings of the ideas of SYMPATHY and COMPASSION and EMPATHY–varieties of experience of other beings and their implications for us.  A related term of significance in PHENOMENOLOGY is “INTERSUBJECTIVITY”(emphasizing cognitive dimension).

Definition of compassion

sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it

Definition of empathy:

1: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner    also : the capacity for this

2: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.



INTERSUBJECTIVITY – EMPATHYPsychologists consider Empathy (“the ability to understand the perspectives of others, relate to their experiences, and show concern for their feelings”) as “two main types:

Emotional empathy is the ability to feel someone else’s emotions, experience distress in response to their struggles, and respond with compassion — like feeling angry on your partner’s behalf when they’re mistreated. 

Cognitive empathy is the ability to recognize the emotions of others and understand why they feel a certain way — like noticing a frown on your friend’s face and realizing they’re likely mad or sad. 

Humans are born with a natural capacity for empathy, meaning you’re biologically programmed to form social relationships and care about others. But this skill doesn’t come fully developed — which is why young children ages 3-5 often show little concern for others.” (link)  


NOW, Look next at an essay in a special issue of NS on the limits of knowing.


A REPRISE of the essential disciplinary structure of A&O–our scaffold:  In our pursuit of the connectedness of phenomena to each other and to our selves, DESCRIPTION  is a first strategy and the perspectives of ART and DEEP ethology can help with that and then guide our investigation of connections.   We can ask how our phenomenon of interest has been represented in the words or work of other people–ARTISTS in particular have the disposition and skills to represent their perceptions to the rest of us, but all of us are to some degree artists and we possess the advantage of first-person experience.   DEEP ethologists, then systematically assess the correlated phenomena–especially apparent causes and consequences–that  can be described with precision in terms that can be shared and mutually corroborated or validated: development, ecology, evolution, and physiology

Behavior that we seek to understand (in ourselves as well as in others) occurs at the place where answers to the disciplinary scaffold converge. Once there, we can ask

HOW DEEP can we go? Is that depth a degree of empathy? 

is becoming “one with anything” a steppingstone to becoming “one with everything”?  is that something science can do all by itself?

PHYSIOLOGY and EVOLUTION:  Looking at the neurological structures and processes strongly associated with empathy in intrinsically interesting but also provides important clues about disorders in which an excess or deficit might be involved.   For example    Mice seem to experience the pain and the relief of other mice, even when they themselves are not hurt, The Scientist reports. In multiple experiments, pairs of mice sharing the same cage acted as if they were in pain, exhibiting skin hypersensibility and lower tolerance to heat, even when only one received an irritating injection, researchers report this week in Science[i]. What’s more, when the mouse in pain received some soothing morphine, both mice behaved as if they were relieved. The study also found the same brain areas involved in empathic behavior in humans were activated in the mice. That suggests further research in mice could help scientists understand the neural circuits associated with empathy—and help develop treatments for conditions linked to its lack, such as narcissistic personality disorder and psychopathy.” (reported by By Sofia Moutinho inn Science (15Jan,  2021).  

Look at an interpretation of recent work on multi-level structure of EMPATHY by Smith et al 2021: (“How mice feel each other’s pain or fear,” by Klein and Gogolla, 2021), who investigated empathy in the brains of mice, showing structural/functional similarities with humans and thus providing evolutionary as well has physiological insight:  


Empathy, the adoption of another’s sensory and emotional state, plays a critical role in social interactions. Although, historically, empathy was often considered to be an affective-cognitive process experienced solely by humans, it is now appreciated that many species, including rodents, display evolutionarily conserved behavioral antecedents of empathy such as observational fear. It is therefore possible to begin to define the neural mechanisms that mediate behavioral manifestations of empathy in species that are optimal for application of modern circuit neuroscience tools.


In both humans and rodents, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) appears to encode information about the affective state of others. However, little is known about which downstream targets of the ACC contribute to empathy-related behaviors. To address this topic, we optimized a protocol for the social transfer of pain behavior in mice and compared the ACC-dependent neural circuitry responsible for this behavior with the ACC neural circuitry required for the social transfer of two related behavioral states: analgesia and fear. These behaviors exhibit a key component of empathy, the adoption of another’s sensory and affective state.


NEURO CONTEXT: (Anterior cingulate and Nucleus accumbens)

Implicit bias here?  Violence understandably competes successfully for our attention compared to peaceful relations, when, in fact, they appear to co-exist in balance.  Does violence out pace cute puppy as clickbait? (is this a version Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”  ?–the opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina)

    • The connections between EMPATHY-OXYTOCIN-GENEROSITY:  Baraza & Zak (2009)  Provided “evidence that oxytocin is a physiologic signature for empathy and that empathy mediates generosity.”   Read on 



MIRROR NEURONS and EMPATHY?  A type of brain cell that is crucial for triggering fights is also activated in mice when they watch other mice fight. The findings suggest that these ‘mirror neurons’ “are actually able to sense or respond to another animal’s social experience”, says social neuroscientist Dayu Lin. Because these cells fire both when an animal observes a behaviour and when it performs that behaviour, some scientists have argued that they might be involved in complex social functions, such as empathy.  Nature | 4 min read  Reference: Cell paper  



More about EVOLUTION and EMPATHY:   

Read Lee Alan Dugatkin on Empathy in Nonhumans: Of Peter Kropotkin and Adam Smith

While Darwin’s colleague TH Huxley viewed evolution in terms Tennyson (1850) made famous (“nature red in tooth and claw”) as a bloody struggle for survival, Peter Kropotkin, proposed in 1902 that “mutual aid …” was of “the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution.”



[i] Social transmission of pain and relief.  “In mice, both pain and fear can be transferred by short social contact from one animal to a bystander. Neurons in a brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex in the bystander animal mediate these transfers. However, the specific anterior cingulate projections involved in such empathy-related behaviors are unknown. Smith et al. found that projections from the anterior cingulate cortex to the nucleus accumbens are necessary for the social transfer of pain in mice (see the Perspective by Klein and Gogolla). Fear, however, was mediated by projections from the anterior cingulate cortex to the basolateral amygdala. Interestingly, in animals with pain, analgesia can also be transferred socially.”  Science, this issue p. 153; see also p. 122