Independently Generated Relationships — What does Having Friends Really Mean?


Chuck on a high-water Lochsa River, Idaho, Spring 2011  (Allison Thomas photo)

For those that like to guess, you might think that writing down a complicated line like ‘Independently Generated Relationships’ is a complicated, professor-ese way of saying that you’ve got some mates.  And at some level, this is true.  But it also reflects on the neural process that one goes to pick those friends.  Do you pick friends based on position or status?  Or do you pick friends because they’re nice to you, or you find them funny?  One is belief-based, status-oriented thinking.   The second is extremely data-driven.

Likely, you might have met someone with whom you share a label with.  For me, in my youth, that would have been associated with the term ‘kayaker’.  I was a passionate whitewater buff from about 17 to 46.  I was fascinated with wild country, and those that also loved wild places.  But in the end, because of the inherent danger of the sport, for the most part, I ended up paddling with people I trusted and knew.  When your life is on the line running Class V, you need people that you know what they’ll do in a given situation.  And the only way you can build that is with strong, rational empathy.  You have to assess the information stream coming from that individual.  Labels don’t work.  It’s the type of  relationship that maximize validity — you’ve shared an experience with someone.  You know they can do it because you — no one else — watched them do it before.  It’s in your own brain.

Very often, independently generated relationships are performance-based.  If you’re crunching on a big project, and you need a critical part machined, if you’re an engineer, it doesn’t help to take a hierarchical position with your machinist — that somehow, they’re a lesser person than you.  If you’ve developed a strong trust relationship with that person, it’s very likely that you’ve seen their work.  You know their sense of timescale.  Likely that you’ve also treated them in an egalitarian fashion.  And if you’ve done the empathetic relational work, it’s also almost certain that the person, if they spot an error you’ve made, will communicate back to you what that error is.  One of the key signs of relationships that maximize validity is duplex communication and confirmation.  Both parties know the relationship is data-driven, and actively provide data in both directions.

That’s the thing about independently generated relationships — because of their duplex nature, they are fundamentally error-correcting.  You can’t make significant, complex technology without them.  If you’re building something like a commercial airplane, with a minimum of 300,000 parts, there is an inherent error rate that exists in its assembly.  And without a constant stream of feedback on what goes together and what doesn’t, you simply can’t get the bugs out.  The rareness of existence of that rational empathetic culture globally is one of the main reasons that commercial jets are built in only a handful of locations in the world.

And here’s the other thing.  In order to have a team of individuals design a plane, on a very basic level, they must also be rational.  At some level, every plane is different.  You need the lower levels of scaffolding: expert knowledge of materials and components; advanced algorithms for stress analysis and propulsion;  codes and inspections by the FAA.  All matter.  But without duplex information flow, it’s all for naught.  Too many exceptions.  Too many heuristics.

As one relates, so they think.  If you want rational people, they have to have rational relationships.  That describes a situation where some level of agency is required in order to develop the people to fulfill tasks requiring complex thinking.

Takeaways:  Independent relationships are built on data exchange, which leads to trust, differentiation (I’m good/not good at something someone else is good/not good at,) and agency — someone’s fundamental responsibility to themselves, that gives them the ability to act independently.  Friendships are a key type of independently generated relationship — but they’re not the only one.

Independently Generated vs. Externally Defined — Trust vs. Loyalty

Huangshan stairs

Endless stairs, Anhui Province/Huangshan, Anhui Province, China

One of the things that starts happening once you set up the relational dichotomy of independently generated, trust-based, data-driven relationships vs. externally defined relationships is that certain behaviors, thoughts and actions also clearly start falling in the various bins associated with these two fundamental empathetic/relational types.

One of the biggest is the difference between trust and loyalty.  Trust is inherently associated with something inside yourself, and ties itself back to data you’ve collected on the other person.  One can march down through the various idioms — trust is earned; trust is fragile; trust, once broken, is hard to regain.

Loyalty, though, is completely different.  No surprise that members of the military or government take loyalty oaths.  They are asked for explicit declarations of faith in institutions, or the people who are placed in authority by those institutions.  There’s many an infantryman who might have felt loyalty to their country, but did not trust their commanding officer.

It’s also interesting how it’s quite easy to pull up temporally dependent definitions of trust — as trust is fundamentally based on a data collection exercise.  It’s what we in the sciences call a time series — a fluctuating variable charted out over time.  Contrast that to loyalty — it’s what scientists and mathematicians call a binary scalar value.  Either you’re loyal to your country or not.  A loyal friend or not.  Loyal fan or not.  You can’t be sorta loyal, just like you can’t be sorta pregnant.

Words like this give insight and clues into how the brain processes different empathetic modes, and how different relational types either develop, or don’t develop timescales in the brain.  In the land of externally defined relationships, time seems not to have as much meaning to the individual.  Relationships, defined by the outside, elude control of a person.  Friendships, though, depend on time — calibrated by that time series of data known as trust.  And that creates interesting synchronization potentials in the brains of people that engage in that kind of relational development, that don’t exist at all in individuals immersed in organizations immersed in external definition.

One of my old girlfriends was Chinese.  She had lived an amazing, but tumultuous life, passing through the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tian’namen Square Incident (she was there) before emigrating to the United States.  “I am a very loyal woman,” she would tell me.  But I never felt she trusted me at all!

Takeaways:  There are many traits that naturally fall out under the Independent/External relationship dichotomy.  Trust and loyalty are just an example.  Trust depends on data and some rational process, loyalty depends on belief and emotion.  All corollaries can tell us important things about how the brain processes time — and that has enormous consequences for how we synchronize actions with others.

Further Reading:  Nothing better than the life of Musashi — a samurai turned Zen monk, who swings back and forth between both relational types.

What Do We Do in Absence of Specific Data?


Powell Plateau, Utah, Escalante/Grand Staircase

In the last blog post, we talked about externally defined relationships, and how, because of their belief-based empathetic characteristics, they shape the belief-based mind.  But how does it work, anyway?  Why do we have beliefs?  At some level, beliefs protect us and serve in many ways.  And the other fact is that they don’t burn up nearly as much valuable brain time or brain energy in their processing.

Let’s say you’re in a situation in a crowd, where someone has just had a heart attack.  He’s lying on the ground, and you’re trying to remember how to do CPR.  What’s the first thing you’re likely to do?  Get out an interview sheet, with 100 questions about individual backgrounds and experiences?  Gonna create that independently generated, data-driven, trust-based relationship?  By that time, the poor dude with the heart attack would likely be expired.

Or are you going to yell ‘Is there a Doctor in the house?’   In the words of Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow — a Nobel Prizewinner in Economics — this would be considered fast thinking.  Not much data processing — just a survival level call for help, for an authority that would hopefully know what they’re doing.  And it’s coming out of the limbic system.  You might look at the person stepping forward quickly and evaluate, especially if the potential patient is your friend.  Do they appear competent?  What’s their affect?  Are they lying to gain attention?  But beyond that, you’re probably pretty happy (think limbic system/ emotional empathy) and relieved (think emotional empathy again!) that someone stepped forward.

Do you have a thing for brunettes?  Love at first sight?  Another emotional empathetic, belief-based relationship, if not completely externally defined.  Or maybe it is?  Mom a brunette?  And hey, you know those engineers — always thinking this way or that.  Sometimes, we call these things stereotypes, if they’re negative.  Yet the vast majority of us use these constantly in navigating our society.  We don’t have time to do otherwise.

With many externally defined relationships, we cede authority or status based on institutions — and those institutions are either authority-based, or legally grounded.  More group, process-based decision-making.  Police have specific authority, granted by law, to detain you if they think a crime has been committed.  Physicians are granted a license to practice based on receiving a degree from a university, serving a residency, and taking a test.  All these mechanisms, once again, serve to maximize the reliability of your instant assessment — your belief — that this person knows what they’re talking about.

People with such titles also are often bound by executing certain algorithmic processes — step by step, agreed modes of doing things that have received scrutiny from experts/authorities.  Such institutions and processes are a necessary part of the scaffolding of modern society.  One of the more interesting examples of authorities generating an algorithm occurred at an oil refinery I was associated with.  A committee of engineers from across the industry had developed a code for welding on a pipe for gasoline while the pipe was still flowing gas.  Well-defined certification and algorithmic thinking allows a total stranger to cut open your chest if you have a heart attack and save your life.

At the same time that these institutions maximize reliability, we also find that they can be notoriously hard to change their ways when what they do doesn’t work any more.  And changing culture?  Not so simple.  Why that is so will be explored in the future — and believe it or not, it has to do with a fundamental hypothesis of this author on how empathetic development shapes the brain.

Takeaways:  Our lives are filled with relationship labels, based on beliefs, that function with a low level, or non-existent level of empathy.  These relationships are scaffolded by institutions, cultural perceptions, and faith in them rests primarily in the limbic part of the brain.  They utilize fast thinking, and enable us to navigate complex, modern society.  Their dominant social order is either an authoritarian power structure or a legalistic hierarchy, and they are heavily status-based.

External Relationships — WHAT we are

Picture Spot at Huangshan

Formal picture spot, under the Welcoming Pine — Yellow Mountain (Huangshan), Anhui Province, China

塞翁失马,焉知非福。(sàiwēngshīmǎ, yānzhīfēifú.)

Above, in Chinese characters, is a classic chengyu — a short, Chinese idiomatic expression telling a story.  This is the one about the old man who lost a horse.  The village people came up to him.   “What bad news, Wong!”  He replied, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”  The next day, his horse came back, with another horse.  The townspeople once again returned — “Good news, bad news, who knows?” he said.  And so the story goes on.

So it is when we talk about empathy and relationships.  When you arrange empathetic levels in a pyramid, inevitably someone will want to claim a higher status because of an ostensibly more evolved viewpoint.

But empathetic levels simply are.  And it may be true that as one evolves, one’s capacity for understanding (as we will see) can expand, there’s no guarantee. Relationships happen in the context of other relationships.  Good news, bad news — who knows?

And that the context that one must understand externally defined relationships.  Externally defined relationships, by the inherent virtue of being defined by others, are not as dependent on empathy, and so are typically characterized by the lower empathetic modes.  A policeman, father, mother.  All of these have defined roles in society.  Most externally defined relationships apply to an individual in the singular, and gain context only in the framework of a power structure or a hierarchy.  Armies and Navies are famous for their hierarchies, of course, but universities are not far behind.  Someone with a title speaks with authority invested in them by their status in society.

Culture, which simply defined, is a set of shared beliefs that have evolved inside a community of individuals, be that a region, state, or nation, often defines these external relationships.  Asian culture, for example, is replete with codes for managing the parent-child relationship, to the point where there are volumes of books on filial piety and its effects on society.  Position and authority are both regulated and protected, though, by external codes — some very complex — that modulate privilege.

But when you boil it down, they rest on belief.  You believe that a police officer is enforcing the law because that is their external definition in society.  You believe a mother provides care to her children because she is a mother.  You believe that when a father punishes or rewards his child, he is doing the right thing — because he is the father.  You believe the physicist knows what she is talking about because she is the authority on the subject area.

What becomes obvious is that all these definitions are based on often complex mental models of how people see the world, which is directly related to information exchange in society.  And these mental models are designed by society to rest heavily in your limbic system.  If a cop says ‘Put your hands up!’  you feel a knot in your stomach and you obey.  If your mother says ‘I love you!’ you feel a warm wash of reassuring emotion.  You’re not supposed to process so much.  You just do.

Takeaways:  External defined relationships, though they may be associated with actions that an individual has taken (like earning a degree), are assigned outside the individual.  A judge says that you are husband and wife.  A university says you are a graduate.  They are accompanied by shared mental models on what these relationships mean — and as such, are fundamentally belief-based constructs.

Two Types of Relationships

uncle al

Uncle Al, Braden and Conor

It follows directly that empathy, of whatever developed variety, is the foundation of all relationships — because relationships, by definition, involve the communication and inter-relational coordination of two people.

It them makes sense to explore how different levels of empathy play in the relational dynamic, and how they then construct the social/relational structures of broader communities.  At some level, there is an inherent premise in all this — that relationships between individuals have larger structural effects as social structures are created.  In the fractal/chaos theory world that I used to play in over thirty years ago, this principle is called self-similarity.  Social structures on a large scale are self-similar to those constructed at the small scale.

There would be a whole lot of unpacking to do if I intended to resolve every potential contradiction here (for those that are immediately interested, look up multi-fractals) but the short version is that things might be different in a branch office than the way things work at corporate headquarters.  So bear with me.

A useful dichotomy, relationship-wise, is what I call externally-defined relationships vs. independently generated, trust-based, data-driven relationships.

The first — externally defined relationships — are defined outside the individual.  Whether you think I’m brilliant or a kook, the reality is that, barring unforeseen professional catastrophe, I’ll wake up and still be a professor tomorrow.  And if you’re a project manager, art director, or chief cook and bottle washer, tomorrow you’ll wake up and that’s WHAT you’ll be.  You could also be a father, a mother, or any of a variety of labels.  Like Grandma always said — you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your relatives.

Independently generated, trust-based, data-driven relationships are different.  At some level, you get to choose these.  One of the simplest is in front of you right now.  You read my blog, you decide if it makes sense, maybe you leave a comment.  I respond back — perhaps you didn’t quite understand something I was talking about.  Or I got something wrong.  I fix it.  Back and forth.  Over time, we develop trust based on the experience.  It’s a data-driven exercise

The first kind of relationship — I’m a professor, you’re a project manager — is belief-driven.  As a professor, you believe what I say because of my title.  Or not.  I’m a mechanical engineering professor, and as such, you might think I have no business discussing social psychology.  So you don’t read the argument.

The second kind of relationship — Chuck (that’s me) and whatever your name is — is data driven.  You’re making a series of decisions on whether you believe what I say, or find value in it, based on the argument itself.  Does it jibe with your experience?  Am I just flat-out wrong?

Whichever it is (and there’s no question that these two types overlap — my students, for example, call me Dr. Chuck) will dictate how your mind works around me, and in the context of the relationship.  How we relate is how we think.

Takeaways:  Two kinds of relationships — externally defined, and independently generated.  The first is belief-based, the second data-driven.  How we relate is how we think.

Global Empathy (Part I)

wallowasfrom the top of Aneroid Peak, looking toward Pete’s Peak, Wallowa Mountains, Oregon

Global empathy ain’t easy.  One thing that I haven’t told you is that one of the ways the Empathy Pyramid works is that you yourself have to have some level of integral generation of self in order to move on up, if you consider populations of humans in anything resembling a statistical fashion.  What that means is that it’s hard to be rationally empathetic (or rather, display cognitive empathy) without development of the lower levels (emotional or affective empathy.)

And what that leads to is a ceiling in my own ability to theorize — because I’m not there yet when it comes to global enlightenment.  I’m sure that there are some folks out there (I think the Dalai Lama comes to mind, or Desmond Tutu) that are, but it’s not me.  Most days, I feel like I’m just another blind dude with the elephant.

And global empathy is also likely (I’m guessing here) a field effect.  It’s more likely in possession of groups of connected individuals, as opposed to one person.  There’s an interesting phenomenon called the Overview Effect that has  been reported by former astronauts and cosmonauts.  The basic idea is that seeing the Earth from a distant perspective profoundly changes your sense of connection.  And I have theories that I will expound on why this is true — bottom line is empathetic development is a function of temporal and spatial scales in the brain, facilitated by your base energetics (gotta pay attention to the laws of thermodynamics) and there’s nothing that grows your spatial scales like being in space.  But you don’t have to fly in a spaceship to connect to feelings en masse.

Because these kinds of experiences affect all of us, even if in a lesser fashion.  I found out not too long ago that before the space program, all representations of the Earth — pictures of the globe — never had clouds.  Now, since that famous picture of Earthrise, it’s hard to think of the Earth without an atmosphere.

But there are likely other examples of global empathy that might be deconstructed.  Because when one’s brain is limited in developing an a priori model, perhaps the best method for understanding the phenomenon is to back it out of larger examples.  Like the foreboding a country might share before a war.  Or the exuberance of winning the World Cup.  How does that work?

We might look at the Internet itself — our only true global technology — for insights.

But one thing I’m not interested in doing in this blog is attributing global empathy to some extra-dimensional spiritual dimension.  There’s plenty to unpack here with regards to the phenomenon in the four dimensions available to us (don’t forget time!)  Sometimes it’s OK to say ‘well, I just don’t know.’  And leave people to the interpretations that work for them.

Takeaways:  Global empathy is real, and if we work on it, can explain things like national mood, as well as things like the Overview Effect.  We can see its effects, even if we can’t understand the mechanisms.  And with regards to mechanisms, let’s keep it real, even if it has to be phenomenological.  No extra dimensions need to apply.  We can be comfortable without answers.

Rational Empathy (Part II) — Or Nothing Says ‘I Love You’ Like a Dark Shadow on your Door


Mt. Sauvegarde, in the Spanish Pyrenees

One of the most interesting parts of my life has been watching how my students in the capstone class I teach complete project after project.  Allow me to explain.

About 21 years ago, I jumped up on a table like a good Viking and said “my students need industrial experience!”  I was in charge of teaching essentially the exit class for the mechanical engineering undergraduate curriculum, called ‘capstone design’ in education-ese.  Students had been doing a variety of activities beforehand for their supposed ‘masterwork’ — like helping other professors design a piece of lab equipment, or working on one of the many projects associated with student club activities, like a Baja car, or one of the American Society of Mechanical Engineering’s (ASME) challenge.  The only real requirements were a.) the students were supposed to work in groups, and b.)  the project had to have something to do with mechanical engineering.

Professors complained — students are worthless, they can’t get anything done.  Students complained — professors are worthless, no one does anything, this is jumping through hoops.  (That last expression is a favorite.)

So I swore an oath — only ‘real’ projects.  Projects from industry.  I went out and solicited those real projects from past grads whom I kept in touch with.  They sent descriptions, I said ‘thank you’.  The students attempted to do the projects.  Basically, all of them failed.

At the time, it didn’t matter.  Students were screwing up projects inside the university.  Why should it be any different?  It was still something good for the resume’.

I had a good friend, an ex-student who had gone to work for the ARCO refinery in Bellingham, WA refinery.  He had told his engineering supervisor about what I was trying to do.  That engineering supervisor wanted to talk to me.  I called him up.  His name was Les Okonek.

“I want you to visit the refinery.  I have a project for you.”  The project involved a junket — a trip to Bellingham.  What’s not to like?

I met Les, and we put on the Nomex safety jumpsuits that are de rigeur in an oil refinery, and took the tour.  We returned to his office.  “I’ve got a project for you,” he said.  “Yes,” I replied.  “Sounds great!”

He then said “Oh no — I’m going to pay you for it.”  I gulped.  Students — undergraduate students — were going to do something for money?  Those same failures that were tubing projects on a regular basis?  “The kids have to come to the refinery,” Les said.  “And I’m going to expect you to get it done.”

Basically no one gets anything done in academia.  That’s not what it’s about.

But the students did.

I wish I could tell you I had a flash of brilliance at that moment on why the students got that first project done.  And with consecutive industrial projects, why — when I charged money — all the others got done.  But here’s the short version.

I had a customer.  And I did not want to let that customer down.  I call it the ‘Catholic Guilt’ effect.  But it was more than that.  I wanted to develop my program.  I had a person willing to take a risk with me — he trusted me.  I wanted to show him that his trust was not misplaced.  If he felt bad, I was going to feel bad — that’s empathetic connection.

And that kind of situation exercises the whole brain.  Not only did that customer need a product that was technically viable (think pre-frontal cortex,) I had to worry about whether that customer was happy (think limbic system.)  The students were the ones front and center, in that they had to go to the refinery and also develop a rational empathetic relationship with Les.  Les did more than one thing right, but the big thing he did was at some level, he refused to directly mentor them.  He was the customer — the students had to do the thinking — and empathizing.  And in the end, the solution the students generated had to be coherent with what Les also thought the solution should be — or he wouldn’t be happy.  They had to achieve a goal, and they had to develop shared coherence with Les on the fact that the achievement was significant.  And everyone had to be happy.

The customer/service provider is one of the most powerful relationships we have in contemporary society.  Many folks outside the business sector simply cannot understand why corporations have such powerful influence.  The usual accusations are that it’s all about greed, or money or evil.

But it’s more complicated than that.  Rational empathy — the bedrock of the customer/provider relationship — is a major creator of the rational mind.  It exercises all parts of the brain.  Note that I did not say, necessarily, that it is the creator of our moral mind or sense.  It is not.  But truly rational people become multi-solution thinkers, and form far different social/relational structures than people who are not.  And because they are usually much more performance/goal oriented than many other social structures, they often get to the point of running the show.

There is a lot more in empathetic development to be explained regarding this development.  Stay tuned.

(a quick tip of the hat for the title to another business friend — Phil Ohl, of Kurion)

Takeaways:  Rational empathy is, in contemporary society, a chief constructor of the rational mind.  And in contemporary society, it is the customer/provider relationship that is its key developer.  There is no better way to develop that relationship than going to visit, as there is basically no substitute for the experience of meeting someone face-to-face when it comes to developing an independent relationship.

Rational Empathy — Part I


Photo:  Coral Trekker — a sailing ship in the Whitsunday Islands off the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

As we move on up the Empathy Pyramid, we come to the first empathy level that really only showed up in force about 500 years ago.  Now I’ll be the first to tell you — all the empathetic levels have been around forever– kind of waiting to be unlocked in a case of secrets — but in order to become a primary force in society, a critical number of people have to embody them.

Rational empathy is kind of a nested version of what’s called cognitive empathy  by researchers (that link is a paper I’m gonna have to get back to review!)  and embodies all three types of empathy.  Folks in psychology like to call it “place taking”, and that’s an interesting thing to explore.  Namely, because place-taking itself requires some interesting components to be actualized.  First — it involves true consequentiality — it exercises the ‘what if?’ part of your brain, as well as embodying a dynamic, as opposed to static, sense of time.  Second, it requires the beginnings of differentiation and self- separation — the person across from me isn’t me, and I can’t approach what they want from an egocentric perspective.  Finally, it requires of the brain multiple levels of integrated explicit data processing.  If you’re going to have rational empathy, you have to take in the immediate information from that person’s face, and either mirror it back to make them feel comfortable (think about how you’d feel if you were sitting across from someone who was feeling sad, and you were smirking); you’d have to process the information on how they feel (are they happy/sad/etc.); and finally, you’ve got to listen to what they want so they’ll feel that potentially their needs are getting met, or their viewpoint is being heard.

To meet all those things, they also have to react to how you feel and think.  That can go back and forth — and as such, rational empathy is the first primary duplex (two-way) communication mode.

When you sit down to explain a complex idea to someone, you’re going to watch their face and their body language.  And it’s going to take some time.  But here’s the amazing thing.  When you get through that exchange, you both will have the same story.  Rational empathy is a powerful force for information coherence, and is a baseline of higher sentient thought.  You just dump a story on someone, and don’t consider how they feel, there’s no guarantee that what they will tell someone will be what you actually told them.

But when you exercise rational empathy, the odds that your stories are the same starts climbing.

Rational empathy is the backbone of the client/customer relationship, as well as what’s being called ‘design thinking’.  For the math geeks out there, it is the first consistently meta-nonlinear phenomenon, and as a nonlinear phenomenon, opens up all sorts of interesting things in how the social structures that use it process information.  More later!

Takeaways:  rational empathy is the backbone of two-way/duplex communication between sentient agents.  Because it involves both feeling and logical processing, it is the first real whole-brain empathy mode.  It is the foundation of a sophisticated client/customer relationship and what’s being called design thinking.

Further reading:  the Wikipedia page on design thinking is worth reviewing — and will set you up to understand how empathy is applied — even though  they barely mention empathy.  Why that is will be explored…

Is Finer Better? And All We Need is Love — and a Little Crocodile Empathy

Caimans -- Pantanal, Brazil

Caimans — Pantanal, Brazil

If you ask any respectable neuroscientist, they’ll tell you it’s an outdated model — the idea of the triune (three-part) brain, originally developed by Dr. Paul MacLean.  Part of the reason has to be the fMRI, that tool that shows the finer neural structures, enables that endless march of reliability and refinement mentioned earlier, and the fact that when you’ve got a big hunk of something, there has to be more meaning in the details.  But if you respond to authority, though, the famous astronomer and science popularizer, Carl Sagan liked the triune brain enough to write a book about it — The Dragons of Eden.

Here’s the short version.  The brain has three primary groupings, that followed evolutionarily — the so-called reptilian complex, the paleomammalian cortex, and the neomammalian cortex.  The idea is that as the brain evolved, we moved as individuals from automatic-functioning reptiles, to nursing, attachment-based mammals, to thinking primates with big prefrontal cortexes (cortices?)

To be completely honest, I haven’t read Dr. MacLean’s nor Sagan’s book.  But I doubt that they paid much more than a passing mention to empathy.  There are reasons for that that we’ll get to. And while I love the model, I hate the names.  Anyone that’s seen the dude on the Internet that has a crocodile as a pet knows that something’s going on there connection-wise.  That croc has got more than the reptilian complex.  It’s more than mirroring behavior, and probably more than just a little emotional empathy.  It’s trans-species, but even folks that have dogs get a little nervous when you throw a reptile into the mix.

One of the things that we’re really uncomfortable with are evolutionary ideas or paradigms.  We’re still fighting over whether humans were created in a day about 6000 years ago, or emerged from proto-humans on the plains of Africa over 1.6 million years ago. And people who might even be comfortable with evolution still want to refer to the accepted randomness of it all — that arbitrary mutations were naturally selected by large, natural forces to create fitter and fitter organisms, that apparently we happen to luckily be on the top of the heap right now.  At least for us.

But here’s a new concept — that what we’re really seeing (even though it takes a really long time!) is the organization of sentience.  And that sentience takes lots of different forms — from fish, to crocodiles, to humans.  And that sentience is somehow optimized when you group semi-autonomous agents together and balance the exchange of information between those agents.  There are powerful forces of self-organization that take hold.  This isn’t some kind of spiritual mumbo-jumbo, either.  Lots of different insects, when certain resource and spatial concerns pass thresholds, self-organize in all sorts of interesting ways.

All those individual agents are still subject to evolutionary forces, of course.  Imagine it as a race track, where there are a bunch of packs of animals lined up at the starting line of present time, and the gun fires.  Some of the animals have immediate advantage in self-organization — their size, brains/intelligence, and such favor coordination, and they rapidly take off.  They’re in what might known as their ‘In Group’.  And because that exchange of information is so important for pack survival, their empathetic abilities grow over time.  Because that’s what you really need for coordination of all your agents.  It’s a  sensor web, optimizing as time passes.

Some animals are handicapped in this evolutionary race.   They have neither brains nor behaviors that encourage evolutionary empathetic connection, nor adaptability, or maybe only do so modestly.  Exactly how this handicapping works might find a more accessible physical analogy in Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Panda’s Thumb.  In the titular essay, the author, an evolutionary biologist, made the point that a sesamoid bone — a minor bone that grows embedded in tendon or muscle — was the bone that grew in size until it turned into the giant panda’s thumb — not a well-formed thumb at all, but one the evolved as the animal, a large bear, turned more and more to a bamboo diet.

We humans probably had a little luck in having the right combination of size, need for coordination, and resources in our evolutionary journey for emergent brain function that required empathy.  Our brains, with their structure, likely favored our transition to processing-in-software that we see in our pre-frontal cortex, than the processing-in-hardware of our limbic and cerebellar and autonomic nervous systems.  Empathetic connection, as we will discuss, played heavily on all the data processing that developed even further the pre-frontal cortex.  Never forget that developing empathetic connection requires tremendous amounts of data processing — basic empathy involves watching other sentient beings just like you, taking the data, processing it, and then reacting or acting in either an automatic and/or socially acceptable and pro-active ways.  And brains are no different than any other organ — it’s use-it or lose-it.  Make no bones about it — empathetic connection (especially rational empathy — stay tuned) develops the rational mind.

But an interesting thing happened back at the race track.  Our empathetic connection abilities jumped out of the pack.  We broadened our definition of what an ‘In Group’ might look like.  We roped dogs, horses, cows, and even cats onto our team.  From the beginning, tribal social structures found empathetic connection of varying degrees with an assortment of animal animuses. As we develop even in the current era, our software and social organizations create empathetic connections to all sorts of species, all over the planet.  Though imperfect, we pass Endangered Species Acts, and biodiversity initiatives.  Through empathetic sharing networks of our own creation, we started realizing the importance of all of these beings.  And some of them, that have the capacity, have reconnected back to us.

Yeah, it’s not true for all humans.  It may be that it’s not true for ENOUGH humans.  But anyone that doesn’t believe that this can happen needs to go meet Jane Goodall.

If there’s a simple point, it’s this.  Evolution and empathy go hand-in-hand.  The more connections we make, the better.  The more profound connections, the even-better better.  And at the same time that we appreciate the evolution of our own neural structures, we need to also understand that others’ neural structures are also evolving, and that the forces of self-organization and information coherence are also at play in the evolutionary picture.  And while there may be random elements at play, and the biological structures are not quite the same, they are definitely not arbitrary.

But sentience follows a clear path — though the steps along the path may not be transparent, nor constant.  Sentience is rewarded through integration of greater and greater amounts of information, with greater coherence and error detection.

That’s the real lesson of the triune brain.

Takeaway:  Sentience is evolutionary, and the self-organization that it prompts is a guiding principle in evolution.  Ostensibly independent agents will coordinate behavior, and evolve brains that allow coordination of behavior to gain evolutionary advantage.  And when they get to a certain point, they’ll leap out of the ‘only our species matters’ box and bring other sentient beings along — if they have any sense.

I Feel, You Feel — Emotional Empathy

conorcinderJust a brief note before we get started — one of the beauties of being a mechanical engineering professor writing about empathy is that I don’t have to hold to any particular conventions.  I can slice and dice behavior as I see fit, and can pay as much tribute to the psychological literature as I like.

This is kind of the way I feel about what I call emotional empathy.  Emotional empathy, as I define it, is the next level up in emergent brain function that comes from connecting with another sentient agent at the limbic system level.  The limbic system is the next hunk of gray matter we evolved on top of our autonomic nervous system and cerebellum.  In the Triune theory of the brain (which we will discuss later) this is the poorly named neomammalian cortex — responsible for our emotions and basic attachment behavior.  Emotional empathy also typically works on short time and spatial scales — you see someone crying, you feel bad, and you attempt to comfort them.  You hear a baby hollering, you pick it up, soothe it, and then after some modestly predictable time, the baby is happy and you put it back in its crib.  Or something — depends on what that baby wants.

Emotional empathy has a lot in common with what the psychological literature calls affective empathy, which is the usual separation of types of empathy that that particular set of researchers makes.  The main point of difference is that emotional empathy is scaffolded on top of mirroring behavior in my way of thinking.  What this means is the emotional empathy includes not just the effects of the limbic system (you feel happy when someone is happy, sad when someone is sad,) but is also triggered by those deeper reactions to facial gestures and body motions that characterize mirroring behavior.  This is yet another byproduct of emergent differentiation that was introduced previously.  In short, emotional empathy involves coupling between the limbic and lower brain systems.

Emotional empathy is also likely a meta-linear phenomenon.  What that means is that it also displays behavior that we associate with linear systems — namely exponential roll-off, some type of amplification (or attenuation) and delay in response.  You can obviously have emotional empathy triggered by a phone call, or contact.  But it’s also much more likely to work in person.  And the coherence that empathy generates is also much more likely to be predictable in time scale among large groups of people.  You know how long it’s likely you’re going to have to help out your friend through empathizing.  Emotional empathy, while involving two parties, is also primarily simplex in nature — the communication is going one way while it’s happening, and that has implications on social structure, which we’ll get back to.

Emotional empathy and mirroring behavior from my observations comprise the majority of empathetic responses that most people feel.  And I’d like to talk some more, but I have to pat my dog.  This should only take a few minutes!

Takeaways:  Emotional empathy has a lot in common with affective empathy — the sharing of emotions between people.  It helps to be in the same room, though.

Further reading: This is one way of unpacking some ideas I’ll present later.  We’ll come back to this for a more systemic explanation.