New Developments in Neuroscience and Psychoanalysis: Doug Watt
“Empathy and Its Discontents” – Empathy and the Prosocial Brain
New Developments in Neuroscience and Psychoanalysis Series
This exciting online series hosted by the Neuropsychoanalysis Association showcases the cutting-edge knowledge that is currently emanating from neuroscientific disciplines and the field of psychoanalysis. The series includes presentations from leading authorities that will enhance neuropsychoanalytic understanding, while at the same time inspire our multidisciplinary community. The series will demonstrate the amazing variety of topics that are relevant to the fascinating field of neuropsychoanalysis.
Douglas Watt, Ph.D.
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In the 17 years since we published our first review of empathy, much has changed, most particularly the level of attention empathy gets both in scientific probes and in popular treatments, going from a position of relative neglect around the turn of the century to currently very much in the spotlight. Unfortunately, there are still difficult terminological controversies about how to define empathy, particularly whether empathy (as affective resonance) is truly distinct from compassion and prosocial helping behavior. Prosocial behavior can also emerge from affective theory of mind, ethics, reputation management/social display/fear of censure, etc. Empathy may be best defined by a complex triangle of relationships between theory of mind/perspective taking, affective resonance/contagion, and prosocial motivation/caring. This triangle is complex, with these processes having different timetables in development, and uncertain regulation of their synergism and mutual recruitment.
We will review the functional imaging of empathy, with the caveat that neural network correlations cannot provide full understanding of empathic phenomena. Methodologically sound imaging probes reliably outline different network correlates outside classic mirror neuron regions (often misconstrued as substrates for empathy), showing paralimbic insular and cingulate activation. While empathy was initially modeled as ‘quasi-automatic’, it has several classes of modulating variables – phenomena that both promote and inhibit that we will outline. Empathy also shows principal disorders, and we will discuss two of the most important of these – sociopathy and psychopathy. Sociopathy, psychopathy, and closely related pathological narcissism appear heavily overlapping concepts with fundamental commonalities in terms of grandiosity and a ‘low empathy phenotype’.
One critical regulator of empathy receives inadequate attention relative to its central importance – the universal, highly conserved process of human tribalism, a necessarily interdisciplinary concept sitting in the borderlands between psychology, sociology and history. Work in preverbal children suggests that we are more inclined, perhaps even at a genetically conserved level, to treat others we see as ‘like us’ more kindly than those we see as ‘different from us’ – suggesting a built-in potential for “Us vs. Them” biasing, acting as a primary modulator of empathy. Tribalism also appears to incorporate grandiosity (‘my tribe is the best tribe’), and dominance striving as paired intrinsic/emergent properties. Fulminant or ‘grievance’ tribalism often incorporates a disturbing blindness towards sociopathy/psychopathy in tribal leaders. This conjoining of aggrieved tribes with sociopathic leadership may explain the current slide towards authoritarianism around the world. It is also the recurrent pathway into both genocide and terrorism, as the most destructive and violent forms of bias against the ‘Different Other,’ reflecting dehumanization of and a total failure of empathy for the Other.
Of deep concern is the possibility that we are now in ‘evolutionary discordance’ – that what was adaptive in our prehistory and even ancient history, and selected to promote survival of dominant tribes, cities and nation states is now a formula for the potential destruction of all the tribes, in an era of climate change and nuclear weapons. Evidence for optimism is modest, but concepts of universal human rights – cognized extensions of empathy and basic social reciprocity – are our best hope. Such emphases can synergize with delimiting ‘motivated disinformation’ and much more ‘intra-tribal’ skepticism about and limit setting of psychopathic populists. Delimiting child abuse and neglect remain our most potent pro-empathy interventions over the long term – as these prevent common psychopathic genotype-to-phenotype transitions, reduce grievance tribalism (due to the displacement processes typically energizing violent political ideologies), and promote ‘golden rule’ behaviors through the entire lifecycle.
Dr Douglas Watt was trained in psychology and neuropsychology at Harvard University and Boston College, completing his PhD studies in 1985 after getting a BA in 1972 at Harvard and a Master’s Degree in Psychology at Northeastern in 1976. Over the past 40 years of a varied clinical practice, he has served as Director of Clinical Neuropsychology at two local Boston teaching hospitals, and has been on the faculty of the Boston University School of Medicine for more than 20 years. He was also a faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis and Institute for the Study of Violence for several years, teaching doctoral level courses on affective neuroscience and its implications for the mental health sciences. He had a teaching and community faculty appointment at Harvard Medical School for seven years, teaching a yearly course for postdoctoral fellows, neurologists, psychiatrists, and neuropsychologists in clinical neuroscience, neuroanatomy, and neurodegenerative disorders in Cambridge MA from 2007 until June of 2013, and also an Adjunct Professor appointment at Lesley University, also in Cambridge, MA, teaching behavioral neuroscience and biological psychology in their graduate school program in psychology.
He suffers, as one colleague described, from a “deplorable excess of interests”. He has always believed in the value of the ‘big picture overview’, and credits Marcel Mesulam with providing a lucid model early in his career for benchmark scientific reviews of complex and challenging subjects, when he was exposed in his doctoral program to the brilliant first chapter by Marcel in his 1985 classic textbook, Principles of Behavioral Neurology. This cemented a long-term interest in both clinical neuroscience and in scientific writing. Committed to teaching and the clarification of scientific concepts and findings, he has given over 100 talks to local, national, and international groups on clinical syndromes in neuropsychiatry and neuropsychology, and on topics in cognitive and affective neuroscience. He has contributed roughly 80 peer-reviewed articles and reviews, and over a half dozen book chapters, on varied subjects in neuroscience and neurobiology, covering the biology of aging, the neurobiology and neuropsychology of depression, the neurobiology of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative dementias, and the neurobiology of delirium and confusional states. He counts as one of the great privileges of his professional career a 2+ decades-long collaboration and friendship with preeminent neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, with whom he shared many projects, including many affective neuroscience seminars, a half-dozen or more publications, and an edited volume on the neurobiology and psychology of empathy, published by Nova Science just before Jaak’s untimely death in 2017.
CPD credits: 2
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