May 2, 2008    Psychology

Empathy and Female Brains

I’ve always believed that male and female brains were biologically different from the day we were born. Now that I have a child of my own and see many of her friends grow up, it is hard to imagine how anyone could deny the difference. I have been so vocal about the gender differences that many of my friends think I am a sexist. I became so used to it that it doesn’t bother me anymore. Given this reputation of mine, one would assume that I would agree with everything stated in the book “The Essential Difference” by Simon Baron-Cohen, which explores the difference between male and female brains. To my surprise, I found myself disagreeing with him in a fundamental way.

At the very beginning of the book, Baron-Cohen defines his theory succinctly as follows:

“The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”

Now the big question is: What does he mean by “empathy” and “systems”? I find both terms to be problematic, but the former is where I had real problems. Here is his definition of empathy:

“Empathizing is the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion. Empathizing does not entail just the cold calculation of what someone else thinks and feels (or what is sometimes called mind reading). Psychopaths can do that much. Empathizing occurs when we feel an appropriate emotional reaction, an emotion triggered by the other person’s emotion, and it is done in order to understand another person, to predict their behavior, and to connect or resonate with them emotionally.”

Here he separates empathy into two components. I’ll label them empathetic ability and empathetic capacity. He is saying that one’s ability to read other people’s emotional cues alone does not make her empathetic. She must also be capable of connecting and resonating with the other person. I would argue that these two aspects of empathy are independent of one another, and the latter, the empathetic capacity, is not biological, and is entirely learned. I would agree that, on the average, women do have better empathetic abilities, but Baron-Cohen assumes that women’s empathetic capacities correlate to their empathetic abilities. That is, he assumes that women are superior in both aspects, and he provides no argument for why both should correlate.

When I was in high school, I read a poem that went something like this: A mother was crying inconsolably for days after her child died. Many people tried to console her, but she did not even raise her head. One day, another woman approached her, and soon the mother stopped crying and raised her head. It turned out that the woman had lost three of her own children.

I think this story aptly illustrates what emotional capacity truly is. It is not something we are born with. I do not think that our capacities to empathize vary by gender, or by any other biological factors for that matter, because it comes down to what we have experienced in our own lives. Any empathy we try to offer which is beyond our true capacities would only be theoretical.

Here is a more mundane example of empathetic capacity: Suppose you are a talented computer programmer working for a manager who does not know anything about programming. Typically in this scenario, your achievement would never truly be appreciated. Even if this manager were an empathetic person, she would not have the capacity for true empathy. No matter how amazing a feat that you achieved, her understanding of it would only be theoretical, and she would simply have to take your word for it, which is not very satisfying. It is likely that sooner or later, you would start to feel misunderstood or under-appreciated, and would crave for someone who could truly appreciate what you have achieved. In this manner, there are many such situations where one must understand a single subject deeply in order to be able to empathize truly and appropriately. This understanding, again, comes from your experience, not from your biology.

If empathetic ability and empathetic capacity were to correlate, blind people who have no access to the visual cues to understand other people’s feelings would be less empathetic than the people with normal vision. Without conducting any research, we could see that this must be false. The means or the abilities to be empathetic do not determine the capacity for it.

I would say this is even true for those in the autistic spectrum. Baron-Cohen defines autistic brains to be the extreme male brains. They might be blind to the cues of emotions, but this does not mean that their empathetic capacity is any less. It would depend on their life experience. Given the fact that many autistic people suffer from various disabilities, I would be tempted to argue that their capacity to empathize is greater than normal. We need to keep in mind that just because someone is capable of empathy, does not mean that he can effectively or appropriately act on it, and vice versa.

Another problem I see with Baron-Cohen’s definition of empathy is that people have multiple feelings that contradict one another. Accurately understanding other people’s feelings would mean that you understand all of the conflicting feelings; it can’t just be one of them. But the problem is that there is no way to establish the accuracy because of the conflicting nature of these feelings. Suppose X is trying to perceive the feelings of Y, and suppose Y says X understood Y’s feelings accurately. Is that enough for us to say that X did indeed understand Y’s feelings accurately? Does Y even know his own feelings accurately? Wouldn’t Y be in a biased position to determine the accuracy? (Conflict of interest, so to speak.) It comes down to this fundamental question: What does accuracy mean when it comes to our emotions? Can the accuracy of emotions be measured?

For instance, when a woman asks, “Do I look fat?” there are two conflicting feelings in her. On the one hand, she wants to know the truth, but on the other hand, she does not want to know the truth because it would hurt. Most people feel more empathetic towards the latter feeling. So, their answer would be something like, “No, you look great!” In my younger days, I would typically reply, “Yes, you do look fat,” but I was perfectly aware of their conflicting feelings. I perceived them accurately just like everyone else, but I decided to tell the truth. In other words, the same accuracy can yield two opposite results. But people assumed that I was blind to their feelings. This means that our society has a bias towards our weaknesses. What we generally consider as an empathetic person is someone who panders to our weaknesses. Ironically, the “accuracy” itself is biased when it comes to feelings. “Empathy”, at least in the Western cultures, is your ability to forgive other people’s weaknesses, not your faith in other people’s strength. (This could in fact be a deeply ingrained Christian value.)

Interestingly enough, most people have double standards when it comes to dealing with their own children. So-called “tough love” involves forcing their children to face the truth where the parents upset the feelings of their children presumably for their own good. But when some other adults do the same to the parents, they are offended. In this manner, there is no sense of justice or fairness when it comes to our feelings. How could we expect our perceptions of emotions to ever be “accurate”?

Let’s think about why this bias towards our weaknesses exists. Our actions are most strongly influenced by our physical urges, like our urges to eat, sleep, and breathe. Our emotions come next, like love, hatred, joy, anger, etc.. The last, and the least influential, is our intellect or ideals, what we should be doing. For most of us, it takes a significant amount of effort to do the right thing in life because our emotions and bodies often tell us to do the wrong things. This must be the reason why our society is naturally biased towards people’s emotions. Those who easily forgive other people’s weaknesses are better liked and accepted in our societies, because we feel helpless over our emotions and physical urges. Even though our intellect has the least influence on our actions, we all respect people who can override their physical and emotional urges with their ideals. What we call “heroes” are usually those who are able to sacrifice their own lives for their ideals, like Jesus Christ. But again, this idea itself is an ideal, and our emotions can easily override it.

So, we live in a world where people are more kind to our emotions than they are to our ideals. If you want to get along in such a world, you have no choice but to do as the Romans do. Baron-Cohen obviously was very careful and sensitive about not depicting female brains as inferior to male brains. He tried to build a case for female brains being superior in empathizing. He also made sure that we understood how important and valuable empathy is. Unfortunately I was not convinced. I felt that his arguments painted a picture of male brains being superior overall. I simply cannot see that women are better empathizers.

Consider, for instance, the fact that the vast majority of religious and spiritual leaders, past and present, are men. Baron-Cohen frequently mentions the fact that the vast majority of top mathematicians, physicists, and engineers are men. This is used as an argument to support his theory that men are superior systemizers. If the same argument were to be used in the world of religion and spirituality, we would have to conclude that men are better empathizers also.

Unlike the world of business where you have little or no choice in who will be your boss, the vast majority of the people choose their own spiritual leaders on their own free will. Many of them even pay the leaders, the opposite of the business world. They follow their leaders because they feel that their leaders could understand their sufferings. They see their leaders to be super-empathizers. If we were to argue in the same way Baron-Cohen argued about mathematics, physics, and engineering, we would have to conclude that men are better empathizers too, because the top empathizers in the field of religion and spirituality are mostly men. You might think of Mother Teresa as the ultimate empathizer, but remember, she too had a male leader, the Pope.

Although the number of female spiritual leaders is significantly smaller than their male counterparts, one of the most powerful female leaders today is Oprah Winfrey. I do not think it is a coincident that she is black. I believe this is because black people symbolize suffering for many people. Again, this is an example of empathetic capacity coming from experience. We do not assume that black people are biologically more empathetic. We see Winfrey as a super-empathizer because we perceive her as someone who has overcome hardships greater than most of us have experienced.

There are people who are generally insensitive to other people’s feelings, but the same people can sometimes understand the kind of pain that you thought no one else would understand. I’ve known several people like this, and when I realized their depths of empathy, it came as a surprise. On the other hand, there are people who are sympathetic to everyone and for every little pain, but who fail to understand your deepest pain. It is hard to say which is superior. (If you have seen “American Idol”, think of the difference between Paula and Simon. The former hates to hurt anyone’s feelings, so she mostly says nice things. Simon on the other hand is brutally honest and hurts people all the time, but behind that brutality is a genuine care for the performers.) I don’t think empathy can be measured and compared as superior and inferior.

Let me suggest an alternative model, even though ultimately I do not believe that we would ever arrive at a flawless model in this area.

Instead of using “empathy” and “system”, I suggest we use “holistic” and “reductive”. Another alternative would be “macroscopic” and “microscopic”. My model isn’t actually too far from Baron-Cohen’s. In his book, he often uses the terms “generalist” and “specialist”. These are manifestations of seeing the world in a holistic or reductive way. An interesting parallel is East and West. Eastern medicine has a holistic approach; it never isolates a problem to a specific region, and rather than trying to target the problematic regions, it tries to strengthen the related regions. On the other hand, Western medicine is reductive, and is filled with specialists who know everything about their own specialties, but virtually nothing about anything else. They are largely blind to problems that cannot be isolated to a single region or cause. I personally experienced it when my liver failed. I think the whole Western medical world echoes the male brain structure where it lacks central coherence. The coordination of different departments is poor. From the perspective of a patient, they frequently miss the big picture, because they only see local details.

In Japan, when two businesses have disagreements, they see the purpose of the legal system as a way to arrive at a mutually agreeable compromise. It is not a system to determine who is right and who is wrong. Most people avoid lawsuits and try to settle outside the court. People who try to determine everything in terms of right and wrong, true and false, are often shunned. There is a deeply ingrained understanding in their culture that truth is subjective, and fundamentally indeterminate.

In my view, this is the difference between male and female brains. Men have a natural tendency to see everything in a reductive way, and women have a natural tendency to see everything in a holistic way. Both have their own pros and cons.

A reductive way of seeing the world motivates a person to be a specialist, whereas a holistic way of seeing the world motivates a person to be a generalist. The reason why men dominate the top of most specialized fields (including religion and spiritualism) is because they feel comfortable reducing everything to their particular interests. Their central coherence (the big picture) is weak enough that they can fool themselves into thinking that what they do is very important, and that there is no need to pursue anything else. Women have better central coherence, and they can’t see how a very narrow subject matter could be so important in life.

An interesting illustration of this is the story I heard on NPR about the differences between girls and boys. One mother was telling a story of how she used to turn everything into a competition in order to get her son to do anything. For instance, she would tell her son, “Let’s see how quickly you can clean up!” and start timing him. This would motivate the boy to clean up, but when she tried the same trick on her daughter, she simply responded, “Why?”

“Why” indeed. Men have a way of getting lost in a very narrow subject matter, and they are able to pursue it like it was an instruction from God. It is this ability of men to see their tasks at hand to have religious significance that allows them to be at the top of every field. Women simply cannot see how such a small aspect of life can be so important. Women tend to see significance on broad areas of their lives, especially family and children. They naturally desire balance and harmony in life. They see life as something fundamentally irreducible. This is why many women (and Eastern cultures) are interested in astrology. It echoes their way of looking at the world.

The downside (or not) of the holistic way of looking at life is that you are unlikely to be recognized in history, because what you do cannot be measured. A good business manager, for instance, is hard to find through interviews and tests, because there are no obvious signs. In comparison, a good computer programmer is relatively easy to spot. The same is true for good mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and chess players. Because of their reductive way of looking at the world, men are drawn to fields where achievements are easy to define in black and white terms. History normally records extremities, so anyone who has a holistic view of life is unlikely to be recorded. I’ve always said that women shouldn’t complain about the lack of women recognized in history because history itself is overrated. History is essentially a record of boys trying to see who can clean up the fastest.

You might ask: How about philosophers? True: Their preoccupation is asking big questions, and the field of philosophy is also dominated by men. As big as their questions might be, they are still microscopic and reductive. They believe that thinking about life, trying to figure out life logically, and doing nothing but that, has religious significance. No difference from any other men. In a way, philosophy is men’s coping mechanism for their lack of intuitive understanding of what life is. Many women understand life intuitively; they don’t need to sit in an armchair and think about it. Philosophy is the best that men can do to cope with the fundamentally irreducible thing called life.

What about artists? You might ask. Here, it helps to think about art and artists separately. If art itself were too reductive, it would become boring. Arguably, some political art, for instance, have this problem. There is a definite message that you are supposed to get, and once you get it, it’s over; there isn’t anything more to get. It’s more like graphic design. But there are many different ways to be reductive in art, and it clearly helps in terms of getting recognized in history.

Jackson Pollock, for instance, is arguably the most famous and symbolic of the Abstract Expressionism. Why? I would argue that it is because he reduced the underlying concept of Abstract Expressionism to the extreme. Other artists of that movement didn’t go as far as he did. Not only that, Pollock reduced his own life as an artist to the extreme too. I do not think I would be wrong to assume that he didn’t see anything else in life as important as art. A handy comparison is Lee Krasner, his wife and a great artist of her own right. She played a critical role in Pollock’s life and work. She obviously did not reduce her own life as far as Pollock did, and struggled to balance her life as an artist and a wife.

John Cage, the composer, is also a good example of reducing both his life and work to the extremes. His famous work “4:33” is a musical composition consisting entirely of silence. Now that he claimed it, no one else will be able to claim silence as his own work. Extremely reductive work is certainly a good way to be recognized in history. If you analyze famous artists’ work, in most of them, you will find one aspect or idea that they reduced to the extremes. This is how they are recognized in history.

In my view, it’s not that men and women have their own fields that they excel in. If you put men in most any fields, and if they are passionate about it, they are likely to beat women in ranking. Think of cooking. Women dominated the domestic kitchens for centuries, but when it comes to professional cooking, again, the field is dominated by men. If men really wanted to compete in nursing, I’m sure they could dominate the field too. It’s hard to compete with someone who lacks central coherence and is able to pursue a very specific thing with religious fervor, utterly convinced that nothing else in life is more important.

The critical difference between male and female brains isn’t that of abilities, but that of perspective. Men are preoccupied with things that can be measured as superior and inferior. Women aren’t as interested in these things. (Eastern medicine too is quite disinterested in matters that require proof or evidence.) Even though various studies show that women have superior language skills, men could beat them at this game to, if they wanted to. Men will find a way to overcome their biological inferiority and achieve the status of superiority at any cost. In fact, cooking (especially in professional kitchens) requires a great amount of multi-tasking, an area where men are shown to be inferior to women. In this sense, the biological abilities are irrelevant, because their natural inclination to see life in a reductive way would drive them to achieve the status of superiority anyway.

In this sense, Baron-Cohen’s effort to convince us of the superior aspects of female brains is misplaced. The concern for superiority and inferiority itself is a male preoccupation. In order to see the value of female brains, we need to get out of this mode of thinking altogether.

But there are exceptions where a holistic view itself becomes the superior solution to a problem. Jane Jacobs, the author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, comes to my mind as a good example of female superiority in central coherence as applied to the field of urban planning. She opposed logical and functional compartmentalization of a city, and advocated organic planning based on keen observations of how cities and neighborhoods work. She had a decidedly female way of looking at the world, and made a significant contribution in that field.

I suspect that female brains must have more inter-departmental connections than male brains do, which allows women to see the bigger pictures, and male brains must have more intra-departmental connections which allows them to intensely focus on one thing while disregarding everything else. This is a theory that is circulating in the field of autism. I feel that this must extend beyond autism.

In Baron-Cohen’s book, at the end, he discusses the extreme female brain and what it is like. Curiously, no one is yet to identify what it is. The qualifications Baron-Cohen gives for the extreme female brain are: It is system-blind (as oppose to mind-blind of the extreme male brain, autism), and it is hyper-empathetic. If I were to apply my model to this, the qualifications for the extreme female brain are: It would totally disregard logic and it is hyper-holistic. Logic is the tool of reduction. Someone who has an extreme female brain would probably disregard logic entirely. Note that I didn’t say “logic-blind”. People with autism are not necessarily mind-blind. I think it only appears so because they are profoundly disinterested in people. So, they never bothered to think of other people’s minds. Likewise, someone with an extreme female brain, would not be logic-blind. She could use logic, but she would be profoundly disinterested in it. Here too, it is not a matter of ability, but of perspective.

As I said above, someone who has a holistic view of life is difficult to spot because the outward manifestations of their abilities are immeasurable and irreducible. I would imagine that someone who has the extreme female brain would have an almost Zen-like view of life; beyond good and evil, black and white, superior and inferior, male and female. She would not bother trying to understand life in terms of binary pairs. She would have no desire to compete either. For me personally, this would be an amazing achievement, but it would be rather difficult to find such a person because she certainly would not be bragging about it. Since the extreme male brains are highly visible, it makes perfect sense that the extreme female brains would be highly invisible.

When Wittgenstein said in Tractatus, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” I believe he was referring to this state of mind where one transcends the illusion of dualism. In this state of mind, there is nothing to speak of. Any attempt to reduce it into words would necessarily produce nonsense. So, anyone with this state of mind would be silent about the state of her mind. So, we may never know or understand her.