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The Nature of Empathy: Perspectives from Psychiatry

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Simon Lacoste-Julien.

Empathy is the drive to identify another person’s thoughts and feelings and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion. We now know quite a lot about which parts of the brain are used when we empathize and how empathy grows in typically developing children. We even know that hormones in the womb, and specific genes, influence how much empathy a person has. There are several ways in which one can lose one’s empathy, and this is clearly seen in psychiatric conditions such as the personality disorders. However, there is one condition, autism, which not only entails difficulties with empathy but can lead to a talent in ‘systemizing’. Systemizing is the aptitude to spot patterns in the world. Why should losing your empathy render you better at systemizing? And can aspects of empathy be taught if a child is having difficulty developing it? Finally, the discovery that there may be ‘genes for empathy’ implies that empathy may be the result of our evolution.

This talk is part of the Wolfson College Science Society talks series.

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