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Zero Degrees of Empathy

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact James Scott-Brown.

Empathy is the drive to identify another person’s thoughts and feelings and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion. Empathy comes by degrees, with individual differences evident in the traditional bell curve. We now know quite a lot about which parts of the brain are used when we empathize and how empathy develops in children. We also know that early experience affects empathy, but so does biology: hormones in the womb, and specific genes. There are several ways in which one can lose one’s empathy, clearly seen in psychiatric conditions such as the personality disorders including the psychopath. However, there is one condition, autism, which not only entails difficulties with empathy but can lead to a talent in ‘systemizing’: the aptitude to spot patterns in the world. We discuss how people with autism and psychopaths show opposite empathy profiles. 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 Trinity College Science Society (TCSS) series.

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