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Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: From Perspective-Taking to Empathy

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Last week, I wrote about the importance of perspective-taking. This week, I’d like to continue with one of its close relatives, a state that would indeed be largely impossible without its existence: empathy.

Empathy, a concept originally introduced as Einfühlung by Theodore Lipps, is a state that allows us to share in the experiences and mental states of others. It lets us understand–or at least begin to approximate–their feelings, their internal conditions, their possible thoughts and motivations, and as such, is one of the central elements of social behavior. And surprisingly, if you take his almost pathological detachment from others seriously–or obviously, if you consider both his remarkable ability to take on others’ points of views and his emotional attachment, however veiled, to the select few–it is an ability that Sherlock Holmes demonstrates to great effect on multiple occasions, sometimes going as far as to side with the criminal over the law when he identifies enough with the circumstances of the crime. In one such instance, we find him at the end of “The Adventure of Abbey Grange” urging Watson to stop a moment before rendering justice on Captain Jack Croker.

When Holmes makes his way to Scotland Yard to share crucial information with Inspector Hopkins on the murder under investigation, he changes his mind: he departs before entering the station and goes back to Baker Street having told nothing to the police. Why does he do that? As he tells Watson,

“No, I couldn’t do it, Watson. Once that warrant was made out, nothing on earth would save him. Once or twice in my career I feel that I have dome more real harm by my discovery of the criminal than ever he had done by this crime. I have learned caution now, and I had rather play tricks with the law of England than with my own conscience.”

When later that evening, Inspector Hopkins visits Baker Street with no more idea of the proper way to proceed than he’d had earlier on, Holmes dismisses him without much further explanation. He then addresses Watson:

“I dare say you thought I acted rather badly to Stanley Hopkins just now?”

“I trust your judgment.”

“A very sensible reply, Watson. You must look at it this way: what I know is unofficial; what he knows is official. I have the right to private judgment, but he has none. He must disclose all, or he is a traitor to his service. In a doubtful case I would not put him in so painful a position, and so I reserve my information until my own mind is clear upon the matter.”

And when his own mind does clear up, after he and Watson listen to Croker’s account of events, he proceeds to take upon himself the role of judge and pronounce the man acquitted.

Of course, in this instance we are witnessing far more than empathy at work: we are seeing a detective ascertain the details of a case, and then decide that the crime was worth committing. But why? From where did that judgment arise?

Here, we can see Mr. Holmes empathizing with two individuals: Mary Fraser and Jack Croker. Because of Mary’s ill treatment at the hands of her husband, she was a victim and worthy of drastic interference; and because of the captain’s love for Mary, he, too, was a victim (of his passion) and an upholder of the chivalric code of honor (protecting his lady) that Sir Conan Doyle himself held so dear.

Holmes makes his judgments long before hearing the details of the case from Croker’s lips. From the moment he hesitates on the steps of Scotland Yard, he has placed himself on the side of the perpetrators, progressing from their mindsets, their motivations, their goals–not his own–in making his decision. In short, he demonstrates the very hallmarks of empathetic thinking. It’s a step beyond simple perspective-taking. True, Holmes must first take the perspective of those in question; but then, he emotionally identifies with them in a way that the more purely cognitive first step does not necessitate.

The origins of empathy

Where does such empathy come from? When we observe someone acting a certain way or exhibiting a certain emotion, we automatically mirror the action in our own minds. So, if we see someone smile, we enact that smile in our heads–and often, on our own faces. When we see them lift an apple, we imagine that action ourselves. And as we do so, we begin to grasp not just the hows but the whys of the action. Why is he smiling? Why is he taking an apple? He’s happy. He’s hungry. I begin to see where he’s coming from. It’s not yet empathy, but it’s a step in its direction.

Indeed, so basic is the process of mental imitation that even in a macaque monkey, observing another’s action activates identical neural firings as does performing that action. This accidental discovery, made in the 1980s by a team of Italian researchers led by Giacomo Rizzolatti, has since formed the basis for much of the research into models of empathy and empathetic behavior, though the exact relationship remains unclear. It seems that much of empathetic feeling comes from our minds mirroring back the actions of the world via the so-called mirror neurons (in reality, just specialized motor neurons that fire in response to others’ actions). We don’t need to actually smile to model the smile in our minds–though we may do so anyway–and whether or not we physically perform an action, we are able to approximate its performance as if we had done so.

In a recent imaging study that attempted to untangle the mechanisms of imitation, individuals were shown images of different types of facial expressions (happy, sad, disgusted, surprised, angry, and afraid) while in a scanner. They either simply observed those expressions, or imitated them in addition to observing. The researchers found several interesting occurrences. First, the tasks engaged a largely overlapping neural network: even when individuals were just observing an emotion, the motor areas of the brain associated with performing the emotional action were activated, suggesting that internal imitation–a repetition of someone else’s action in your mind–was an essential component of experiencing empathy, even without physical mirroring. In order to emphasize with someone else, we must first mentally represent the actions that would be associated with the emotion that we see.

However, certain areas, namely the inferior frontal cortex (an area that codes action goals), superior temporal cortex (an area that codes early visual descriptions of actions and sends those descriptions to a specific subset of mirror neurons), and insula and amygdala (two areas heavily implicated in emotional processing), were in fact more active during the imitation trials than the observation trials. So, while we largely simulate similar reactions when we merely observe, actively imitating others’ emotional states and engaging with them more completely may help explain that causal step from simple cognitive understanding (I know he smiled and I know what smiling feels like) to emotional understanding and engagement (I begin to sense why he’s smiling and I’m engaging myself with that emotion).

In fact, we are remarkably good at inferring an action’s goals as opposed to just observing the action itself, making the latter course of active engagement (where we imitate the smile and don’t just observe it) more attainable. We may even do so much more naturally. In one study, children were easily able to imitate the hand movements of an experimenter who was sitting across the table under normal circumstances, but began to make mistakes when two large red dots were placed on either side of the table. Now, whenever the experimenter moved a hand, it would cover a red dot, and the children began to imitate the goal of covering the dot as opposed to the motor action they had been instructed to follow; the former came much more instinctively. So, not only do we imitate quite naturally, but we begin to make inferences, assign states, make generalizations almost automatically as well. Even if we’re told not to think about goals and to focus on mechanics alone, the natural reaction is to do exactly what we’re not supposed to be doing anyway.

Developing empathy further

Perhaps, then, we can exploit such natural tendencies to develop our empathetic ability to the point where we are able to imagine ourselves letting a murderer go–simply because we understand where he’s coming from (of course, in real life this is a much more problematic proposition than in Holmes’s world, which tends to be far more clear-cut, but the principle of broader and deeper other-understanding itself is a worthy and valid one).

There is, for example, evidence that some people mimic behavior much more frequently than others; they then tend to identify more with the feelings of those others and, in turn, experience more compassion toward them. In other words, by being better imitators they become more empathetic individuals. We could use their example in trying to actively imitate others when we need to understand them and identify with them emotionally (perhaps part of what Holmes was accomplishing when, back in The Valley of Fear, he chose to return to the scene of the crime?).

There is also some indication that we tend to empathize more with close others than we do with more distant others, feeling their pain, to take one instance, more acutely. Another approach, then, may be to frame more people as closer to ourselves, members of our immediate in-group, and fewer as constituting out-group, further others.

And a final approach? It brings us right back to where we started: perspective-taking. Learning to simulate others’ thoughts and actions from their own viewpoint and not ours, just as Holmes did with The Valley of Fear and as he does again in “The Adventure of Abbey Grange.” In the latter instance, Holmes goes a step beyond what most people are capable of achieving, becoming the empathetic individual par excellence. In his understanding of Croker’s motives and actions, he exhibits empathy even without having ever seen the individual in question–a mirroring at a distance. He has mentally been able to put himself in someone else’s place, to embrace his perspective to such an extent that he can motivate a murder in the wake of its influence.

And that, in a sense, is the goal of empathy: to take “mirroring” to its extreme, and instead of relying on those automatic, easy moments of imitation when something is staring us in the face, learning to use our powers of mental simulation on a deeper, broader, and more active level, empathizing at a distance and acting in accordance with that more open and accepting mental state.

Photo credit: Holmes and Watson welcome Captain  Jack Croker in “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange.” By Sidney Paget (1860 – 1908) (Strand Magazine) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Previously in this series:

Don’t Just See, Observe: What Sherlock Holmes Can Teach Us About Mindful Decisions
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: Paying Attention to What Isn’t There
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: Cultivate What You Know to Optimize How You Decide
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: Perspective Is Everything, Details Alone Are Nothing
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Imagination
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: Confidence Is good; Overconfidence, Not So Much
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: The Situation Is in the Mindset of the Observer
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: The Power of Public Opinion
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: Don’t Tangle Two Lines of Thought
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: Breadth of Knowledge Is Essential
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: Don’t Decide Before You Decide
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: Trust in The Facts, Not Your Version of Them
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: Don’t Judge a Man by His Face
Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: The Importance of Perspective-Taking

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 2 Comments

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  1. 1. EdwinRutsch 2:29 pm 10/25/2011

    Maria

    May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.
    http://CultureOfEmpathy.com

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world
    http://bit.ly/dSXjfF

    warmly
    edwin

    Link to this
  2. 2. Avraham Keslinger 1:57 am 10/27/2011

    What about empathy for the victim and understanding of the principles behind the law?

    Link to this

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