Gary Olson: Empathy Imperiled

Just a shout-out this morning for Gary Olson’s book Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain.

Here’s a brief precis of it from The Book Depository (UK):

“The most critical factor explaining the disjuncture between empathy’s revolutionary potential and today’s empathically-impaired society is the interaction between the brain and our dominant political culture. The evolutionary process has given rise to a hard-wired neural system in the primal brain and particularly in the human brain. This book argues that the crucial missing piece in this conversation is the failure to identify and explain the dynamic relationship between an empathy gap and the hegemonic influence of neoliberal capitalism, through the analysis of the college classroom, the neoliberal state, media, film and photo images, marketing of products, militarization, mass culture and government policy. This book will contribute to an empirically grounded dissent from capitalism’s narrative about human nature. Empathy is putting oneself in another’s emotional and cognitive shoes and then acting in a deliberate, appropriate manner. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it requires self-empathy because we’re all products of an empathy-anesthetizing culture. The approach in this book affirms a scientific basis for acting with empathy, and it addresses how this can help inform us to our current political culture and process, and makes it of interest to students and scholars in political science, psychology, and other social sciences.”

So, as you may see, it’s a significant response to the problems of Lasch’s “culture of narcissism” and of egoistic individualism.

And I want to especially note the central theme of the Hermetic principle that I’ve referred to earlier as “empathetic epistemics”, that being “to know the thing, you must become the thing you want to know”. That’s really the principle of the Shaman’s Way, isn’t it? So, Olson’s book is also a significant contribution to articulating The Holistic Philosophy.

That’s the basis for the polymorph and the shape-shifter — the fluidity of consciousness itself. In fact, I’ld say it’s quite impossible to understand the multi-formity of Man as the multi-dimensionality of consciousness without this capacity for empathy. That’s really what it means to “switch perspectives”. That’s another aspect of the “cross of reality”. To fully appreciate what it means to “live from the vital centre” we have to be something of a polymorph and shape-shifter ourselves — poet, philosopher, prophet, and politician in turns. “Empathetic epistemics” is therefore rather central to the fuller understanding of the cross of reality and the integral consciousness.

“Empathy imperiled” really is quite relevant and pertinent to what Jean Gebser referred to as the deficiency of perspectivising consciousness — the “mental-rational consciousness structure now functioning in deficient mode”, which is nihilism; hybris and Nemesis. So, especially for students of Gebser, Gary Olson’s book would appear to be quite essential reading.

Unfortunately, it seems a little pricey.

17 responses to “Gary Olson: Empathy Imperiled

  1. Scott Preston says :

    By the way, I would go so far as to say that totalitarianism, especially fascist totalitarianism, is dangerously near today because it is the “logical” substitute and surrogate for deficient empathy. There’s the connection between Lasch’s “culture of narcissism” or egoistic individualism and the potential for fascist totalitarianism. Coincidentia oppositorum there, too.

    So, in that sense, fascism (totalitarianism in general) belongs to “spiritual disease”. Even “love”, as Jesus taught it, ain’t what it used ta be, and especially with love, Nietzsche’s “all higher values devalue themselves” becomes especially awful.

  2. donsalmon says :

    Very interesting. I recall when President Obama stated that empathy was, for him, the single most important quality a judge could have, the “conservatives” in the US went nuts. “Empathy” That’s socialist! They said.

    I work in a very small office building in South Carolina a few times a month. The fellow across the hall to me has a private foundation (very small) whose motto is “family, Bible, constitution.’ At the moment, he has free copies of the Declaration of Independence on the table in the lobby.

    He really is a nice guy (former professor of communications) who is about as conservative as they come. I noticed the when Obama made that statement, conservatives generally had no idea what empathy meant, taking it to mean uncritical sympathy for undeserving minorities.

    So I asked my office “neighbor” (let’s call him Jim, not his real name) what he thought about empathy, and of course he thought it was a terrible thing, just more of the government wanting to make people dependent on handouts. I asked him what his definition of empathy was, and he basically described a rather poor version of sympathy.

    I explained to him that there were several varieties of empathy, none of which had much to do with what he said – cognitive empathy (which is actually possible for psychopaths – Bill Clinton comes to mind – who have a remarkable ability to understand other people’s perspective, but use that understanding to manipulate them).

    There is a form of emotional empathy that is much closer to “sympathy” (feeling with) but it integrates caring with deep understanding – the ability to “hold together” one’s own view and another’s, in a way which joins people together rather than keeps them separate, as the more psychopathic pseudo-empathy does.

    I think President Obama is correct, and in fact, when I write a disability evaluation for a judge, the main thing I’m aiming at, with every word I write, is to get the judge out of his comfort zone (“this poor person is a moocher, a “taker” in the infamous language of Mitt Romney) and understand this is a real person, in real pain, who is not trying to “game” the system but simply trying to survive (and in fact, collect on the insurance money the poor person has been paying out with every paycheck, usually for decades).

    On our website,, we include empathy as one of the 4 essential capacities that we are gifted with by virtue of having such a well developed neo-cortex, particularly the prefrontal lobes (“well developed” compared to non humans, that is; i imagine if you examined most empathically challenged humans you might not find such high level of development).

    Interestingly, there is a neurological test – one of the very few – that actually works to predict political orientation. There is evidently an area of the anterior cingulate that tends to be larger in people with higher levels of empathy. (I’m not sure if it’s literally “larger” or simply is more “complex” – which is a highly technical term in terms of the brain which I don’t know enough about to explain beyond that). I think it works to about 84% accuracy – which may not sound like much but is MUCH higher than almost any other neurological indicator in regard to personality.

    Basically, the larger the anterior cingulate, the greater the level of empathy, the more liberal one’s political outlook is.

    Though I don’t think you really need a brain scan to figure that one out!

    • Scott Preston says :

      What sparked my post this morning was reading an article about the leading GOP candidates preening and parading before the Koch Bros. It’s a pretty interesting (and revealing) article (not least, Trump’s confession here that he bought influence with all the politicians and made them do his bidding). But there’s also the remark about how 20 GOP supporters stood up and walked out on one of the GOP candidates when he just mentioned “doing something for the poor”. No way, “let them eat cake!”

      But I think also socialism has largely lost its way because of this problem of deficient empathy. If we have problems forming a “successful we”, as I’ve noted in past posts, it’s for the reasons cited by Olson. Socialism too has largely caved in to “neoliberal culture” (especially Blairite “New Labour”). So, the “deficient mental-rational” really does affect virtually everything we do. “The Sacred Hoop is broken”.

    • Jeff Vogel says :

      Obama may have said nice things about empathy but his actions spoke much louder than his words. His embrace of the insane and self-perpetuating ‘war on terror’ with his massive escalation of murder by drones is surely not a sign of empathy. Nor is the fact that he prosecuted more whistleblowers than all other presidents combined an indicator of empathy. Whatever empathy he may have lies with his friends on Wall Street who are now going to reward him with a $400,000 speaking fee.

      • Scott Preston says :

        Oh, I totally agree for my part. I wrote about that back when he was first elected. He rode to the Presidency on a wave of hope and global good-will, and I wrote back then that disillusionment here would be a disaster. His legacy is disillusionment, unfortunately. That’s why there is now a cynic like Trump. Thomas Frank has written a few articles about the self-destruction of the Democrats, most of which I agree with. But this disillusionment and the demoralisation of liberal democracy is affecting the Republicans, too. Lack of empathy is reflected in the feeling that the economic and political elites are “out of touch”. But that’s just a general problem of Lasch’s “culture of narcissism” and not just a disease of the “power elite”. This whole present situation is one of disillusionment and demoralisation (post-everything). But disillusionment is a two-edged sword, since it also implies “the shock of the real”, and as a something transitional. “Disillusionment” is also the meaning of “apocalypse”.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    While we are on this subject: “love” in Christianity or “compassion” in Buddhism or “empathy” otherwise are not promoted for any mere moralistic reason. It should be apparent that consciousness cannot expand, or cognitive function be enhanced, without them.

    And if “man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern”, as Blake put it, it’s largely because the deficiency of love, compassion, empathy results in a contraction of consciousness, diminished cognitive function, and a narrowing of our horizons. Anxiety is also the consequence, as consciousness narrows into something merely “angular”, as Gebser noted — contracts into the mere “point of view” — the narrowing of ego consciousness. Deficient perspectivisation, for as he noted “anxiety” or Angst, and “angle” are related words, and narrowing of perception corresponds with intensification of Angst, and also paranoia.

    The corrective for that or escape from the deficient mode is “aperspective consciousness” (ie “integral consciousness”). Aperspectivity means attaining to a “universal way of looking at things”. But that’s the centre of the cross of reality.

    • donsalmon says :

      Yes, people have a great difficulty understanding the ‘ethical” aspects of Buddhism when raised in contemporary Protestant cultures that have turned morality and ethics into dualistic tools that basically serve only to thicken the barriers between our ordinary divided, superficial consciousness and the profound depths which if touched, would mean death to our ordinary selves (narrowed ego consciousness).

      the “yamas” (restraints) and “niyamas” (observances) have almost nothing to do with morality (or for that matter, restraints or observances in the conventional “moral” sense) in the way we usually conceive of it.

      Take “non-lying” for example. Just the translation – “non-lying” rather than “honesty” or “truthfulness” is enough, if meditated on sincerely enough, to expose the absurdity of the normal way we think of ourselves.

      It’s impossible for the ego to be honest. It’s very existence is sustained by lying. (the “ego” itself is a fiction – it has no inherent existence). So honestly for the ego is simply yet another way to hide (from itself, perhaps more than from others) its true motives.

      Patanjali (“author” – or at best, mythic compiler) of the sutras understands this. What needs to happen for consciousness to expand beyond the ego is to stop lying, not to make an “effort’ to be honest or truthful. Hence the term “non-lying.” And really, the ego can’t even make an effort NOT to lie. At best, there is a relatively “pure” (not “pure” in the moral but in the quite literal sense; unadulterated) aspect of awareness that it is possible to contact, if we wish to, which “sees’ honestly.

      As the Buddha said, “to see what is seen, to hear what is simply heard, without adding anything”)

      Krishna Prem, in his Katha Upanishad commentary, made a very interesting statement. This “buddhi” – this “pure” aspect of awareness, is actually available to all of us all the time. it in fact is not really hard to meditate at all, not hard to be honest, not hard to make good decisions. People ask all the time, “Why is it hard to meditate? Why do I not make good decisions? Why do I eat bad food? Why don’t I exercise regularly? Why don’t I treat people better?”

      It’s simple, Prem says, because we don’t want to. We (the egoic we) do what we want. If we wanted to meditate, it’s quite easy. Just step back into that quiet, and stay there. Period. Love will do the rest.

      This is the essence of St. Augustine’s “Love and do what you will.” The ego skips the first part and says, “Oh great do what I want. That’s a morality I like.”

      Or it thinks ‘love” means “like a whole lot.’ “love” in truth is the death of the ego – it’s impossible for the ego to love. So in a way, if understood correctly, the Beatles were correct – love is all you need. If that love involves the complete destruction of the false narrow ego consciousness and an utter giving of all one’s mind, heart body and soul to the Divine, then yes, love is all you need.

      It’s simple. It just isn’t easy.

  4. Scott Preston says :

    (Maybe I should have made a post of this, but I’ll keep it to the comments section here). The “empathy gap” goes a long way in accounting for “enantiodromia” here, too. It helps explain why hybristic forms of liberalism (libertarianism, which is an excess) can suddenly revert to a form of fascism.

    Rosenstock-Huessy recognised that. So did Nietzsche, when he remarked that the total triumph of “liberal institutions” would simultaneously be their self-negation. Egoistic individualism, in other words, would revert at the extremity. That’s the import of Fukuyama’s “end of history” or Thatcher’s “TINA” principle, too — the self-negation of liberal democracy through enantiodromia.

    • donsalmon says :

      By the way, I’d be very curious to hear your reaction to this guy:

      Paul Bloom is a psychology professor at al (ah, a psychology professor- one thing you already know is he understands nothing about the human mind or human heart – just by virtue of being a psychology professor – and maybe even by virtue simply of being a professor, or maybe from being at Yale?)

      I’ve followed Bloom’s pronouncements on psychology for many years. he’s almost invariably wrong about everything. This link is an attack on empathy.

      It’s hard for me to even find the words to comment on it. I suspect you could do a good job of connecting it to the deficient mental.

      I’ll just add that psychology – something I’ve studied formally since 1990, when I started grad school, and informally since 1970 – in its current academic form is not just wrong on almost everything, it almost reverses common sense (which may not be so common). In 1999, Jerome Kagan, Harvard professor emeritus of developmental psychology, said that psychology was in such a total mess that psychologists could hardly agree on anything except a few trivial facts about learning and memory.

      I don’t see much difference in the intervening 16 years; in fact, it’s MUCH much worse as the culture continues to deteriorate.

      But Bloom – he really seems to encapsulate, at least for me, all that is wrong with academic psychology (I keep saying “academic” because there are actually clinicians – my particular field, clinical psychology – who maybe because of their empathic concern for the people they work with, actually have some genuine insights into the nature of human consciousness)

      • donsalmon says :

        sorry, typo there – Bloom is a professor at Yale

      • Scott Preston says :

        Hoo boy! Thanks for that. Too much there to address in a comment. An illicit Cartesianism where it is most inappropriate (an “either/or” logic, empathy contrasted with compassion), and empathy mistakenly confused with morality. It has nothing to do with moralism. It’s the way things are in essence, going back to the doctrine of the affinities. The “archaic consciousness” structure is nothing but empathy of the whole. In effect, the magical, mythological, and mental-rational consciousness structures emerged out of the empathy of the whole as the slow growth of individuated (ego) consciousness. The “deficiency” of the archaic consciousness structure was that it was not consciously empathetic or compassionate. It wasn’t at liberty to be empathetic or not.

        Empathy and compassion are not different things. The former is Greek and the latter is Latin, that’s all. It reminds me of that ridiculous “scholar” who thought the pagan Greeks had only one sin compared to the Christian 7 deadly sins – ie. hybris. How naive can you get!? It reminds me of that medical doctor who testified that “microbeads” (in the news these days and now being banned in Canada) are “harmless” because they just pass right through the body (yeah? Pass through to where exactly?. I mean, how myopic and naive can you get? And did no one think of that before they started adding plastic microbeads to everything?). Deficient mental-rational in full “bloom”, so to speak.

        The “crisis of empathy” has been a while in the making, in fact. Perhaps now we can only become truly conscious of it as a power, by its very absence. Rosenstock-Huessy identified “lack of caritas” as the fatal error of Christendom, made apparent in the witch hunts and the Inquisition. “Caritas”, which is mistakenly translated as “charity” has the same meaning as “empathy”. “Faith, hope, and caritas” are supposedly the three principle virtues of Christianity, but of these “caritas is the greatest”. That’s Mr. Bloom’s error as well.

        The decadence of Christendom was the deficiency of caritas. The accelerated growth of egoistic individualism and the pursuit if self-interest ensured that “caritas” would recede and, in fact, become unintelligible. This corresponded to the breaking of the affinities. Chemistry was the last science to chuck the doctrine of the affinities. It has nothing to do with “morality” at all.

        It is not an either/or issue. Even Bloom notes that Buddhism teaches compassion with “non-attachment”. In fact, in its true meaning “disinterestedness” as a virtue in science is best appreciated as corresponding to “non-attachment”. It does not mean lack of empathy (or at least should not mean that, but it has also come to mean “lack of caritas”). Of course “caritas” is related to the meaning “care” and so to “the duty of care”. But that’s not essentially a moral issue. The “duty of care” belongs to the ethos of reality, because of the doctrine of the affiinities. As Heraclitus put it “ethos is fate”, which has pretty much the same meaning as “you create the reality you know”.

        Bloom doesn’t know the “cross of reality”. Consequently, he can’t help but distort the truth. Empathy is the foundation of reality. It belongs even to the whole significance of “non-locality” in physics or Jung’s “synchronicity” and “acausality”. It is the basis for Gebser’s “aperspectival consciousness”. This is the return of the affinities, which I’ve called “the return of the native”. Bloom has it all ass-backwards.

        • Scott Preston says :

          Might add, as long as we are speaking of empathy, that in the principle of “non-locality”, contemporary physics has hit upon the real foundation of the world, and the meaning of the saying “God is love”. Non-locality and synchronicity are the empathy of the whole.

          Empathy is the “substantial” in that word’s true meaning. It’s not matter, but what undergirds or “sub-stands” the material world. “Substantia” is another word that has become grossly distorted with the passage of time, and the distortion corresponds to the loss of understanding of “caritas” too. Precisely parallels it. And, of course, “substantia” and “understand” are pretty near synonyms.

          An interesting contrast to muse upon: the opposite of “substance” is “superstition” — what “stands over”. Could it mean that “matter” and therefore materialism, is the “superstition”?

        • Scott Preston says :

          And I might add, as you probably know, that “telepathy” or direct mind to mind transfer is possible only because it is subsumed by empathy of the whole. In fact, telepathy already happens all the time, but below the level of our conscious awareness, at the “level” of the intuitive self, and what we call “gut feeling” or “hunch” etc. It’s already involved in the act of speaking and listening, because much of understanding does not rely on “decoding words” and “decoding meanings”, but because a certain degree of telepathy is also involved. It could potentially be developed further.

          • donsalmon says :

            “telepathy already happens all the time”

            In fact, the single best theory in parapsychology to have emerged in the last 125 years – acknowledged as such by most of the leaders in the field – is that of Jim Carpenter, an incredibly nice guy who lives about 4 hours away in Chapel Hill, and who I hope to meet in person some time in the next year or two. Jim worked out a theory that solves mysteries in psi that have perplexed researchers for decades.

            Psi has been stuck in a semi-materialistic mindset for most of its existence, (ignoring William James and Frederich Myers who explicitly called for a far more integral view of the cosmos as the only possible underpinning for psi research). So of course, everything they find is inexplicable, leaving the researchers justifiably open to criticism from mentally deficient (sorry:>)) debunkers.

            Jim figured out – much, i think, from his experience as a psychotherapist connecting on a profoundly deep, empathic level with his patients, often in ways which led to all kinds of psi phenomena – that psi is occurring all the time, and it is merely obscured by our deficient surface consciousness.

            This is exactly the filter theory of Myers and James (you may know the famous quote: “our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.” from James). This ‘filmy screen” is what filters out the Infinity reality in which we are embedded and of which we are “made” – sorry, those are rational terms which don’t begin to capture the reality, but the best I can do at the moment).

            Tibetan Buddhist teacher Jeremy Hayward goes on step forward. Jim says that prior to each perception, there is a “sub”conscious psi connection. Jeremy says prior to even this psi connection, there is simply nondual or integral wholeness, which in each “moment” (“moment” prior to time!) makes an initial distinction or ‘vibration” which in turn leads to the 10,000 things of the Taoist, and our ordinary consciousness is only the very end result, which we take to be all of reality.

            Much of Indian meditation practice involves quieting our ordinary narrow mind, lessening the filter or filmy screen, and tracing back this whole process to the original wholeness.

            Interestingly, cognitive behavioral therapy, when combined with deep, empathic mindfulness, can be used as a bridge between the ordinary consciousness and a more contemplative approach. We’ve begun to explore this on the cognitive behavior therapy section of our site but it is as yet incomplete.

            Well, lots of inspiration this morning, but I have to get back to the nuts and bolts of making our now text-only site into a business. I’m off to explore options for creating an online store to sell our audios and videos and ebooks. Jan and I are in the midst of massive procrastination and resistance on this. What fun:>))))))

            ok, off to work!

            • donsalmon says :

              oh heck, one more thing – all of chapter 4 of our yoga psych book is about what I wrote in the last comment. there’s some very cool exercises there, starting with imagining you’re in a lucid dream right now, taken from ancient Buddhist and Vedantic practices, which can, if practiced seriously enough, do quite a number in terms of dissolving the ordinary consciousness.

  5. Scott Preston says :

    I just thought of an example which might serve, in an anecdotal way, as an effective refutation of Bloom’s understanding of empathy as error.

    Let’s take the Islamic State. I can empathise with its adherents. But that doesn’t mean “sympathise”. I can come to the conclusion that it is quite terrible to feel and think the way they do. My empathy doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t come to the conclusion that they must be fought and subdued. In fact, someone who can empathise has a distinct tactical advantage over those who can’t empathise.

    So, yes, integral consciousness will defeat the mental-rational consciousness, and later I’ll give examples of that currently happening. Battles are being won. But the reason is, empathy and the greater capacity to empathise. That’s the tactical advantage of the “spiritual warrior” as it were. It’s also why mercy is connected to empathy. “Been there and done that” oneself, so one can be “charitable”.

  6. LittleBigMan says :

    Empathy. What a wonderful theme for this essay and all the ensuing wonderful comments. All of it pretty much matches the wavelength of my thoughts 🙂

    I have added Olson’s book to my list. Thank you.

    By the way, that article about the Koch brothers made a disingenuous statement when it said:

    “Trump’s signature policy, his hostility to immigration from Mexico and Latin America, runs counter to the Kochs’ support for immigration reform and efforts to sell Hispanic Americans on conservative ideas.”

    I don’t want to defend Mr. 1% Trump, but he has said he is against illegal immigration.

    In the rat race of the cities we are taught to be unempathetic. Not directly, of course, but the unrealistic and unsustainable increase in the demands of the workplace and the competitive nature of the workplace are bound to spill over to the other facets of one’s life (family, social, etc.), and soon this lack of empathy has become the new norm and even the intelligent thing to do. If not reversed, this trend will fracture and atomize the society and will ultimately destroy it. We are far more connected than to remain unaffected by a spread in lack of empathy.

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