How real are described experiences to others?
August 17, 2017 2:24 PM   Subscribe

Point me to some research about how well people can understand things that haven't happened to them directly. e.g. If you haven't experienced PMS, how well can you understand and empathize with someone going through PMS? "How well" is pretty hard to quantify, and I don't know what to Google for, so this may be fruitless, but I thought I'd take a shot.
posted by ignignokt to Science & Nature (5 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The discovery of mirror neurons suggests a physical mechanism for some forms of empathy, and some postulate that it may be involved in the development of language.
posted by Diablevert at 4:01 PM on August 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think the "reality" of a described experience depends a lot on the relationship of the speaker to the audience. For example, all things equal, I am probably going to believe my sister's narrative of her experiences versus some random guy on television's narrative of his experiences. I imagine this also extends to some degree to whether you perceive the narrator is part of one's community or not, and so on. Here is a fMRI study about in-group and out-group empathy and a more pop-sci essay on in-group and out-group empathy as it pertains to race relations.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 4:28 PM on August 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

My mirror neuron theory: maybe they're randomly distributed in the population, which accounts for some listeners just shrugging and going on to their golf handicap when you describe PMS symptoms (they don't have enough), while others, who have a surfeit, wince and crumple up when you describe what you're going through?
posted by nohattip at 4:31 PM on August 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

When you say "research", does that include the primary academic lit?

I did some google scholar searches. Here are some things to check out:
1. I know how you feel but not always: The empathic brain and its modulation (Heiner and Zinger 2008)
From the abstract: The amplitude of empathic brain responses is modulated by the intensity of the displayed emotion, the appraisal of the situation, characteristics of the suffering person such as perceived fairness, and features of the empathizer such as gender or previous experience with pain-inflicting situations.

2. The functional architecture of human empathy (Decety and Jackson 2004)
From the abstract: Shared neural representations, self-awareness, mental flexibility, and emotion regulation constitute the basic macrocomponents of empathy, which are underpinned by specific neural systems. This functional model may be used to make specific predictions about the various empathy deficits that can be encountered in different forms of social and neurological disorders.

In short (and without having read these papers), it sounds like empathy (the capacity to experience what someone else is describing/feeling) depends on all kinds of situational and individual variables, like how much we can pick up on the emotion from the person's face (this is such an informative cue for communicating an emotinoal state), whether we think they deserve to feel that way, our gender, our experience with that situation, and individual variables like self-awareness, mental flexibility, and capacity to regulate emotions.

If you feel competent reading the primary lit, I'd go through citations for these papers and others. I'd specifically look for review articles on empathy. Here are some lists to peruse (1 and 2) (sorry, my google is currently set for Indonesia).
posted by mrmanvir at 10:14 PM on August 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

The written/spoken word is an attempt to transfer the author's memory to their audience.

Since all of our experiences must pass through our brains, all of our verbal output is a description of how we remember the experience. We don't hold the actual experiences in our brain but a holographic representation of the experiences, i.e., a memory.

So, the ability to cause an audience to match the author's experience is heavily dependent on how skilled the author is at transferring his experience into words that help audience members to reconstruct the same experience from their words.

It's a completely astonishing process when you break it down.
posted by trinity8-director at 1:24 PM on August 18, 2017

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