Friday, March 2, 2012

Zero Degrees of Empathy

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Simon Baron-Cohen, the developmental psychopathologist, is the cousin of Sacha Baron Cohen. It’s not really fair and perhaps even cruel to bring up this relationship when trying to seriously consider his ideas. But since his latest book Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty, deals with cruel, insensitive and at times life denying behavior, it seems appropriate to indulge the sadistic impulse to associate him with a world renowned clown. As Andrew Scull points out in his recent review (“Blood Flow,” TLS, 2/17/12), Cohen tries to create a statistical model for empathy. Zero-Negatives which are typed as Zero-Negative Type B, Zero-Negative Type P or Zero-Negative Type N are borderlines, psychopaths and narcissists. Summarizing Cohen’s thesis Scull goes on to explain, “The Zero-Negatives are in varying ways highly dangerous individuals…the differences in their ‘empathy circuits’ are largely features of their brains; their ventromedial frontal cortex and their orbitofrontal cortex are under-active, while their ventral striatum and their amygdala are over-active.” Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment in relationship to authority still is one of the most dramatic illustrations of objectification by which not just Zero-Negatives but all of us reveal the propensity to excuse the suffering others. But Scull is critical of the neat little statistical universe which Cohen has created with its questionaires and EQ’s or empathy quotients. In terms of using fMRI’s and other brain measuring devices he points out that “Despite important advances in neuroscience, we are very far indeed from being able to connect even very simple human actions to the underlying structure and functioning of people’s brains.” Six Degrees of Separation was a play by John Guare about human connectivity. If nothing else, Cohen’s book, with its pithy title, points to a performance gene shared with his famous cousin. 

1 comment:

  1. Frank, so glad you pointed out this connection. I find Sasha Baran Cohen's humor to be cruel and insensitive. He demeans his subjects and his audience both by inviting us to slum in his sense of superiority.


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