28 April 2014
Empathy is the ability to realize what someone else experiences, because it would be what you would experience in that situation. Philip K. Dick used empathy as the standard for being human in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (dramatized as Blade Runner).
Another thing that can be important is reverse empathy: the ability to realize that what someone else experiences may be dramatically different from your experience in that situation.
This is something that comes into play all the time as a neurobiologist. Jakob von Uexküll was on that track when he coined the concept of Umwelt, or “sensory world.” von Uexküll realized that animals’ sensory abilities may be dramatically different to our own, and we can’t assume that something invisible to us is invisible to other species... or that what we can perceive, every other species can perceive.
It’s important in academia and mentoring, too. A common pattern is that someone says, “This is what I went through,” and someone else jumps in to nay say it. “I can’t believe that would happen.” “That’s not been my experience at all.” “Are you sure you didn’t misunderstand?” This is particularly prone to happen if the person describing their experience is female, minority, or otherwise seen as not very powerful.
We’re told to be empathetic, but maybe we should also practice asking ourselves, “But what if their experience isn’t like mine?”