Humanities' New Definition

Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? explores what it means to be human by looking at what it means to be an android. The big tell for androids; they can't empathize with each other, with humans or animals. To determine an andy from a human, there is the elaborate Voight Kampff test that measures empathetic response to a series of questions. Each question should elicit some kind of sympathetic response. If no dilation of the pupil or blush response, then you are dealing with an android.Seems pretty straight forward and since it's science fiction, we know it works (at least in the novel).

As humans empathy cues us to feed a crying child while an anguished look tells us to help out a pained friend and requires communication -- we can read both smiles (pleasure) and suffering (pain). It's more than just putting yourself in another's shoes, it's caring about what happens to the person in your sneakers.

At the University of Virginia, James Coan, psychology professor, "and his U.Va. colleagues conducted [a] study with 22 young adult participants who underwent fMRI scans of their brains during experiments to monitor brain activity while under threat of receiving mild electrical shocks to themselves or to a friend or stranger.

"The researchers found, as they expected, that regions of the brain responsible for threat response . . . became active under threat of shock to the self. In the case of threat of shock to a stranger, the brain in displayed little activity. However when the threat of shock was to a friend, the brain activity of the participant became essentially identical to the activity displayed under threat to the self.

“The correlation between self and friend was remarkably similar,” Coan said. “The finding shows the brain’s remarkable capacity to model self to others; that people close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real. Literally we are under threat when a friend is under threat. But not so when a stranger is under threat” (read the entire study).

But are we as empathetic as we were in the past? Are we weening ourselves away from empathy as we become more and more tech savvy?

Sherry Turkle's article, "Stop Googline. Let's Talk" (NYT 26 Sept. 2015) looked at that very phenomenon. "In 2010, a team at the University of Michigan led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000."

Turkle's not saying there are no empathetic conversations today, instead for the MIT researcher it's the idea that "we turn away from talking face to face to chat online. It’s that we don’t allow these conversations to happen in the first place because we keep our phones in the landscape." Does the rise of technology correlate to a decline in empathy? Do we care more about what's happening on our iPhone then we do about our friends? How many times have you gone out to lunch where everyone has one eye on their phones and one ear on the conversation?

Philip K. Dick may have been prescient about the human condition and empathy, or more strictly speaking, that as we lose empathy we lose part of what makes us human. Have we become the androids who dream of electric sheep?

Do you think your emoji response on Facebook is as meaningful to the receiver as a face-to-face "Congratulations"? When was the last time you truly engaged in a two-way, face-to-face conversation? What do you think it means if humans quit empathizing with each other? Would you suffer an electric shock for a friend?


  1. I found the article interesting, particularly the studies on threat response and decline in empathy in college students.

    I was surprised to learn that people felt a similar negative response when a friend had the threat of being shocked as if they themselves had been threatened. However, it appears this empathy does not extend to complete strangers.

    This vaguely reminds me of a documentary I watched where a person would be shown a live video of their own leg being stabbed with a fake knife. Then, the feed would switch to show a similar looking fake leg being stabbed with a real knife. Despite it being fiction, the subject reported feeling a similar sharp pain as if they had actually been stabbed.

    As for the "40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000" I wonder if this decline is solely due to increased phone use, or if there are other factors. For example, perhaps this is just a cultural shift unrelated to technology, or perhaps it is caused more by an increase in more violent, realistic films and video games eroding empathy rather than social media and cell phones. However, I do concede that with the rise in social media and networking, millennials seem to be losing their ability to empathize in real life, preferring easier methods to relate feelings such as emoticons.

    P.S.: The line "Sherry Turkle's article, "Stop Googline. Let's Talk" (NYT 26 Sept. 2015)" should read "Stop Googling"

  2. This article shows how much people have changed in the past 15 years when it comes to empathy for others. The study of college students and how phones have taken away the possibility of meaningful conversations was something that upset me, yet I wasn't surprised. People are too involved in their technology to have these empathetic conversations (not to say there are none anymore).

    However, there was one positive thing I learned from this article, and it is how our brains react to danger for not only ourselves, but for our friends as well. The ability for our brains to react to our friends being threatened the same way we are threatened is amazing. The idea of this hit me when James Coan stated: "Literally we are under threat when a friend is under threat". This gives me hope, because although people are losing empathy to our phones and other materialistic things, we still have the ability to have empathy for others when either our friends or ourselves are under threat, and that is a gift we should not take for granted.

  3. The article was very interesting and it adds on to the point that the rise in technology is having as much of a negative impact as it is having a positive one. It was weird finding out that through empathy, you have a connection to your friends that's so strong, you feel threatened when they feel threatened.

    For me it's terrifying to read articles like this because they're so accurate, for example when I walk into a college classroom, I see a little more then half the class on their phones. Even more terrifying is it's not just adults who have phone issues, kids have it to. My Mother is a kindergarten teacher at an elementary school in my home town, one day I decided to visit her while her class when was on recess. I was shocked to say the least that over half the kids in her class had iPhones or better and were on it during recess! It's crazy to think that this problem isn't going away and it can only get worst; I believe we as a society should address this issue before it's to late.

  4. According to Turkle, with the introduction of technology, humans are losing their empathy, and according to Dick, our empathy is the only thing that differentiates us from androids. I truly wonder if the younger tech savvy generation of the 2000’s would fail the Voight Kampff test in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”,and I find the idea that a human would be mistaken for a robot incredibly amusing. To say that technology is turning us into robots and degrading our souls may be a long leap for some, but few would argue that constant posts and status updates to social media show admirable personality traits, or that instant messaging 40 emojis to friends constitutes meaningful interaction. While I feel that the issue is blown out of proportion, Turkle and the author of this post raise valid points about what technology is doing to the human condition.

  5. I think posting an emoji or saying congratulations online is not less meaningful than saying it face to face. Even when people are talking face to face, sometimes they are not really paying much attention to the conversation. Sometimes when I hear others say "Congratulations" it's obviously they are just being polite. I feel that if someone truly care for me, I would know even if they are just leaving a message for me on social media. It depends on their words instead of in what way they say it.
    I found this article very interesting because I did not think the lack of empathy mentioned in the articles we read in class is such a big deal, but this article points out that empathy is what tells humans apart from androids. It seems like we are become more and more like androids when we are too invested in our phones and computers, almost as if we are becoming part of the devices ourselves.

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  7. This is such a relevant conversation to be having. Thank you for posting it. Being a generation Y type, I grew up with rotary phones, console televisions, and a lack of computers and cell phones. Of course, they existed, but they were not the ubiquitous pocket panaceas that we have today. I do not take the technology I am surrounded by today for granted, and I wouldn't go back, even if that were an option.

    I do not contest a decline in empathy caused by an increase in technology. However, a single study published by a trio of, what I assume to be, doctoral candidates is anything but conclusive and does not deserve the label of robust science. Unfortunately, I cannot access the entire study to read through the methodology, or the conclusion. While it is considerable evidence, I'm taking the study with a grain of salt. I understand enough about the scientific process to know better than to base an entire claim off of a study done by individuals who did not hold terminal degrees in their field of expertise.

    This article makes me think of mirror neurons and their role in how we relate to one another. Mirror neurons are a relatively new phenomenon in the world of neuroscience. While there are neurotransmitters, like oxytocin, that are responsible for feelings of empathy, mirror neurons are the nerve cells in the brain that fire when we execute a motor action, and when the same, or similar, action is observed. It supports the adage of "monkey see, monkey do". Even though you're not constantly executing the actions that are being mirrored, those neurons are firing, regardless.

    There is an underlying interplay between what we see others do and what we do ourselves, that does not register with our conscious minds. Our ability to interpret the actions of others, especially the facial expressions of others, gives us a more accurate assessment of the emotions of the people around us, which in turn activates the centers of the mind responsible for empathy. David Eagleman, a leading neuroscientist, conducted an experiment where he connected electrodes to the faces of two groups of individuals. One group who had facial botox injections, which paralyze the muscles of the face for cosmetic purposes. The other group had never received this treatment. The group without the handicapped facial muscles had spontaneous expressions, however slight that mirrored the photos shown. They were able to accurately identify the emotions being expressed by the individuals in the photos. The group with the botox injections, not only lacked appropriate facial responses to the expressive photos they were shown, they were also unable to accurately assess the apparent emotions of the people in the photos.

    The study by Konrath and her peers shows a decline in empathy after the year 2000. Botox was approved by the FDA in 2002 and has been widely used across the United States since. I do not purport that botox alone is responsible for this decline in empathy reported by Konrath's meta-analysis of human empathy, but it must be considered as a confounding variable that has contributed to the decline in empathy beyond the year 2000.

    I didn't feel it was appropriate to insert hyperlinks into the comments thread, but if you want to check out more stuff about mirror neurons, google "mirror neurons Nova" and if you are interested in the botox experiment, google "botox david eagleman".

  8. I feel like I must rely on adding emotion to my messages to convey the correct feelings. I find this topic interesting because both face-to-face conversations and messaging have their empathetic strengths and weaknesses. Personally, I don't use emojis very often but I do rely on symbols such as exclamation points to convey excitement and other emotions. However, I find it hard to initiate a face-to-face conversation most of the times I confront a stranger. My experience makes me curious to know if it may be fear that people feel when contemplating to start a conversation? Or is it really because we are becoming less empathetic of each other? If humans stop feeling empathetic for each other, our sentiments will also start to lose meaning. If we stop caring for our friends and family, then what meaning would gifts have? How would we celebrate our holidays? Our emotional attachment to each other is what makes our humanity full of life. Our societies thrives on each other's emotions.

  9. I do not think the emoji response is meaningful. That is why I haven’t used it. I don’t even use the “like” button to support my friends, as appears to be the assumption now. The number of “likes” a post gets is a reflection of how many friends that person has, or how many people support him/her. However, I use it as a way for me to bookmark something I appreciate, so I can come back and look at it again later. If someone writes something meaningful or thought-provoking on Facebook, I’ll bring it up the next time I see them and tell them in person what it meant to me. Often times if I see someone on their birthday, I’ll tell them “Happy Birthday!” in person, rather than just posting to their wall. I try to have face-to-face conversations, especially after this semester with the majority of the essays I read and speeches I’ve heard warning about the decline in real connections between people. I think if humans quit empathizing, nothing would get done in the world. Every action is motivated, and often times emotions motivate those actions. If someone needed help, but someone felt no emotion telling them to help (empathy), they’d end up continuing on their way.
    And yes, I would most definitely suffer an electric shock for a friend.

  10. As an avid user of social media, I do agree that people seem to lack empathy and things such as facial cues are not there to look for when you are chatting online. I find myself quite keen to cues and so are a few of my friends who look for things such as placement of periods, how short the message is, use/lack of emojis, and even formal speech. This sounds a little silly, but it's true and I find that it is very helpful with the lack of facial or body expressions. However, in the case of someone who does not use social media chat lingo to the fullest, it's almost like talking to a wall.

    In contrast, talking to people in person is much easier when deciphering emotions because volume, tone, and facial/body expressions are apparent. A strange phenomenon I have noticed growing up is that some people are far more expressive through text rather than in person conversations which baffles me. It worries me to think that people may only be able to express themselves online and not in person. Group projects and other activities such as sports requiring a group effort may be affected greatly even if the members are excellent players.
    I do agree that people are lacking in empathy greatly and thus they do not think about the effect their actions will have upon others. Things like cat-calling are a great example because too often than not, I hear lame excuses like "It's a compliment, just take it", or yelling crude things when the other party shows no interest. Things like obvious body language go over the harasser's head and polite rejections are taken horribly.

    In all, I don't mean that technology is the cause for all of this, of course there are far deeper foundations built into these occurrences, however, it does play a huge part because of its huge influence in our society.

  11. I use social media a lot, mainly twitter which is 140 characters to a tweet. I definitely do feel like on social media there is a great lack of empathy towards one another. Through texting and comments it is hard to get a sense of emotion just through reading the words unless it is written in a proper way to pull pathos. However, most of the time it's just a quick sympathy comment. Not that I feel like everyone just says "I'm sorry, feel better" just to say it, I do think there are people that genuinely care. Social Media is just an odd platform to express emotion towards another. I prefer face-to-face communication a lot better because I love talking to people and I love being around good company, text messaging has taken over so much of our lives and has been a replacement for that. However it is hard to get that sit down time with a friend because of work, school, family, etc. To answer the question what would happen if humans stop empathizing, I think it would turn the world very cold. Society is based off of human interaction and without a positive input there can never be a good output.


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