Empathy for Jerks (Like Me): The Blindsight of Emotions

This is a work in progress exert from my book Empathy for Jerks (Like Me). If you like this and want more, visit to learn more.

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When I was around 13, my Mum and Stepfather got divorced. This wasn’t my first time dealing with a parental break-up, but as a teenager, it certainly was more complicated and emotionally draining. I remember going to school some days feeling anxious, uncertain and depressed. As a teenager, we really don’t know how to deal with our emotions all that well. I decided that I’d try an age old method commonly used by men in particular: the bottle up method. I would leave our house to walk to school feeling terrible, but by the time I walked into the school gates, I’d pepped myself up to be happy and ‘normal’.
One day, a friend of mine asked my if I was alright. Despite my rapid nods and words assuring him I was fine, he persisted. As a way of not breaking into tears and letting the lid off the bottle, I asked him a simple question.

“Why don’t you think I am okay?”

He couldn’t answer. He said he wasn’t sure. There seemed to be something off about me. I dug deeper, probing for specifics. My friend couldn’t give me any. The details seemed hard to pin down but he was sure something was up. The best answer he could muster:

“I just feel it.” 

In my eyes, this was a compassionate friend and a seemingly inconsequential conversation during a highly tumultuous time, but it was so much more than this. My friend was teaching me more than compassion. He uncovered one of the wonders of the brain. We don’t see emotions the same way we see objects. We don’t visually see them at all. Our ability to read emotions is not computational, it is abstract. In fact, even some blind people can still ‘see’ emotions.

In the mid-70’s, scientists discovered Blindsight. The ability for people with damage or legions in their visual cortex to still report seeing things. What is amazing is, emotional stimuli is amongst the most powerful to create a reaction. In a set of experiments, patients who are legally blind due to damage to, or even surgical removal of, their visual cortex were shown images of human faces. When shown a face that was happily smiling, parts of their brain responded to the picture, even causing some to smile themselves. When they were then asked why they were smiling, the patients couldn’t explain it. The just felt like smiling. 

So what is going on here? Their eyes are functional, meaning the light from the image is being processed in the retina and neural signals are being sent through the brain to the visual cortex, but they are hitting a dead end. None of these signal can be processed. They couldn’t describe the image they were seeing because the part of their brain used to decipher these signal and put them together in a complex image for your conscious awareness was off line. Much like if your laptop screen breaks. Your computer is still able to send information to the screen, it just can’t put it together. So why were they smiling?

It turns out, the signals from your eyes doesn’t just go to the visual processing area of your big, beautiful cortex. They also pass through an ancient, almond shaped part of the brain called the Amygdala. This little part of the Limbic System plays an important role in our daily lives. It is partly responsible for one of the most critical functions of the brain: keeping you alive! The current understanding is that the signals from the eyes, and possibly many of your other senses, first go through the Amygdala. This part of your brain can not develop an image, process colour, movement or even describe things in language, but it gets emotions. In humans, emotions are vital to our social fabric and are often a guide to things like fear, love or safety.

The Amygdala seemingly searches this data that is being sent through for emotional information before it is sent through to be processed by the more fancy parts of your brain.

You see the emotions before you even know you are seeing it. The patients in these experiments showed activity in the Amygdala when shown the image. They couldn’t see the image, but their Amygdala was getting the gist of it. In the same way, my friend could feel something was up without actually being able to pinpoint something he was seeing. We all have this happen from time to time. We walk into a room or see someone and get that feeling in your gut that something is amiss. The reason is that your old brain is keeping a watch for emotions constantly We are subconsciously processing emotions all the time.

There are two important things to consider with this ability to sense emotions without seeing them. Firstly, we need to know that the Amygdala is largely part of our subconscious processing. It works away in the background and doesn’t bother our conscious thoughts unless there is a problem. Then, when something important comes up, it sends signals that something needs attention. But here is where it gets tricky. To make this a bit simpler, let’s describe your body as a party where different parts of your body are different people. For these two parts of your brain, we’ll describe them as Robert for your Conscious Big Brain and Harvey for your Subconscious Systems. Robert is much of your amazing big brain, sophisticated and resplendent. Robert is made up of billions of neurons connected through incredibly complex pathways allowing for the comprehension and creation of language, music and mathematics. Robert can ponder the mysteries of the Universe and share them with other Robert-like brains in other humans. Robert is the well dressed gentleman at the dinner party discussing politics and drinking Pinot Noir.

Harvey, largely representing our Limbic system, is a little different. Our subconscious friend Harvey is a little more simple in structure and had evolved well before Robert ever came on the scene. Harvey doesn’t over complicate things and speaks in grunts and murmurs at best. Harvey is the scruffy looking guy in footy shorts eating a pie and drinking a beer from the small hole he poked in the bottom of the can. But Harvey is a good person to have at the party, because he is always on the look out for problems. He is sort of a human German Sheppard. 

When something happens that Harvey picks up on, maybe like someone tries to break into the party, Harvey takes action. He starts telling the important people at the party that action is needed. When he comes to tell Robert though, it isn’t a perfect conversation. Robert likes to gather specific information and all Harvey can give is a sort of murmur and grumpy face. From this, Robert then sort of knows that something is up, but has to then explore the party himself to gather more information on what’s happening. Your Amygdala flags something but it can’t describe it with any level of sophistication. It is up to Robert to monitor these signals from Harvey, then put them into context and process them rationally. If Harvey seems angry, Robert can simply mirror this and get angry too, or can use other information to make a nuanced distinction between annoyance, anger, disgust or sadness. 

Which leads us to the second point and the biggest realisation we all need to make. Your ability to understand emotions is far more complex than you think. Many people spend a lot of time and money doing courses to read body language, but often they forget that teaching Robert to recognise someone’s arms are crossed and from this assuming that they are disengaged doesn’t cover the whole process. When you first meet someone, Harvey has already summed them up before Robert even gets a look in. You are already processing the emotional information. So what we all need to be able to do more effectively is to listen to our inner Harvey. To recognise the signals he is sending. Not to drag our awareness through a textbook set of social cues that may or may not be accurate, but to quieten our Robert and let the Harvey signals be heard. Then use these basic signals to begin searching for more information to improve the clarity and sophistication of your Harvey signals.

In developing empathy, we need to grow our awareness of the emotional signals we are sending ourselves first. Then improve our ability to understand them by increasing our emotional lexicon. We need to be able to both tap into our subconscious wisdom but to then process this with the sophistication of our conscious awareness. Emotions are rich, complex and can’t be overly simplified. They are also highly contextual and vary greatly between countries, cultures and situations. Sometimes Harvey thinks someone is angry when they are simply a bit cold. Sometimes Harvey reads a smile as fun and flirtatious, when it might be nervous fear. This is where a Robert, well versed in emotional intelligence, can improve our understanding, empathy and quality of relationships.

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