Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Attachment, Empathy and Human Agency- a response to Glenn Wallis’ The Empathic Dogma

In two recent essays[1], Glenn Wallis, author of the controversial blog Speculative Non-Buddhism, takes issue with the notion of “empathic resonance”, particularly when the existence of “mirror neurons” is submitted as evidence for the ability to “feel another’s pain”.  Glenn criticizes this notion, especially as it has been co-opted by influential Buddhist figures, because he finds that it perpetuates human bondage in sad contradiction to Buddhism’s own “emancipatory teachings”.

Glenn claims that, to be more consistent with classical Buddhist teaching, the notion of "empathic resonance” needs to be replaced with a notion that is more interactive, one that would account for our responses to each other on the basis of reactions to gesture, facial expression and language, rather than on the basis of an inert “reactivity” that bypasses human agency.

The purpose of this response is not to deal with Glenn’s exploration of empathy as it pertains to what he calls x-Buddhism, but to challenge his presentation of empathy itself.


There is ample evidence to suggest that empathy, far from being the enemy of human agency, enables us to risk leaving our personal comfort zone for the sake of individual or social emancipation.

Consider the research by attachment theorists who have observed the effect of maternal empathy on human development.  Here we find very compelling evidence to suggest, not only that the cultivation of inter-connectedness is the foundation of future separation and individuation, but that its absence is correlated with later personality disturbances such as narcissistic and borderline personality disorder, as well as with antisocial behavior, criminality and so-called “reactive attachment disorder”, i.e. disorders that strongly interfere with our ability to act when this threatens our personal comfort zone.

On this theory, “resonance” between an infant and his mother is not a passive neurological response.  It refers to an interaction that occurs at very subtle levels of awareness and actually looks a lot like Glenn’s “reaction to facial expressions, gestures, etc”.  Mother and child may not be able to identify every discrete action and reaction, but they are attuned to each other and exquisitely responsive nevertheless.  This can be observed when their interaction is slowed down and reviewed frame by frame: eyes alight searchingly upon each other’s faces, smiles and gazing mutually encourage each other, and physical contact excites and arouses or, conversely, calms and tranquilizes, as the situation dictates.  They are like two tuning forks responding to each other, they’re in sync.  They “resonate”.

I do not have the same problem as Glenn with the word “resonance”; to me it aptly conveys the dialogue of attachment as a vibrant though near-imperceptible dance between two sentient beings.


Although we would be hard-pressed to provide evidence that we can actually “feel each other’s pain”, we would be equally hard-pressed to disprove that we are predisposed to form deep attachments to each other or that our survival depends on this connection.

The minute we are severed from the womb we reach for connection with the mother.  Deprive an infant of connection and he will fail to thrive; he will languish and expire.  Give him love and he will flourish so he can separate, individuate and ultimately differentiate from whatever social group he belongs to—and die.

We are “wired” from birth to attach.  That is a fact.  Why should this be a problem?

While scientistic theories falsely attribute this fact to sympathetic neurological responses in a way I find mechanical and dehumanizing, this does not make empathy itself the problem, and I see no reason to be “against” it.  What I am against is when the dance between two sentient beings is reduced to a synaptic jerk-off that can hardly be called “empathic”.

But attachment theory does not do this.  It is descriptive not explanatory.  In fact, as a phenomenology, it explores its subject without systematically transforming its findings into a theory of first causes.

We need not discard the fact of empathy along with our scientistic theories about it.


Glenn claims that “sympathetic connectedness” poses a threat to human agency.  He is in agreement with Jan Slaby who believes that empathic resonance “drowns the potential for critique and resistance… on the level of sentiment, interpersonal style and emotional conduct.”

Glenn and Slaby equate empathic resonance with mind-numbing emotional drunkenness when what is evidenced in mother-child bonding scenarios is just the opposite: attunement, sensitivity and alert responsiveness.  Empathic connection does not make anyone flaccid and spineless.  On the contrary, being deprived of empathic connection is what, over time, makes us limp and despondent.

I am not sure what Glenn and Slaby base their views on.  They seem to be confusing empathy with a weak and anesthetized response.  But that would be an imposter.  Real empathy has heart.  And balls.

An undifferentiated amorphous state of equanimous emotional disconnection poses more of a threat to human agency than emotional connection ever will.

Whither empathy?

Glenn rejects the predominant Buddhist view of empathy and compassion as combining “automatic, low-level ("resonance") and mental, high-level ("cognitive reappraisal") dimensions”, and I agree that this repulsive marriage of neurobiological reflexes and categorical imperatives should be rejected as a mechanical kind of obedience devoid of both affect and reflection.

But what if empathy were not presented as “low level” and polarized with respect to the intellect?  What if, instead, it were seen as the interactive encounter it really is?

I think the real problem lies, not in “empathic resonance” per se, but in positing a “social brain” (or some other invisible connection between separate brains) as an explanation for this kind of intimate encounter; or in extrapolating from a phenomenology of attachment the conclusion that we are capable of “feeling another’s pain”.  The latter indeed suggests, not only a Buddhistically “untenable concept of personhood” (Wallis), but one that is oxymoronic as well, for it claims: “we two are one”.

One can observe the phenomenon of “empathic resonance” without subscribing to a metaphysical theory about its transpersonal origins.

I am all for that.
[1] Against Empathy and The Empathic Dogma