The social role of empathy at the root of emotional intelligence.

“You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.”
John Steinbeck

Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

In the previous post on this topic, Empathy I, I referred to the unreal difference between cognitive and emotional empathy, and that these are two ways to experience the same thing. There is a school of thought that intellect and emotion are distinct because they are perceived as different and because they involve different parts of the brain.

A step closer is to say that when I act like you feel, then I’m empathizing. When a person is acting fully and honestly, then that is generally good enough, but now our experience is based on being authentic and honest, and how well defined are those? As it turns out, authenticity and honesty are poorly defined and, consequently, empathy is poorly understood.


Emotion emerges from the integration of all that you know. Emotion represents an integrated, visceral experience of what you think. Similarly, what your eyes perceive, and what you think about what you see are complementary aspects of the same thing. Apperception is the combination of perception and cognition. Similarly, what we call comprehension combines what you feel and what you think, emotion and intellect. One shapes the other. Without both your thinking is defective.

The two experiences of empathy are different aspects of comprehension. From an intellectual perspective you use reason to build understanding. This is built on language, memories, and associations. From this, you build a story which is your understanding of what you see.

Your emotional perspective is a form of perception. Unlike vision, it is not generated by a sensory organ but by your limbic system. Your limbic system, an older and more central brain structure, receives signals from your peripheral nervous system, your gut, and other parts of your body. You feel and store emotions in your body.

We used to presume we rationalized first, and then developed emotional attitudes. This is how things appear since our feelings are unclear until they’ve been stated. In fact, we perceive and decide on a response first—based on preexisting reflexes, aptitudes, and attitudes—and then build a rationalization after we’ve already decided what to do. This sounds exactly the opposite of what we experience, but we can actually see this happening in the brain. The person whom you think of as “you” is not the master of your thoughts, it is the product of them.

This is consistent with the emerging view that emotion underlies cognition; emotions are things that pull thoughts together rather than things that hold us apart. The uncertainty that emotions make you feel more accurately reflect your state of knowledge than the rationalizations you have concocted to explain them. Investigations that examine where thoughts happen find intellectual function to be localized, while emotions involve many brain regions.

Not all emotions are equal. This is obvious, but there is a tendency to give them equal weight such as when we talk about the seven basic emotions, which are anger, happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, contempt, and surprise. It’s as if we’re trying to be democratic when, in fact, emotions are more like a layered ecosystem.

Discriminating emotions implies we can tell the feelings apart, but it does not mean that they exist, that can be put in relation to one another, or that they are fundamentally different. As with the experience of colors in vision, their difference reflects different experiences that we create, not differences in the phenomena that we perceive. Like color vision, it is likely that our different emotions are different mixtures of similar elements.


Emotions are a good example of the power of naming. The power of naming is our tendency to believe to be real those things that we can name. Seventy five percent of people believe in the reality of god and the soul, but if these ideas could not be named, then forming a consensus would be more difficult.

The fallacy of the reality of things that can be named is a cultural prejudice that has degraded our thought. It leads to, among other things, our feeling more entitled to the things that we want, which we can reinforce through discussion, rather than the things that we should do, develop, or need to understand, about which we are less able to form a consensus.

The power of naming is linked to the power of words, the development of the intellect, and the emergence of the ego. Once we can name ourselves, our feelings, and our needs they become more real than those things we cannot name. This began with the first cave paintings and it is still very much developing today. The task of integrating emotion with intellect is part of the essential task of our species, which is to develop a more integrated form of knowledge leading to a better chance of survival.

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Think of empathy as a meta emotion, something that integrates our emotional experience. It is the ability to understand emotion in others in a way that’s similar to how intellect enables us to understand the thoughts of others. We are told to think of empathy as a reaction or reflex, something that just happens. Something that you have to some degree. It is likely much more than that.

Some people think intellect is measured by intelligence, and that intelligence exists on a single spectrum. We now recognize that intelligence comes in many forms, and some are more open to development through experience and exercise than others. While there seem to be inherited abilities and built-in limitations, there are many steps in the expansion of intelligence with different combinations of innate and learned aptitudes at every stage.

As intellectual intelligence changes, so does emotional intelligence. A person who learns to think better also learns to better manage their emotions. Similarly, people who do not learn intellectually do not learn emotionally. But let’s be clear: learning intellectually does not mean learning facts or functions, it means learning to think and express oneself. Just as an engineer grows intellectually through the practice of engineering, so also does an abstract artist learn to think better through their practice.

The larger question is how to facilitate emotional learning. A slightly smaller question is how to facilitate empathic learning. We can ask smaller questions still about how to enhance learning of each of the emotions we identify as separate. But we don’t ask these questions. It’s only recently that anyones even phrased the question of emotional intelligence and there has been little attempt to develop an understanding of emotional learning.

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Accept that feeling is a form of intelligence. Accept empathy as being able to understand the feelings of others. Focus on the learning of empathy. We must learn to understand the feelings of others before we can communicate our feelings.

As a species we are currently at a stage where we have only rudimentary abilities to communicate feelings. We are essentially at a pre-language state in the realm of emotions. As a species, we are emotionally non-verbal. Think of learning empathy as how you would learn of a new idea. It takes us back to the question of how we learn anything.
The question is not whether empathy is important, the question is not how much empathy one should have. Empathy is no more a “thing” than intellect is a thing. Empathy is an integral part of understanding, learning, and navigating emotional intelligence.

If you have ever wondered why human history has been such a disaster of conflict and suffering, the answer is that humans lack key components of emotional intelligence. In particular, they lack empathy. The last 10,000 years have been a flash in the course of human evolution, an electrical short-circuit that has resulted in the abrupt emergence of intelligence before self-understanding.

Consider the situation of crossing a chasm, where, in this case, the chasm is your lack of empathy. There are several ways to approach the problem. You’re familiar with the first two, and probably unfamiliar with the third.

  1. The first approach is to view this as an impossible problem because you have no bridge. This is the materialist approach. From this viewpoint you’ll never understand yourself or others because you don’t have this knowledge now and you never have. You proceed with what you already know and ignore the problem. This is what we usually do when confronted with an unsolvable problem. It’s called denial and the key to maintaining denial is rationalization.
  2. The second approach is experimental. You recognize aspects of the problem, but not so much as to panic or despair. You shore up your defenses, arrange your priorities, and see what you can accomplish with the tools at your disposal. This can work for familiar problems and it yields incremental improvements, but it won’t work for learning something qualitatively new because it maintains the status quo. This is the intelligent approach and you can compare it to building a huge cantilever. This actually would succeed in building a bridge if the problem was really just a lack of engineering, but in this case the span is too large. You can’t reach a new destination by following existing paths.
  3. The third approach is exploratory, which means going beyond what you know. It’s important to recognize that while this can feel dangerous, and it inevitably leads to certain kinds of loss, it does not have to be catastrophic. We’re wired to fear novelty because of its destructive potential, but to explore successfully you must gain some mastery of this process. You must learn how to take risks, resolve loss, and incorporate useful novelty. These are exactly the skills institutions do not teach us and which we must learn ourselves.


Start by freeing yourself from institutions. This is exactly counter to the institutional trend that we see in the world today. That is to be expected. Structures grow large and display their imbalance before they collapse. This happens both in the decay of concepts as well as the decay in structures. Sterile concepts like “the singularity,” the complete control of consciousness by machines, goes hand in hand with failure of the media or industry to provide resources for independence.

Runaway growth often presages the need for change as the system reaches its extreme. We ignore the incremental destruction that we have isolated ourselves from, such as the destruction of the forests and the decimation of the insects, and we focus on the illusions that motivate us, such as prospects for new wealth, power, and exploitation.

The existing structures try to maintain themselves by circling the wagons. Advertisements and inducements appear everywhere in the crumbling society. The forces undermining these structures are creating opportunities that lie beyond these structures. Some form of reorganization is required to reach them. The choice is to give up one’s autonomy and become an internal part of the system, or to move out of the system and expand outside the system’s boundaries. It’s the choice between tending a garden or driving a pickup truck.

Freeing ourselves from institutions does not mean destroying institutions, it means creating possibilities beyond what they provide. For example, nationalism is emotionally constipating, while creativity can be emotionally releasing. Communities are constipating, but families can be empowering. At the root, your ego tends toward constipation, while expanding your sense of self allows for emotional release. Your ego is, to varying extents, your internalization of the institutions around you.


I work from the bottom up. I don’t see intelligent change at the highest level. The Covid-19 experience demonstrated how politics moves to maintain its structure at the expense of people’s lives. When confronted with a solution that threatens the system’s built-in flaws, the system blocks those solutions.

I’m referring to the issue of the drug ivermectin, which could have ended the pandemic six months ago (see March 31, 2020 summary at TrialSiteNews). There have been four panels of expert doctors and epidemiologist and the study referenced here is the fourth. They have all come to the same conclusion which is that ivermectin should be globally distributed to everyone now. The results of over 20 randomized clinical trials has established beyond doubt that ivermectin is highly effective in eliminating the SAR-Cov-2 virus. This last meta-analysis concluded that this cheap, safe, and widely used medicine

  1. reduces the transmission of Covid-19 by 88%,
  2. reduces the risk of death by 83%,
  3. reduces by 50% the progression of the disease in those who are infected.

Instead of endorsing the use of this medicine, it is being rejected because it threatens the power structure. Not only is the medicine not endorsed, it’s supply is being held back, and all news about ivermectin has been censored from government and mainstream press.

The political structures are committed to supporting monetary investments and sacrificing human opportunities. They cannot sacrifice profit structures to support human opportunities. Repurposed drugs like ivermectin, from which profits have already been extracted, are not supported as they supplant the pharmaceutical equation that looks to continuity, control, and return on investment.

Politicians, industrialists, entrepreneurs, mainstream media, and invested thought leaders accept this equation and reject threats to social engineering. This is reflected in layers of preference for more conformity and less individuality.

Vaccination and group behavior are institutionally preferred because they are consistent with social control. The vaccination debate centers on the difference between institutional profit and individual benefit. This is not really a debate, it’s a confusion. It could easily be clarified and people could be correctly informed, but institutions will not clarify this. The “vaccine debate” is a red herring.

Medications, like ivermectin, are less preferred as they differentiate individuals and encourage independence. Allopathic medicine is institutionally supported to constrain this independence, and most people accept this. Yet in the Covid-19 pandemic we see doctors and front line health care providers advocating for effective medicines while their controlling institutions—governments, hospitals, and public health care agencies—reject and suppress them. This institutional failure is what gave populists like Donald Trump the opportunity to rise to power, and it will do so again.

Personal empowerment involves building immunity and integrity through changes in diet, introspection, improvements in sleep and nutrition, and control of addictive patterns. These personal initiatives are the least institutionally welcome as they encourage sensitivity at the most personal, detailed, and socially uncontrolled level.

We observe doctors advising improvements in these areas, but doctors are not trained or allowed to practice in these areas. In the free market, such as it is, government agencies, medical colleges, research and academic institutions fight to prevent unauthorized solutions such as herbal remedies, indigenous healing, or unapproved innovation.

Personal empowerment threatens institutional power. Institutionally minded people have been trained to react against it. We see this in the five-fold increase in psychopathy in people who are institutional leaders. These are antisocial people who have the power to control social change. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed disorganization and accelerated change in political, economic, and social structures.

I don’t believe we will solve the ecological crisis through institutional means. Instead, our large institutions will be destroyed by it. That may sound like a grim assessment, but that’s only if you’re attached to them. Which is to say, that’s only if you have built these institutional structures into your personality. Naturally, if you’re like most people, you have.

Learning empathy is related to the environmental crisis in a way that the Covid-19 situation demonstrates. If we had more empathy for the dying millions, we would not be as indifferent as we are to the role we play and the responsibility we have in policing our own system. It is because we allow our institutions to define our thoughts and feelings that the pandemic continues, and similarly with other structural crises.

What’s Next

There are more installments in this series on empathy. The next part contrasts empathy with sympathy and argues that they are almost opposites.

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