The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty - Simon Baron-Cohen (2011)
Chapter 4. When Zero Degrees of Empathy Is Positive
The three types of people we have met so far have zero degrees of empathy, and they are Zero-Negative because there is nothing desirable about the state they have ended up in. If a cure came along for these forms of Zero-Negative, this would be very welcome. But in this chapter we discover that zero degrees of empathy does not invariably lead a person to do awful things to others. Having empathy difficulties may be socially disabling, but empathy is not the sole route to developing a moral code and a moral conscience that leads a person to behave ethically. This is where we meet people who have zero degrees of empathy but who are Zero-Positive. It seems unthinkable, but bear with me.
Zero-Positive means that alongside difficulties with empathy, these individuals have remarkably precise, exact minds. They have Asperger Syndrome, a condition on the autistic spectrum. People with Asperger Syndrome are Zero-Positive for two reasons. First, in their case their empathy difficulties are associated with having a brain that processes information in ways that can lead to talent. Second, the way their brain processes information paradoxically leads them to be supermoral rather than immoral. Let me make this more concrete by introducing Michael.
Michael is fifty-two years old. He has tried working in different jobs but keeps getting fired because he offends people by saying hurtful things. He claims he doesn’t understand why people take offense at his remarks because all he does is speak the truth. If he thinks someone’s haircut is ugly, he points that out. If he finds a conversation boring, he makes his opinion known. If he thinks someone is wrong, he says so, in no uncertain terms. He confesses he doesn’t really understand people, and he avoids social gatherings such as parties where people are expected to make idle chitchat as he can’t see the point of such flighty, aimless conversation. To his mind, it leads nowhere, and he has no idea how to do it. Conversations based around an issue where evidence can be marshaled in favor of a position are fine. Then he knows where the conversation is heading.
But other people often tell him that when he is trying to persuade them of the rightness of his position, he lectures at them rather having a sensitive dialogue. They often feel they are being pinned against the wall in such discussions because he will not let go of a point until the other person concedes that he is right. But he finds other kinds of conversation stressful because it is so unpredictable. He has a long-suffering mother who can’t get him to understand that there are other points of view besides his own. He asserts that he is right on everything he says because if he does not know about a topic, he remains silent on it. All facts for him are checked and double-checked.
He insists on everything being in its own place at home, with nothing being allowed to move to a new position unless he moves it there. His life operates by a system of rules that he imposes on his parents, rules designed to suit him. They complain that he has no idea how they feel, having to live within his rules. If his mother moves something small in the house, like an ornament from the mantelpiece to a bookshelf, he moves it back to its original position. If she wants to make a bigger change in the design of the house, such as moving the kitchen table over to the window, he will object and move it back. He likes to wear the same jeans, t-shirt, sweater, and shoes every day and eat the same foods every day. Indeed, until he was sixteen, all he ate was cornflakes. Personal hygiene has been a problem.
Even as a child he found social situations confusing and stressful. He didn’t play with other children in the playground, was never invited to their birthday parties, was not picked to be on their team. He avoided the playground by going to the bottom of the playing field at primary school—alone—and counting blades of grass. In the winter when it snowed, he became obsessed with the structure of snowflakes, wanting to understand why each one was different. Other children in his class couldn’t understand what he was talking about because in their eyes all snowflakes looked the same. Although the teacher had told all the class that every snowflake is unique, it seemed that he was the only person in the class who could actually see the small individual differences in the snowflakes. The other children in the class teased him, calling him “snowflake brain.”
In secondary school he avoided social situations by going to the library and reading books about the history of the railway. He accumulated an enormous amount of information about the railway system but hardly spoke to a soul. He describes secondary school as if he simply walked the corridors for six years, from twelve to eighteen. On a few occasions he was bullied, having his bag grabbed. When he chased after the other boys to get his bag back, they taunted him, calling him “nerdy,” picked him up, and put him in the school dumpster.
At university he studied math because he felt it was the only truly factual subject in which things were either true or false. But he kept to himself. He was hoping that all the years of loneliness during his school days would be behind him when he got to university, and he hoped—for the first time in his life—that he would feel accepted by others, fit in, and feel as if he belonged. Sadly, this didn’t happen. Other students seemed to socialize together effortlessly, but he had no idea what to talk to them about. Their conversations still seemed like butterflies, flitting randomly from one flower to another, whereas he preferred conversations that progressed along logically linked linear paths, a series of facts or assertions that followed clearly from the previous step. When people suddenly switched topics or introduced humor or sarcasm or metaphor or—even worse—body language, he was immediately lost. He noticed that “other people seem to communicate through their eyes, not their words, and that they seem to know what each other means or what they are saying.” He didn’t have a clue how they did this mysterious thing.
He dropped out of college because he was becoming depressed, even suicidal, as a result of his loneliness. He moved back to his parents’ home at age twenty-two, spending all day alone in his bedroom and refusing to even have mealtimes with his family. He is now unemployed because he finds interacting with people so stressful. He keeps to himself during the day. His dream is to live in a world without people, where he can have total control. Michael has zero degrees of empathy because as he readily confesses, he has no idea what others are thinking or feeling or how to respond to someone else’s feelings. He has learned a few simple rules, such as “When someone is upset, offer a cup of tea” or “When someone is angry, apologize,” but these rules don’t seem to be very useful.
Michael’s zero degrees of empathy does not lead him to do cruel things to others. He simply avoids others. So here we see that, although low empathy can increase the risk of hurting others, this is not inevitable.
Alongside this lack of empathy, Michael’s brain is always busy doing something else. If you watched Michael in his bedroom, you would see him obsessively drawing tiny patterns on squared paper, lines of different length that fill the page. He feels great pleasure when his patterns of lines produce the golden ratio (1.61803 ... ), which he explains is where the ratio of the sum of two numbers to the larger one (A + B/A) is always the same as the ratio between the larger and the smaller (A/B). He can’t understand why everyone can’t spot such simple, easy patterns, as they recur in so many places, in nature, in architecture, not just in math. In his forties he developed an interest in becoming a bell-ringer. He not only hears the church bells ringing, but he also notices every tiny pattern in the bells. He noticed that his local cathedral has five bells and that to ring all five bells in a row, the longest they can be rung without repeating a row is 120 changes (1 × 2 × 3 × 4 × 5). In his college chapel he noticed that there are six bells and that they can have 720 changes (1 × 2 × 3 × 4 × 5 × 6). And in St Mary’s Church there are eight bells, so they could have 40,320 changes. He loves these timeless patterns.
The Autistic Brain
People who are Zero-Positive have autism spectrum conditions. They, too, show underactivity in almost every area of the empathy circuit.199,200 When they have to read little stories to make judgments about a character’s intentions, motives, and state of mind, or when they have to read language to judge what a person intended, they show reduced activity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC)200-203 When looking at a photo of a person’s eyes they are asked to try to infer what that person might think or feel (decoding the facial expression around the eyes), they have great difficulties and show underactivity in the frontal operculum (FO), amygdala, and anterior insula.83,204,205Brain regions involved in processing gaze, such as the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), are also atypical in autism.206 The pSTS region also responds atypically in people who are Zero-Positive when they are looking at motion that seems animate (e.g., seeing moving dots that resemble the way a person would walk).207 People who are Zero-Positive also show atypical amygdala activity when processing faces and emotion.208-215 And the FO/ inferior frontal gyrus (IFG)—part of the mirror neuron system—in individuals who are Zero-Positive shows reduced activity when they are asked to imitate other people’s emotional facial expressions.72,a
Many of the early studies of mind reading or empathy in people who are Zero-Positive relied on verbal tests (e.g., interpreting stories or sarcastic comments or labeling emotions). To bypass language, researchers have employed a clever task called the Social Attribution (or Animations) Test in which you get to watch an animation of geometric shapes moving about on a computer screen. Most people spontaneously anthropomorphize the movements of these geometric shapes, but people with autism and Asperger Syndrome are less likely to spontaneously interpret the movements of these animations in terms of intentions, thoughts, and feelings. And when people with autism do this task in the MRI scanner, they show the familiar underactivation of the dMPFC and the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ)/pSTS.218-220
In addition to difficulty in understanding others, people who are Zero-Positive have difficulty understanding their own minds, a difficulty called “alexithymia,” which translates as “without words for emotion.”221-224 When people with autism are asked to rate how they feel after viewing emotionally charged pictures, they show less activity during such emotional introspection within a number of regions in the empathy circuit : the dMPFC, the posterior cingulate cortex, and the temporal pole.225 This underactivity in the dMPFC is in the same area where people with autism show their difficulties in reading others’ minds.201,203,219,220 So the neural systems involved in mind reading and empathy all are consistently underactive during empathy tasks in the autistic brain.17,85 The activity of the dMPFC and vMPFC at rest (in terms of its baseline activity) is atypical in autism.b,230,231
Tracking down reduced empathy in the autistic brain has been a major focus of my collaboration with talented former PhD student Mike Lombardo. With his colleagues, he also found atypical neural activity when people with autism thought about themselves. The vMPFC responds most when information is self-relevant. Mike found that in people with autism the vMPFC did not distinguish between the self and others in the usual way. Those who were most socially impaired showed the most atypical vMPFC response.232 He also found that when typical people think about themselves, the vMPFC is usually highly connected with other regions of the brain involved in sensory reactions (e.g., responding to touch), such as the somatosensory cortex. However, in autism the connections between the vMPFC and these lower-level sensory regions were extremely reduced.
This fits with the results from a study by another talented visiting student, Ilaria Minio-Paluello, who came to Cambridge from Rome. Ilaria found that when typical people viewed pictures of other people in pain (e.g., a hand being pricked with a needle), the sensorimotor cortex sent a signal to their hands to flinch, as if they felt what the person in the picture was feeling. This sensorimotor response to others’ pain was much lower in people with autism.233 Thus, lower-level embodied processes affect empathy in autism, and higher-level self-reflection processes are also impaired in autism.
Mike also found a second region in the empathy circuit of Zero-Positive people that responded atypically to self-relevant information: the middle cingulate cortex (MCC). The MCC is usually activate during pain, but it also turns on when information is self-relevant.232 Atypical MCC activity is found in people with autism when they play a game in which they have to decide how much money to trust to a second individual, and then wait to see if the other person will give money back to them or if they keep it all. Typically, the MCC is highly activated in such cooperative social interactions, particularly when someone is contemplating how much to trust another person. 234 However, when people with autism play this game, the MCC isn’t activated when they are thinking about what to do, perhaps because they find it hard to imagine how they will look to another person.235,236,c
So, just like those who are Zero-Negative, people who are Zero-Positive show abnormalities in the same regions of the brain where empathy resides. So what makes Zero-Positive different?
Michael, like other people with Asperger Syndrome, has zero degrees of empathy, but he is Zero-Positive because alongside his empathy difficulties, he systemizes to an extraordinary degree. Systemizing is the ability to analyze changing patterns, to figure out how things work.238,239 Information changes happen in the world all day every day and are either random or nonrandom. If change is nonrandom, there is a pattern to it, and the human brain is tuned to notice patterns. Patterns is another word for repetition: We notice that a sequence of information has occurred before. How well we notice patterns is something that varies in the population. People with Asperger Syndrome have a brain that is exquisitely tuned to notice patterns.
Looking for rules is easy for Michael, but the social world, he has realized, doesn’t seem to have rules. In contrast, the world of church bells is highly lawful, and he has systemized sequences of sounds into repeating patterns so that he can predict the bells with precision. In his drawings he has systemized geometric patterns to predict how the lines will all join up to produce the ultimate, perfect shape. Michael’s personality emerges more clearly when seen side by side with other people with Asperger Syndrome because of their similarities. Kevin, another man with Asperger Syndrome, also finds social situations confusing, and he is never happier than when he goes out into his garden at midnight. At this quiet hour, when people are asleep, he can concentrate on the natural world (his particular interest is in the weather) and on his equipment (for measuring the weather). Each night he records information in his notebook: the date, temperature, rainfall, and wind speed. He has hundreds of such notebooks, with thousands of recordings of these tiny patterns of information. Kevin systemizes the weather in an effort to predict it (at least in his garden). Figure 7 is a photocopy of a page in one of his notebooks.
Figure 7: Kevin’s notebook recording the weather
Daniel Tammet is another man with Asperger Syndrome. Like Michael and Kevin, Daniel grew up afraid of the playground at school because he had no idea how to join in the games that other children played together so effortlessly. Some people compare him to the character that Dustin Hoffman played in the film Rain Man, which was based on a real person (Kim Peek) with autism, because Daniel has remarkable attention to detail and a seemingly infinite memory for detail. In his case, he trained himself to memorize the number pi (which you and I at best just know as 3.1415, to 4 decimal places) to 22,514 decimal places, earning himself the title of European champion in this memory feat.
Daniel systemizes numbers to an extraordinary degree, being able to multiply two six-digit numbers together as fast as a computer. Yet at the age of fourteen he told me he still did not realize he was supposed to look at people when he talked to them, and he had no friends.240,241 And there are others with autism or Asperger Syndrome who struggle to socialize, readily confess they have no idea how to empathize, but have systemized art. Many tend to draw their own favorite images over and over and over again. Having mastered the technique they were aiming for, they then introduce systematic changes in their drawing so that their art progresses from the simple to the magnificently complex. As a child living in Venice, Lisa Perini drew only the letter W. Now, years later, her art has progressed to a remarkable talent.242
Derek Paravicini, blind and with classical autism, can anticipate and produce every note in a piece of music on the piano, whether it is blues or classical, if he has heard the music just once. Despite his talent at systemizing music, his capacity to have a simple conversation is extremely limited, mostly restricted to repeating what the other person says. He rocks back and forth in repetitive ways when alone and cannot function independently at all.243 I met him when he came to play blues in Cambridge in 2006 with boogie-woogie master Jools Holland in a concert we hosted to fund-raise for autism research, and he is a charming young man who amazed the audience at being able to play any request anyone shouted out.
Finally, Peter Myers is a model builder in Yorkshire. Like the others with Asperger Syndrome, he keeps to himself. For him, people are confusing, and he has trouble with conversation because he finds words ambiguous. He finds even the simple question “Where do you live?” unclear because it is not obvious whether the question is about a country, a town, a street, a house, or a room. As a result, communication is an effort and is full of pauses. But this social disability emerges from the very same mind that produces artistic talent. He fills the page with the tiny circles or squares in patterns, where each drawing is the product of thousands of hours of creating the same shape in slightly varied configurations. Figure 8 contains an example of Peter’s patterns.244
The puzzle is why these two seemingly different outcomes (low empathy and strong systemizing) should co-occur in one and the same individual. We will come back to possible solutions of this puzzle a little later, but first, a word or two about “systemizing” (since it lies at the heart of what it is to be Zero-Positive).
Figure 8: Art by Peter Myers
Looking for Patterns
The brain looks for patterns for different reasons. First, patterns enable us to predict the future. If the church bell chimes exactly ten times every Sunday morning at exactly 10 AM, a mind that can systemize can then predict the bell will do so again this Sunday at exactly that time. Patterns in the church bells may not be a matter of life or death, but you can immediately see how such a general pattern-recognition system might have wide applicability—anything from predicting how prices vary in the market to how crops vary in different seasons. Patterns also enable us to figure out how things work by suggesting experiments we can perform to confirm predictions. If I put a battery into my clock, the hands start to move. That’s a nice simple example, but that same ability to spot patterns can enable you to figure out a new device that has no instruction manual or to repair a device that has multiple components. In each case the trick is to manipulate one of these components at a time and see what happens—what pattern is produced.
Another valuable thing about patterns is that they enable us to play with one variable at a time, to modify a system, thereby inventing a new one. If you make a canoe thinner, it moves through water faster. If you change the weight of an arrow, it can fly farther, faster, and more accurately. You can see that spotting such patterns is key to our ability to invent and improve.
Finally, spotting patterns provides us with direct access to the truth because our predictions are confirmed as either true or false. The church bell either does or does not ring as predicted. Philosophers and theologians have long debated what we mean by truth. My definition of truth is neither mystical nor divine, nor is it obscured by unnecessary philosophical complexity. Truth is (pure and simply) repeatable, verifiable patterns. Sometimes we call such patterns “laws” or “rules,” but essentially they are just patterns. Sometimes the truth might not be all that useful (e.g., the British postman uses red rubber bands to bundle the envelopes), and sometimes the truth might be very useful (e.g., an extra chromosome twenty-one will switch a baby to develop Down syndrome). Sometimes the truth will reflect a natural pattern (e.g., left-handedness is more common in boys than girls), and sometimes the truth will reflect a social pattern (e.g., in India you shake your head to show agreement). But it is the repeatability of a pattern that elevates it to the status of truth.
Stepping Out of Time
A fascination with patterns in their own right is what led humans to discover that when a circle’s diameter is 1, its circumference will equal pi (or 3.1415...). Discovered in ancient Babylonia and calculated later with precision by Archimedes [287-212 BC], these early pattern-seekers had no idea that the beautiful pattern of pi they had systemized would find a practical application almost 2,000 years later in Princeton, New Jersey, in physicist Albert Einstein’s relativity theory. This was the human mind seeing the same patterns repeating in the world, irrespective of the time in which they lived. Timeless patterns. The systemizing mind steps out of time to seek truths that are not tied to the present because, at a minimum, they have occurred in the past and have been confirmed to occur in the present. And at least among the natural patterns, the truths may be eternal ones.
There are two ways to systemize. The first is by observation alone. We observe the changing data and then look for a pattern in the data. Is every seventh wave a big one? And does the big one always push the shells farther up the beach? Once we have identified a pattern, we then observe the data again to see if the rule we have formulated (big waves push shells farther) is confirmed by new observations. We test if our prediction about the future is correct and true. The law is then maintained until new data come along that do not fit the law, in which case the law is modified and subjected to more observation. This process can continue round and round in a loop, delivering truths as predictions are confirmed. In this first (observational) route to systemizing, the brain simply observes the input (counting the waves) and the output (the distance the shell is pushed) to identify the law (every seventh wave pushes the shells the farthest). Here, systemizing entails input-output relations.
The second way we systemize is by observation plus operation. We observe the data and then perform some operation (manipulating one variable) and observe the effect of that operation. Did the water rise when we dropped the rock into the bathwater? What the brain is doing in this second route to systemizing is observing the input (noting the initial water level), performing an operation (dropping in the rock), and observing the output (noting the new water level). Here, systemizing entails input-operation-output relations.
We apply these two forms of systemizing to data from any domain that is systemizable. A system is anything that has lawful change or patterns. Both of these two forms of systemizing end up with rules of the form “if p, then q.” A system might have one such rule or might have hundreds or thousands of such rules. A system could be a natural system (like ocean waves), a mechanical/human-made system (like an ax), an abstract system (like mathematics), a collectible system (like a shell collector), a motoric system (like a dance technique), or even a social system (like a legal system). The same remarkable human ability to systemize has enabled humans to understand systems as small as cells or as extensive as the solar system and to build systems as small as an equation or as extensive as a space satellite. Humans can not only figure out nature, but can also harness such knowledge to make life easier and better for the rest of us, enabling us to send a text message from Nairobi to New York in seconds.
The Systemizing Mechanism
Let’s call the “Systemizing Mechanism” those parts of the brain that perceive patterns in changing information, which enables us to figure out how things work and predict the future. The Systemizing Mechanism varies in the population. It has been studied using questionnaires (the Systemizing Quotient or SQ) and tests that evaluate understanding of mechanics.13,245-247 Like the Empathizing Mechanism that we met in Chapter 2, we can glimpse that the Systemizing Mechanism has seven settings, a single mechanism tuned to different settings, from low to high (see Figure 9).
People at Level 0 notice no patterns at all. They might notice that the church bells chimed, but they wouldn’t notice if they chimed in groups or be able to say how many bells there were. Their Systemizing Mechanism is tuned very low. Change just passes them by unanalyzed. Because they are hardly interested in systemizing, they can deal with lots of change. Things can happen unexpectedly, interruptions can occur, or they can switch to a new activity even though they were in the middle of a task, and it doesn’t bother them. They weren’t looking for patterns, so they can deal with change.
Figure 9: The Systemizing Bell Curve
People at Level 1 notice easy patterns, such as strongly rehearsed ones (like even or odd numbers, alphabetical filing systems, or people’s birthdays), but they find it almost impossible to figure out a novel system (like how to use a new appliance in the house). They avoid subjects like mathematics at school, not being able to see the patterns.
People at Level 2 can see new patterns when they are pointed out to them, but it is a struggle, and they don’t see these for themselves. If asked to retrace how a pattern was found, they would not be able to do this on their own. For example, having bought a new cell phone, they might be able to follow how someone else manages to operate it but be unable to do so themselves.
People at Level 3 can cope with simple, short systems, but they may find longer, more complex ones challenging, whereas people at Level 4 are quite adept at negotiating their way through systems. Without needing a manual, they will pickup a device and understand it, confidently and quickly, through trial and error. More women are at Level 3, and more men are at Level 4. In their everyday lives, at these levels people can still handle novelty, unpredictability, and other people, without a second thought.
People whose Systemizing Mechanism is tuned at Level 5 are likely to be interested in patterns and want to look for them in their daily life and work. People at this level gravitate toward the sciences, math, music, technology, and other analytic fields (such linguistics, philosophy, or proofreading/copyediting) where searching for patterns is at the core. They try to create special environments (e.g., science labs) where they attempt to limit the amount of change so that they can analyze the effect of one variable at a time: removing one gene at a time from a mouse to see what happens or looking at a chart of profits one month at a time to see what happens. They like to do one thing at a time.But they are not systemizing all day long, so when they socialize, or when things don’t go as expected, they can deal with unsystematic environments. At Level 5 they like systems, so their lives are more orderly and routine, and they may even start each day by making a list of “things to do today” and work their way through it. But they can still handle the unexpected.
Now we can get back to people with autism or Asperger Syndrome because, according to this account, they have their Systemizing Mechanism turned up all the way to the maximum (Level 6).245 What is life like at Level 6? Here we discover individuals who have to systemize every moment of their waking lives. The only information they are interested in is patterned, systemizable information. Repeating numbers. Repeating musical sequences. Repeating facts. Repeating movements and actions.
But those at Level 6 can look at only one pattern at a time and analyze the pattern only one variable at a time. This search for predictable patterns comes at a terrible price: Anything unexpected is, for them, toxic. Toxic change. A person walks into the bedroom unexpectedly to do something ordinary (like open the curtains) while they are on the computer, and their stress levels go through the roof. A plan that happens every Tuesday gets moved to a Wednesday and provokes a collapse. People at Level 6 are hypersystemizers . These are the children who watch the washing machine going round and round and round for hours, and if pulled away to do something else, will scream and resist change.
This is the world where Daniel Tammet lives, where pi—even to 22,514 decimal places—is always the same. The sequence is comforting and reassuring because it is 100 percent predictable. People at Level 6 find change so difficult that they resist it at all costs, living in a totally controlled universe. The remarkable bonus of life at Level 6 is that a person discovers patterns that no one else notices. Such originality of perception can sometimes be called “genius,” which has been defined as looking at the same information that others have looked at many times before and noticing a pattern that people have missed. The massive downside of life at Level 6 is that you can’t cope with unexpected change.248 These are the people that clinicians say have “autism.”
Consider two more unexpected consequences of life at Level 6. If your Systemizing Mechanism is turned up to the maximum, then you are interested in information only if it is true. Truth becomes the only thing that matters in the world. (Does a hydrangea planted in mildly alkaline soil develop blue petals or in strongly alkaline soil develop pink petals?) The truth matters at all costs. And this is not only in relation to the world of plants and rocks and machines, but also in the world of people. Is my neighbor’s behavior consistent (i.e., true)? Do his words match his actions (are they true)?
People at Level 6 judge other people’s behavior as rigidly as they judge the behavior of inanimate objects. The facts are either true or false. There is no room for shades of gray. People at Level 6 are so focused on the truth they become self-appointed moral whistleblowers when someone breaks a rule, however minor. They accuse others of dishonesty if there is one tiny deviation between what they say and what they do. Whereas people whose Systemizing Mechanism is tuned to lower levels can deal with imprecision, at Level 6 it is precision that defines a system. At Level 6 there is no place for pretense, for figurative language, for vagueness, or for aimless chatting. Just facts.
It is this that at Level 6 creates this form of zero degrees of empathy. The world of people is a world dominated by emotions, where behavior is unpredictable. How someone feels is not something that can be determined with precision. When we empathize, it is because we can tolerate an inexact answer about what another person may feel. (Maybe she is a bit glum or a bit angry). And the world of feelings is unlawful. There are no black-and-white, consistent laws, unlike the world of physics or math. Even worse, a social group means there are many different perspectives, not just a single objective view. Empathy involves simultaneously keeping track, at high speed, of different points of view and fluctuating emotional states in a social interaction.
Here we see the link between Systemizing and Empathizing Mechanisms: If you have a highly tuned Systemizing Mechanism, you are less focused on unlawful phenomena such as emotions, in part because of a need for precision. A highly tuned Systemizing Mechanism turns out to be an additional route to zero degrees of empathy. Whereas if your Systemizing Mechanism is tuned low, you can tolerate imprecision, but at Level 6, it is the opposite. Other people’s behavior is beyond comprehension, and empathy is impossible. When his colleague said to Michael the bell-ringer, “I have to go to my friend’s funeral,” Michael simply replied, “Okay. What time will you be back?”
Michael had no idea his matter-of-fact comment was insensitive. He had not intended to hurt his colleague but simply had no understanding of another person’s feelings. The downside of remarkable systemizing is a lack of interest in unlawful phenomena, the clearest case of which is the world of emotions. So now we see why this form is Zero-Positive. Although reacting to change as toxic and having zero degrees of empathy can be disabling, the love of patterns can lead to a mind that can see things others miss. Indeed, people who were Zero-Positive in human history may have had such a clear perception of patterns that they contributed in remarkable and original ways to the discovery of physical, mathematical, chemical, and other laws of the universe, as well as giving us great music and great art.249
At the outset of this book I defined loss of empathy as occurring when one person treats another person as an object. But not everyone who treats others as objects intends to cause harm. For example, people with classic autism frequently treat others as objects, yet I would not want to group them with those who knowingly cause harm. Classic autism is the other major subgroup on the autistic spectrum, aside from Asperger Syndrome. I have argued that Asperger Syndrome is a case of Zero-Positive, but what about classic autism?
When I started my research into autism in the early 1980s, I read Baltimore child psychiatrist Leo Kanner’s description of a boy in his clinic: “When a hand was held out to him, so he could not possibly ignore it, he played with it briefly, as if it were a detached object.... When he had any dealings with persons at all, he treated them, or rather parts of them, as if they were objects.... It was as if he did not distinguish people from things, or at least did not concern himself about the distinction” (italics added).250
Now, some thirty years later, contemplating why people treat others as objects, I am drawn back to Kanner’s clinical account. Many of these children treat others as objects, but fortunately it often does not lead to any major harm. They may ignore you, or appear oblivious of you, but there is no intent to do harm. Occasionally, if you get in the way of their desires, you could, of course, be the victim. For example, Michael Blastland writes about his own child with autism, Joe, that “when he wants something from me, I must suppose that I am Nature’s universal vending machine, the great button to all desire, which if pressed frequently enough will provide.”251
How must it feel to be treated as if you were nothing more than a vending machine? At some level, all parents have had the experience that their child is simply treating them as if they will satisfy their every demand, as if the parent has no feelings or needs of their own. But unlike a child with autism, most children also eventually detect that their parent is tired or upset or needs a rest. They know when to stop hassling. Some children are quicker at sensing their parent’s feelings than others. Children with autism may sadly be blind to the very existence of other people’s feelings, which can lead them to pursue their own desires regardless of the other person.
Blastland and Joe were in an elevator in a local shopping center one day, and a mother came in with her baby in a stroller. The baby started to cry, and Joe—to everyone’s shock—punched the baby to shut her up. Michael asks in his book: How do you explain to a complete stranger, this woman who cares about her baby more than anyone else in the world, that the pain that your son has just caused was not malicious, bad behavior, but is because your ten-year-old son has no idea that another person can suffer pain or feel hurt by a punch?
According to Michael, Joe treats people, including this little baby, as one would an object. If the video player is too loud, there is a button to push to turn off the volume. If this baby is too loud, try hitting it to see if that turns off the volume. Blastland describes how Joe hurled a toy brick at his sister with equally little awareness of her pain. But Blastland makes the point, and I agree with him, that Joe is no psychopath. His lack of awareness of others’ feelings means he is not knowingly hurting them. The psychopath is aware that he is hurting someone because the “cognitive” (recognition) element of empathy is (largely) intact, even if the “affective” element (the emotional response to someone else’s feeling) is not. The person with classic (low-functioning) autism often lacks both of these components of empathy.
All these stories illustrate how there are several ways to arrive at a point where one person can treat another person as an object. Joe may not have the evident “savant” talents of some of the people with Asperger Syndrome we have met in this chapter, but even in him, a boy with classic autism, we can glimpse his excellent attention to detail and love of patterns. Note, too, that pianist Derek Paravacini, who we encountered earlier, would be better described as having classic autism than Asperger Syndrome because his language is limited mostly to repeating others’ phrases, and aside from his clear musical genius, many of his self-help skills are quite limited and he remains totally dependent. But because there is no clear-cut dividing line between autism and Asperger Syndrome, we should see them both as potential forms of Zero-Positive. I say potential because if an individual has very severe learning difficulties, this may prevent her strong systemizing from being expressed as talent.
Life Without Zero-Positive?
Zero-Positive is clearly a special case in which empathy is compromised but pattern recognition and systemizing are enhanced. It prompts the question: Where would Homo sapiens be if the Systemizing Mechanism had not been ramped up to high levels? Arguably, we would not have as much (perhaps any) technological innovation, and we would still be preindustrial and prescientific. Strong systemizing allows humans, alone among the species, to ask “What if?” questions. I recently watched an episode of Myth Busters on the Discovery Channel in which people posed a “What if” question: What if we tried to raise a sunken boat just using ping-pong balls? Would the boat float to the surface? This is just the kind of ludicrous question that scientists enjoy asking. (The answer by the way is yes: It takes 25,000 empty ping-pong balls to float a twenty-foot sunken boat.) Because humans can systemize, we have every kind of technology, from skateboards to iPhones. None of this would exist were it not for the ability we see writ large in Zero-Positive. Society owes a special debt to those who have innovated in the fields of technology, music, science, medicine, mathematics, history, philosophy, engineering, and other systemizing fields. The fact that they may be challenged when it comes to empathy is all the more reason to make our society more Zero-Positive-friendly.
So we’ve seen that people who are Zero-Positive show empathy difficulties in their behavior and that there are abnormalities in the empathy circuit in their brains. We’ve also seen that, despite low levels of empathy, this group of individuals does not for the most part act in cruel ways toward others. They are not like the Zero-Negative Type P, for example, because even though most people may develop their moral codes via empathy, these individuals have developed their moral codes through systemizing. They have a strong desire to live by rules and expect others to do the same for reasons of fairness. James Blair was one of the first to show intact aspects of moral development in autism, but recent theories see superdeveloped moral codes in people with autism, who are intolerant of those who bend the rules. People with Asperger Syndrome are often the first to leap to the defense of someone who is being treated unfairly because it violates the moral system they have constructed through brute logic alone. As such, people who are Zero-Positive (those with Asperger) are often among the law enforcers, not the lawbreakers. They warrant their “positive” status because they systemize to an extreme degree.
Interestingly, their parents show an echo of the same profile, raising the possibility that this is the result of genetics. For example, parents of children with autism show mild difficulties in reading the mind in the eyes of others. They also show a similar pattern of underactivity in regions of the empathy circuit in the brain when reading other people’s emotions and thoughts from the face. Equally, siblings of children with autism exhibit intermediate activation of the amygdala, between autistic and normal levels, during face-processing,204,213,252,253 implicating genetic factors. Parents of children with autism are also overrepresented in systemizing professions, such as engineering.
We’ve hedged around the role of genetics, but it is now time to examine head-on the role of genes in empathy.