You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.” – John Steinbeck, writer, 1902-1968
Empathy and the Simulation Theory
I have always been fascinated to see in how many ways a marijuana high can enhance empathic skills in users. My interest in this effect of marijuana was first sparked when I experienced it myself about 15 years ago. I noticed it with excitement because I had already had a long standing philosophical interest and research focus on empathy.
In contemporary philosophy of mind, philosophers like my teacher Simon Blackburn took a fresh look at theories of human understanding and empathy in the late 1980s, arguing for a version of what would become known as the “simulation theory of human understanding”. So far, cognitive scientists and philosophers basically thought that we understand humans on the basis of a learned “folk- psychology”, a quasi-theoretical body of psychological knowledge that allows us to make generalizations and give explanations about how people feel and behave. This position was labelled as the “theory-theory”, because it relied on the claim that we all -mostly unconsciously- use something like a psychological theory when understanding others.
Briefly, the simulation theory stated that in order to understand others, we use of a special cognitive ability to “put ourselves in the shoes of other people”. In other words, rather than just using a psychological theory about others, we understand them by simulating them, looking at the world from their point of view. Looking for an empirical confirmation, proponents of the simulation theory argued that many autists (especially high functioning autists) would be able to grasp theoretical psychological concepts and generalizations, but would have deficiencies to imaginatively simulate others, which would explain their problems with empathic understanding. Cases of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) have stayed in the focus of philosophers, psychologists & cognitive and neuroscientists when it comes to theories of human understanding and empathy.