Physical empathy and channels of communication


I was relaxing on a common-room couch, when one of my friends started talking about a clapping game that she’d learned back in her home country. I’ll call it patty-cake for reduced identifiability, and call her Pepper. Another friend (let’s call her Salt) ran over and said “teach me!”, so she taught her how to play it. I was in an introspective mood, so I wondered aloud - why did I feel sad about this?

It wasn’t that I especially wanted to learn patty-cake. It wasn’t even that I expected that Pepper would refuse to teach me if I asked. The problem was that even if I got Pepper to teach me the game, it wouldn’t be the same kind of interaction that she’d had with Salt. But what was that kind of interaction, and why did we all agree that it wouldn’t have been the same if I’d been the one to ask?

I was uncertain about whether it would have been weird to ask Pepper to teach me, because the rules for negotiating different kinds of social touch are complicated. If I’d been feeling down and wanted a hug, I’d have known that it was OK to ask Pepper for one, she likely would have gladly hugged me, because hugs are a fairly normal thing to ask for in my community. On the other end of the spectrum, propositioning Pepper for sex would have been outside the range of the kind of social touch it would have been appropriate for me to ask for, for several very clear reasons including (least identifiably) the fact that we hadn’t ever flirted. But I wasn’t sure where patty-cake fell on this spectrum. It was nominally a sort of casual game for friends to play, but it’s also typically played homosocially among girls, which suggests that it might be a weirdly intimate type of social touch for a man to request.

When I asked Pepper about it, she thought that it would indeed have been different for me to ask, but only because I would have asked in a different way. And she was right - I would have hesitated after the first impulse, and Salt, having no such reason to hesitate, was able to ask spontaneously, directly voicing her desire to learn the game. Her request had an immediacy to it that made it light, while mine would have been gravely considered. Salt spoke from the heart. I could only speak from the head. Because the heart isn’t safe.

Transacting on more than one channel

Transactional analysis is a school of psychology that focuses on how many interactions aren’t really about the overt content of the interaction, but are games where people get to interact with one another while playing their preferred roles. Eric Berne’s Games People Play is the classic work on this, naturally focusing on dysfunctional games because those are the ones people want help getting out of. Berne defines transactions and games as follows:

The unit of social intercourse is called a transaction. If two or more people encounter each other… sooner or later one of them will speak, or give some other indication of acknowledging the presence of the others. This is called transactional stimulus. Another person will then say or do something which is in some way related to the stimulus, and that is called the transactional response. [...] A game is an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome. Descriptively, it is a recurring set of transactions… with a concealed motivation… or gimmick.

A simple example of an innocuous transaction is two people saying hi to one another. A lot of smalltalk is in the form of more or less ritualized transactions.

There’s no reason transactions have to be limited to verbal exchanges, though - nodding at each other can be as good as saying hi, depending on context. There are many languages - or, better, channels - in which transactions can occur, not all of them verbal. And even transactions with a verbal component don’t all occur in the same language. Berne’s games are in a very different language from transactions where the literal content of the verbal exchange is what the transaction’s actually about. To illustrate, I’ll give one example of a game in Berne’s sense: If It Weren’t For You:

Mrs. White complained that her husband severely restricted her social activities, so that she had never learned to dance. Due to changes in her attitude brought about psychiatric treatment, her husband became less sure of himself and more indulgent.  Mrs. White was then free to enlarge the scope of her activities.  She signed up for dancing classes, and then discovered to her despair that she had a morbid fear of dance floors and had to abandon this project.

[...] Out of her many suitors, she had picked a domineering man for a husband. She was then in a position to complain that she could do all sorts of things “it if weren’t for you.” Many of her woman friends had domineering husbands, and when they met for their morning coffee, they spent a good deal of time playing “If It Weren’t For Him.”

As it turned out, however, contrary to her complaints, her husband was performing a very real service for her by forbidding her to do something she was deeply afraid of, and by preventing her, in fact, from even becoming aware of her fears. This was one reason [...] [she] had chosen such a husband.

His prohibitions and her complaints frequently led to quarrels, so that their sex life was seriously impaired.  She and her husband had little in common besides their household worries and the children, so that their quarrels stood out as important events.


Both Mr. and Mrs. White are participating in a game; they are not consciously aware of their active participation.  As with any game, at least one party must achieve a “payoff” for the game to proceed.  In this game, Mrs. White, and to a lesser degree Mr. White achieve their respective payoffs.  In Mr. White’s case, by restricting Mrs. White’s activities, he can retain the role of domineering husband, which provides him comfort when things do not necessarily go his way.

Mrs. White obtains her payoff at many levels.  On the psychological level, the restrictions imposed by Mr. White prevent Mrs. White from experiencing neurotic fears or being placed in phobic situations. By having Mr. White prevent her from being placed in these situations, Mrs. White does not have to acknowledge (or even be aware of) her fears.  On the social level, Mrs. White’s payoff is that she can say “if it weren’t for you.”  This helps to structure the time she must spend with her husband, as well as the time spent without him. In addition, it allows her to say “if it weren’t for him” with friends.

Berne focuses on conflict, but similar kinds of transactions are ways for people to learn how to connect on a much wider bandwidth than conscious explicit communication can allow.

When two people try to connect with each other, they need some initial icebreaker transaction. They typically try to send and receive signals on commonly used channels. But to deepen the connection, they need to widen the signal bandwidth, by being able to execute transactions in multiple registers, using multiple faculties of perception and communication - in other words, using more than one channel at a time. I felt sad about not being able to perform the patty-cake transaction, because it stood for a cluster of common modes of connection that I don’t seem to have access to.

Small talk is a common channel. It is low on content precisely because it’s about laying the groundwork for exchange of content. Participants in the small talk phase of a conversation are sending and receiving information about things like their emotional state and willingness to engage in substantive conversation. Another common channel typically used in concert with smalltalk is facial expressions and body language.

Slightly less common channels used for bonding are banter, talking about sports or current events, and voicing political opinions that the other person is likely to share. Conversants establish membership in and affiliation with one group, often in opposition to others.

Other channels include analyzing a question of interest to one or both people, practical cooperation like holding the door open for someone, or talking about a book one conversant has read.

Often, the channel on which an important transaction is occurring isn’t the same as the foregrounded activity. From time to time, a friend will host some sort of game night. People talk about this as a way to make friends, saying that they get some sort of social feeling of closeness from it. This seems not to work on me - I don’t feel closer to the other people I’ve played a board game with afterwards, probably because I’m oblivious to the channel on which the important transactions are happening. I suspect that the relevant channel has to do with having a bunch of subtly positive interactions, using implicit communication, while in physical proximity to each other.

Foundational empathy

I used to think that when people talked about not wanting to do something because other people would make bad faces at them, they were speaking entirely metaphorically, where “bad faces” were a proxy for the information received that other people would disapprove, which would harm their long-term interests. But it turned out that some people actually find it unpleasant when people glare or scowl at them!

Similarly, some people are described as having “infectious” smiles or laughter, not just because they’re so enthusiastic that they draw many others’ attention to the good thing they’re excited about - but their joy or excitement is somehow directly transmitted to the people around them.

These were surprising things for me to learn because I have an unusually low amount of what I call physical empathy. I’m often high-energy even when surrounded by low-energy people, or calm when those around me are anxious. It’s not because I’m Kipling’s If Man:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you

It’s because I’m oblivious.

What I mean by physical empathy is not quite the same as what Ozy describes as hot empathy:

Hot cognitive empathy is an intuitive sense: you look at someone and just know that they’re sad, you easily grasp that calling someone’s hat ugly is an insult, and you see a present and can easily recognize that it’s the perfect present for another person. Conversely, cold cognitive empathy is rational and deliberate. If you have cold cognitive empathy, you might have certain rules: for instance, you might pick a Christmas present by listing out all the things the person likes and what they might need, or you might comfort someone by fetching them tea and offering them a hug. You might deliberately put yourself into their shoes, imagining what you would feel like in that situation: “well, her dog just died, and I would be sad if someone I cared about died, so I bet she’s sad.” I tend to think about people’s personalities the same way I’d think about what a fictional character wants and how they’d react to things, but then I spent a lot of time writing fanfic as a teenager.


The big problem with cold cognitive empathy is that hot cognitive empathy deals with a lot of complexities in human interaction subconsciously, where the person doesn’t have to think about them. Representing all those complexities consciously through a process of rational deliberation is really hard. Think about it like throwing a ball: your brain is doing a bunch of subconscious trigonometry to figure out what angle to throw it at, which you don’t have access to. You might not even know how to do trig. If you had to calculate it all yourself, throwing balls would take a really long time and you probably wouldn’t be any good at it.

Hot empathy, as described, seems to comprise all instantaneous subconscious assessments of someone else’s feelings, regardless of whether they are learned or inborn, from social convention or involuntary physical expressions. What I mean by physical empathy is something narrower: automatically reading others’ emotional state by picking up on their involuntary physical expressions of emotion, and mimicking the brain state most likely to produce them. It’s an important function of mirror neurons:

A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate species. Birds have been shown to have imitative resonance behaviors and neurological evidence suggests the presence of some form of mirroring system. [...]

The function of the mirror system in humans is a subject of much speculation. Some researchers in cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology consider that this system provides the physiological mechanism for the perception/action coupling (see the common coding theory). They argue that mirror neurons may be important for understanding the actions of other people, and for learning new skills by imitation. Some researchers speculate that mirror systems may simulate observed actions, and thus contribute to theory of mind skills, while others relate mirror neurons to language abilities. Neuroscientists such as Marco Iacoboni (UCLA) have argued that mirror neuron systems in the human brain help us understand the actions and intentions of other people. In a study published in March 2005 Iacoboni and his colleagues reported that mirror neurons could discern if another person who was picking up a cup of tea planned to drink from it or clear it from the table. In addition, Iacoboni has argued that mirror neurons are the neural basis of the human capacity for emotions such as empathy.

Some autism-related agnosias prevent people from reading others emotions, but aside from that this ability appears to be nearly universal. In addition, there’s a plausible story that empathy is an evolutionarily advantageous trait to evolve, which I alluded to in Predator in the herd:

One reason for an animal to evolve a capacity to think about other animals is in order to benefit from cooperation within a herd. If one member of the herd expresses fear, it is beneficial to share its fear, since it is evidence of the presence of a dangerous predator. If they express calm and content, it is beneficial to share it. If they express positive excitement, then perhaps there is a new food source available. If the animals around you want to go in a certain direction, it is beneficial to want to go with them. If your offspring is in distress, it is beneficial for reproductive fitness to be able to notice and respond, with a fair degree of sensitivity and subtlety. Learning to send, receive, and interpret these signals is the foundation of empathy. Feeling along with the other.

Patty-cake is important because it draws on an important, very common channel of communication: immediate, in-the-moment, physical empathy. Physical empathy is common because we’ve evolved to be good at it. I suspect that it is important because many of our other social skills are based on it; that most people initially learn social transactions through physical empathy. When they learn other modes of communication, like explicit verbal communication, they carry over assumptions about how things work from the domain of physical empathy. Physical empathy, then, is the conceptual metaphor most people use to understand much of social interaction and communication.

I haven’t read Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors we Live By, but in his book Tempo, Venkatesh Rao summarizes the idea of a conceptual metaphor:

Specifically we are interested in an approach to meaning based on the idea of conceptual metaphor, due to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

A conceptual metaphor is a systematic structuring of meaning in one domain in terms of our understanding of another domain.

Here is a simple example: “He gathered his thoughts.” Thoughts, literally, are patterns of neural firings. You cannot “gather” them. But the phrase structures our understanding of thought in terms of our understanding of tactile manipulation of a collection of solid objects.

Unlike isolated figurative metaphors such as “he was a lion on the battlefield,” the expression “gathered his thoughts” is part of a more systematic mapping: “his thoughts were all over the place,” “one thought stood out,” “let’s put those two thoughts together,” “let’s weigh the pros and cons.”

Using the Lakoff and Johnson nomenclature, we would refer to this particular conceptual metaphor with the capitalized phrase THOUGHTS ARE THINGS.

Figurative metaphors are isolated embellishments within human languages. By contrast, conceptual metaphors are pre-linguistic raw material for the construction of meaning within mental models and enacted behaviors. Our use of Newton’s laws and physics to understand the behavior of mental models is an extended application of the THOUGHTS ARE THINGS conceptual metaphor.

Conceptual metaphors lend meaning not just to the things we say with language, but to our perceptions of the world and to the behaviors we enact.

Here’s an example of an observable behavior that can be understood through a conceptual metaphor: PEN-AND-PAPER MATH IS MECHANICAL ASSEMBLY. When you “group like terms” or “move x to the left-hand side of the equation” in the process of solving an algebra problem, your literal, observable behavior is rewriting lines of symbols repeatedly, making small changes each time. Yet, you primarily think in terms of grouping, separating, combining, moving, plugging in, cranking through to the answer, and so on, not rewriting. It is revealing (and somewhat ironic) that computer scientists who build AI systems for domains like mathematical reasoning do think in terms of “rewrite rules,” even though their literal domain is not pen and paper, but bits being turned on and off in silicon chips.

Physical empathy requires an initial process of progressive attunement for people to start cooperating, where tentative and small gestures of generic friendliness are exchanged before people start communicating anything interesting. Here’s an example of a social attunement skill almost entirely based on physical empathy:

(Summary for those who don't want to watch a video: He's explaining how flirting behavior isn't just useful for sexual attraction, but more generally can be used to invite people into positive interactions by communicating some sort of positive intent. The whole 8+ minute video is done in a very flirty style.)

I found this exhausting to watch at first. Then at some point I noticed why: part of my mind was trying to hold what he was saying, and another point was noticing that there was some sort of social signal being repeatedly pushed at me that I had to devote some extra amount of mental energy to processing (the flirting).

This is characteristic predator cognition behavior - some sort of attention-allocation process has to stand above and comprehend anything executing social interactions. It seemed to me like the natural behavior would be to try and use tricks to grab attention at the beginning, but then to quickly relax into a more neutral tone and let the content speak for itself. I noticed my confusion, and formed the hypothesis that this kind of "flirting" behavior is actually expected, and people find it hard to keep paying attention to people or things that aren't constantly bidding for their attention in this way.

I decided to test this hypothesis by taking offline the mental process that deliberately allocates my attention, and instead just use the built-in social heuristics that let me be led/distracted by my environment (the ones I'm guessing most people rely on most of the time) - and he held my attention just fine. But this was tiring in a different way - it felt like an unnatural state to be in, and I felt stupid the whole time.

This sort of attunement ritual is carried over into circumstances where, if you just looked at the nominal protocols, you'd think that people were wasting a bunch of time. For instance, in many business cultures, if you’re trying to make a deal, you can’t start by talking business. You have to do a bunch of courtship stuff first, and sometimes even in the middle. This makes more sense if you think of all this as a thing most people can only do at all by carrying over the cognitive patterns that work for cooperation through physical empathy.

A lot of social interaction, I didn’t learn through the tacit means of physical empathy. I learned it explicitly, through trial and error, through reading advice and memorizing decision rules, through reading Jane Austen novels and generalizing - in short, through explicit, formal cognition.

This, then, is why I was sad about patty-cake. It’s not just some random skill I don’t have, to know when it’s OK to ask and when it’s not - it represents an entire developmental history I skipped over – as if all of my friends went to the same school and share the same inside jokes, and I'm the only one left out. My cognitive development around social interactions just followed a different path than other people’s, making me enduringly different in a way that will persistently impede some kinds of communication, especially some of the “easy,” “natural,” and “authentic” kinds.

To learn it when I've already learned other ways to do many of the things it's used for would be massively redundant – but to continue not to know it is also terribly costly, as much of the world is designed for the convenience of people who do.

And what's more, when people talk about the way I am, they often call it evil. Cold and unfeeling. Empathy is conflated with all the ways one might have a preference for someone else's well-being, and lack of empathy is confused with lack of caring. There’s a reason why, when I looked for a way to name my mode of caring, it felt natural to call it predator cognition.

My consolation is that, having skipped this step, being broken in this way, has given me access to skills and perspectives that other people seem to be missing, and I feel we need to cultivate in order to become most fully human. As Leonard Cohen says, that's how the light gets in.

4 thoughts on “Physical empathy and channels of communication

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