Continuing the recent science theme, I’d like to begin an examination of the scientific or evidence based underpinnings of this project. One of the reasons for starting this project is a feeling of dissatisfaction with the way in which emotion is treated, studied and researched. This post is a first draft at a non-technical critique of current approaches, with some pointers as to how we might be able to construct a better science of emotions.
When we look at what science, psychology and medicine have to offer, we can see a number of approaches:
- Social or psychological research based on empirical evidence
- Clinical practice in working with patients
- Brain, genetics or other “hard” science on the emotions
- Theoretical work with pointers to the above
So what’s wrong with these? My first reaction is that they are cold – they lack any shred of a type of understanding we might call empathy. The question therefore is how can we possibly study emotion without placing empathy at the heart of the study – or more strongly without actually using empathy as a fundamental tool for both evaluation and interventions if the field of emotions?
Photo by randomwire
The problem with taking a non-standard approach is that using empathy is considered unscientific – it lacks objectivity. Indeed many people criticise the basis of much of Psychiatry on the fact that the practice relies too much on untested and untestable insights of the therapist.
So why not build a more robust basis for sharing, learning from, evaluating and scaling empathy? That is what would a science of emotions be like if it were based on a collective economy of subjective evaluations? Today, with social networks we are able to scale, and quantify subjective evaluations. We can “like” a post in FaceBook or +1 a page in Google Plus, and then use these types of recommendation to build socially constructed evaluations.
To construct a more robust basis for a scientific language of emotions, that is something we can use as an assessment criteria for successful theory and practice, we need some form of external validation. In the case of empathy, that is successfully identifying the subjective emotions of another, we need to compare the therapists evaluation with a subjective report of the subject of the experience. When we combine these occasional external validations, with predictions based on the reputations derived from the social graph of recommendations, we are then able to assess successful theories as well as good practitioners.
To describe this in more concrete terms, if people were to rate other people according to how well they were able to empathise with various types of emotional experience, and how well they were able to predict the affective response of other people to interventions or new experiences, we would have a social graph of recommendations based on a range of types of emotional empathy.
Given this data it would be possible to build up theories of practice, based on taking different views of the data, combined with ways in which we use this data. I might recommend for instance a practice in which we took a group of trusted emotional empaths in the area of paranoia, in the cultural context of London, and according to some procedure asked this group to base recommendations for therapeutic interventions for an artist with a “creative block”. Over time, and with feedback based on external evaluations, different theories would emerge, competing with each other for a best therapeutic fit to the external data.
At least then, we would have a science that could evolve over time, based firmly around a subject we all intuitively understand and value. We could replace Freud, with a socially constructed body of theory: