S P A C E | Empathy: ‘We live increasingly in a human–machine world’

I will quote a paper:


‘The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the way people live interpersonal relationships.

‘The lockdown was characterized of a different organization of daily life, with an incrementation of time at home and a reduction of distance through digital devices. This period was also seen as an evolution in the concept of empathy, producing new perspectives in the study of the phenomenon according to a sociological and neurological points of view. Indeed, empathy—defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another—involves several elements, such as: (a) social context and historical period of the individual, (b) neurological mechanisms, and (c) psychological and behavioral responses to feelings of others.

‘The neuro-sociological perspective analyzes the mechanisms involved in the empathic process, focusing on human communication and interpersonal relationships (Singer and Lamm, 2009; Decety and Ickes, 2009).

‘Specifically, in this historical period characterized by an increment in the man–machine relationship, neurosociology could become one of the principal sciences for the study of human relations and technology.

‘“We live increasingly in a human–machine world. Anyone who doesn’t understand this, and who is not struggling to adapt to the new environment—whether they like that environment or not—is already being left behind. Adapting to the new, fast-changing, technologically enhanced context is one of the major challenges of our times. And that certainly goes for education” (Prensky, 2012, p. 64).

Psychological and Social Suffering, and the Empathic Process

‘In analyzing the psychological impact of the quarantine, the importance for individuals to feel integral part of the society emerged, an aspect often undervalued in psychological well-being. Experts of public health believe that social distancing is the better solution to prevent the spread of the virus. However, although it is not possible to predict the duration of the pandemic, we know very well the serious impact of these measures on the society, on relationships and interactions, in particular on the empathic process.

‘In the early 90s, empathy was described as a form of identification in the psychological and physiological states of others.

‘This definition led to a debate between the disciplines of philosophy of psychology and philosophy of the mind (Franks, 2010). Willard Van Orman Quine (1908–2000) renewed attention to the debate on empathy with a thesis on the development of language and mind in the analytical philosophy. According to Quine, the attribution of the so-called intentional states, through which the psychology commonly explains human behavior, is based on empathy (Treccani, 2020) and leads people to attribute beliefs, desires, and perceptions (Quine, 1990, 1992, Pursuit of Truth: Revised Edition, 1992). Analyzing this aspect within the recent situation of the pandemic, an increment of antithetical positions and attitudes could be noticed. On the one hand, people identify themselves with those who suffer (neighbors, friends, relatives who are living stressful events), promoting activities such as the so-called “suspended expenses.” For instance, solidarity and humanitarian activities, food, and medicine delivery for people who are unable to go to the supermarket. On the other hand, there is a part of the population who experiences a feeling of “forced empathy.”

‘This aspect could be also emphasized by the use of technological devices that might lead to a depersonalization of relationships, forcing the sense of closeness, at least virtually. The hyperconnection of feelings becomes a way to reduce the self-isolation and its consequences, representing the contrary of the idea of Durkheim (1858–1917), who considered society as a specific entity, built on social facts (Durkheim, 1922). The sensation “to be forced to feel” could lead people to distance themselves from others after the emergency situation, incrementing social phobias.

‘Also, human communication is changing. The formal question “how are you?” at the beginning of a conversation is no longer just a formality, as before the pandemic. For example, the relationship between employee and the manager is different, leading to more responsibilities in listening and understanding feelings expressed during the video call, generating a forced reciprocity. Hence, the aforementioned “forced empathy” may be common in this period because the social distance and the emergency situation make people want to be heard and appreciated, and the simple question “how are you?” becomes an anchor to express fears and emotions (Pasetti, 2020).



Asking ‘how are you’ is now loaded. Hm.