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Woman Becomes “Hyper Empathic” After Part of Her Brain is Removed

BY CHRISTIAN JARRETT Susan (not her real name) had suffered from epileptic seizures since the age of two. Localized to her right temporal lobe, they’d been successfully controlled with drugs until she was 17. After that, they became so severe and uncontrollable that neurosurgeons removed part of her temporal lobe. They hoped this would alleviate her seizures, and it did. But there was another unanticipated effect. Post-surgery, Susan said she developed an enhanced ability to read other people’s emotions. She also experienced heightened physical sensations, such as “spin at the heart”, when she herself was moved emotionally, or when she met friends or family, or encountered fictional characters. Now Susan is aged 37, a French team led by Aurélie Richard-Mornas has systematically tested her, and they confirm that she has “hyper empathy”. I’m skeptical about these claims, but I’ll get to that later. The researchers are careful to make some distinctions – they say there are two forms of understanding other people’s mental states (an ability known as Theory of Mind): a cognitive variety, which allows us to represent the beliefs and intentions of others; and an affective variety, which allows us to represent their feelings and emotions. They further explain that empathy is separate from Theory of Mind and is about feeling other people’s emotions. The finding from their tests is that Susan has heightened “Affective Theory of Mind” – that is, an enhanced ability to recognize the feelings and emotions of others; and heightened empathy, in the form of an intense response to other people’s emotions. More via WIRED.

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