Essay/Love & Friendship

The empathy machine

Sherlock was right – new research shows that seeing through another's eyes takes a detached mind not just a warm heart

Maria Konnikova

William Powell (left) and John Barrymore as the title character in Sherlock Holmes, a 1922 silent film. Photo by John Springer Collection/Corbis

Maria Konnikova

is the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (2013) and the The Confidence Game (2016). She is a columnist for The New Yorker online and lives in New York.

3,100 words

Edited by Brigid Hains

Syndicate this Essay

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Sherlock Holmes? It might be a deerstalker, a pipe or a violin, or shady crimes in the foggy streets of London. Chances are, it’s not his big, warm heart and his generous nature. In fact, you might think of him as a cold fish – the type of man who tells his best friend, who is busy falling in love, that it ‘is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things’. Perhaps you might be influenced by recent adaptations that have gone so far as to call Holmes a ‘sociopath’.

Not the empathetic sort, surely? Or is he?

Let’s dwell for a moment on ‘Silver Blaze’ (1892), Arthur Conan Doyle’s story of the gallant racehorse who disappeared, and his trainer who was found dead, just days before a big race. The hapless police are stumped, and Sherlock Holmes is called in to save the day. And save the day he does – by putting himself in the position of both the dead trainer and the missing horse. Holmes speculates that the horse is ‘a very gregarious creature’. Surmising that, in the absence of its trainer, it would have been drawn to the nearest town, he finds horse tracks, and tells Watson which mental faculty led him there. ‘See the value of imagination… We imagined what might have happened, acted upon that supposition, and find ourselves justified.’

Sign up for Aeon’s Newsletter

Holmes takes an imaginative leap, not only into another human mind, but into the mind of an animal. This perspective-taking, being able to see the world from the point of view of another, is one of the central elements of empathy, and Holmes raises it to the status of an art.

Usually, when we think of empathy, it evokes feelings of warmth and comfort, of being intrinsically an emotional phenomenon. But perhaps our very idea of empathy is flawed. The worth of empathy might lie as much in the ‘value of imagination’ that Holmes employs as it does in the mere feeling of vicarious emotion. Perhaps that cold rationalist Sherlock Holmes can help us reconsider our preconceptions about what empathy is and what it does.

Though the scientific literature on empathy is complex, a recent review in Nature Neuroscience by a team of researchers from Harvard and Columbia including Jamil Zaki and Kevin Ochsner has distilled the phenomenon into three central stages. The first stage is ‘experience sharing’, or feeling someone else’s emotions as if they were your own – scared when they are scared, happy when they are happy, and so on. The second stage is ‘mentalising’, or consciously considering those states and their sources, and trying to work through understanding them. The final stage is ‘prosocial concern’, or being motivated to act – wanting, for example, to reach out to someone in pain. However, you don’t need all three to experience empathy. Instead, you can view these as three points on an empathetic continuum: first, you feel; then, you feel and you understand; and finally, you feel, understand, and are compelled to act on your understanding. It seems that the defining thing here is the feeling that accompanies all those stages.

‘The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning. I assure you that the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three children’

‘Sympathy’ is an idea with a deep history ­– in ancient Greek, sympatheia means, literally, ‘with suffering’ – but ‘empathy’ is a newcomer to popular use. The word was coined by the British cognitive psychologist Edward Titchener as late as 1909: ‘Not only do I see gravity and modesty and pride and courtesy and stateliness,’ he wrote, ‘but I feel or act them in the mind’s muscle. This is, I suppose, a simple case of empathy, if we may coin that term as a rendering of Einfühlung.’ To Titchener, empathy was a kind of ‘feeling into’ someone else’s emotional state.

Soon, the word was being used by therapeutically minded psychologists such as Carl Rogers, the American psychologist and a founder of the humanist approach, who wrote in his book Client-centred Therapy (1951) that therapists needed to ‘live the attitudes of the other’. But while the term grew quickly in currency – the psychoanalyst Stanley Olinick termed it a ‘buzz word’ in 1984 – it remained for a long time relatively amorphous and fluid in definition and intention.

In 1986, the psychologist Lauren Wispé tried to pin down the notion of empathy in a systematic way. ‘Of course,’ she wrote, ‘the important questions are why individuals are moved to sympathy or empathy, under what conditions, and for whom.’ Despite her commitment to a fresh, objective look at the concept, she defined empathy from the start as being based on a feeling, a compulsion: we are moved, under the right conditions and with the right people at hand. The possibility that we might not be moved, that we might instead choose to think and act in the interests of another without the attendant emotional push isn’t considered.

But is this necessarily correct? The basis of empathy is being able to see things from someone else’s point of view. Empathy lets us ‘walk a mile in another man’s shoes’, look at the world through the eyes of another, or any number of other now-clichéd phrases. But while that perspective-taking seems intimately tied to the emotion of the thing – you walk in someone’s shoes to feel their pain, look through their eyes to understand their feelings – it need not be. As recent research suggests, there are times when becoming too emotionally involved actually stifles our empathetic capacity.

What would it look like if we were to imagine a personality that was deeply empathetic – and yet wholly unemotional? This person would be, I think, just like that emotionless paragon we invoked earlier: Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest fictional detective. Holmes is cold and logical. Holmes is detached. As he explains when Watson remarks on the attractiveness and saintliness of a certain young lady, ‘It is of the first importance not to allow your judgment to be biased by personal qualities.’ He explains the importance of leaving his own feelings out of his calculations: ‘A client is to me a mere unit, a factor in a problem. The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning. I assure you that the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three children for their insurance-money, and the most repellent man of my acquaintance is a philanthropist who has spent nearly a quarter of a million upon the London poor.’

Holmes, it seems, is a mere problem-solving machine, hardly human at all. But he is also a man of inordinate creativity of thought. He refuses to stop at facts as they appear to be. He plays out many possibilities, maps out various routes, lays out myriad alternative realities in order to light upon the correct one. His is the opposite of hard, linear, A-to-B reasoning. If he were to stick to such an approach, he would be no better than an Inspector Lestrade or a detective Gregson – those Scotland Yard dullards who approach crime in a linear fashion, without his sparkle and imagination.

In sterilising his empathy, Holmes actually makes it more powerful: a reasoned end, rather than a flighty impulse

In fact, his success stems from the very non-linearity and imaginative nature of his thinking, his ability to engage the hypothetical just as he might the physical here-and-now. Think of The Valley of Fear (1915), Conan Doyle’s final Sherlock Holmes novel, in which Inspector MacDonald, or Mac, as Holmes affectionately calls him, bungles along with the obvious leads – looking for a missing bicyclist, following up with hotels and stations, and generally doing everything an energetic detective might be expected to. Holmes instead asks to spend a night in the room of the crime. Why? Musing in the atmosphere where the crime was committed helps him to see the world as the criminal did, to think as he might have done. Imagination is central to his reasoning powers.

So Holmes is an expert at the very thing that makes empathy possible in the first place – seeing the world from another’s point of view. He is entirely capable of understanding someone else’s internal state, mentalising and considering that state, and exhibiting prosocial concern. Indeed, he is a master of it. At the end of ‘The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor’ (1892), it is Holmes, not Watson, who best understands the motivations of the bachelor in question. Watson remarks wryly that ‘his conduct was certainly not gracious’. And Holmes replies with a smile: ‘Ah, Watson, perhaps you would not be very gracious either, if, after all the trouble of wooing and wedding, you found yourself deprived in an instant of wife and of fortune. I think that we may judge Lord St Simon very mercifully and thank our stars that we are never likely to find ourselves in the same position.’

No doubt Holmes would argue that his lack of emotion gives him a certain freedom from prejudice, as much as a lack of warmth. And recent research bears this out. Most of us start from a place of deep-rooted egocentricity: we take things as we see them, and then try to expand our perspectives to encompass those of others. But we are not very good at it. The notion, known as egocentric anchoring and adjustment, has been studied extensively by the psychologists Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University. Even when we know that someone’s background is different from our own, and that we should be wary of assuming we can understand their situation as though it were our own, we still can’t shake off our own preconceptions in judging them. The more cognitively strained we are (the more we have going on mentally), the worse we become at adjusting our egocentric views to fit someone else’s picture of the world. Gilovich describes this as ‘satisficing’. We do a little work to adjust our perspectives to another’s point of view, but not much. We are ‘satisfied’ with something that merely ‘suffices’. Our neural networks might be mirroring another’s suffering, but largely because we worry how it would feel for us.

Not so Holmes. Because he has worked hard to dampen his initial emotional reactions to people, he becomes more complete in his adjustment, more able to imagine reality from an alternative perspective. Ironically, he ends up as a less egocentric and more accurate reflection of what someone else is thinking or experiencing at any given point.

Just think how precise are Holmes’s insights into people’s characters, their whims, their motivations and inner states. He strives for clarity and openness to evidence in his every encounter. As he writes in his treatise on observation, ‘By a man’s fingernails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boots, by his trouser-knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt-cuffs – by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed.’ In our own attempts to understand others, we might think such minutiae below us – why bother with such petty concerns when there are emotions, feelings, lives at stake? – but in ignoring those petty details, we lose crucial evidence. We miss the signs of difference that enable us to walk in those shoes we don’t deign to look at closely. We lose the raw material for future creative thought. And are we being more or less empathetic when we do so? Empathy it seems, is not simply a rush of fellow-feeling, for this might be an entirely unreliable gauge of the inner world of others.

Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at Oxford and famous for his work on autism, distinguishes between two elements of empathy. There is affective empathy, the emotional part. And there is cognitive empathy, or the ability to think oneself into another person’s mind. Based on having an effective theory of mind, this cognitive empathy provides an important counterbalance to the emotional. But must the two always go together? Can we imagine an emotionless, purely cognitive, empathy?

The question is not a new one. In their 1963 study of empathy and birth order, the psychologists Ezra Stotland and Robert Dunn distinguished the ‘logical’ and the ‘emotional’ part of empathising with similar and dissimilar others. They understood the first as an exercise in cognitive perspective-taking, and the latter as an instance of non-rational emotional contagion. More recently, Baron-Cohen has described how individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder might not be able to understand or mentalise, yet some are fully capable of empathising (in the emotional sense) once someone’s affective state is made apparent to them – a sign, it seems, that the two elements are somewhat independent.

Empathy and creativity share an important, even essential feature: to be creative, just as to be empathetic, we must depart from our own point of view

Physiological studies seem to support this, too. In 2009, a team of psychologists from the University of Haifa found that patients with ventromedial prefrontal damage showed consistent selective deficits in cognitive empathy and theory of mind – that is the cognitive aspects of empathy – while their emotional empathy and emotional recognition ability remained intact. Conversely, patients with lesions in the inferior frontal gyrus of the brain demonstrated remarkable deficits in emotional empathy and the recognition of emotion – but their cognitive empathy remained on a par with healthy controls. Are both of these groups, then, empathetic in their own way – the one emotionally, and the other, cognitively so?

For most of us, the dissociation between cognitive and emotional aspects of empathy is unlikely to be so extreme. Nor indeed is this the case for Holmes: Conan Doyle is quick to show us that his hero has his own sympathies, but they are well-controlled, even hidden. He is quite prepared to cover up for a well-intentioned criminal, saying: ‘I had rather play tricks with the law of England than with my own conscience.’ And his friendship with Watson provokes the occasional crack in his cool façade. ‘You’re not hurt, Watson? For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!’ he exclaims in a rare outpouring of emotion when his friend has been shot during ‘The Adventure of the Three Garridebs’ (1924).

Feelings are not entirely absent from Holmes’s empathic calculus, but they are not allowed to drive his actions. Instead, he acts only if his cognition should support the emotional outlay. And if it doesn’t? The emotion is dismissed. It’s not about the feelings for Holmes, but about the perspective-taking, the hypothetical departure from self and into a world of possibility that is the root of imagination and inspired reason. In short, it’s about the creative departure from your own mind – whatever the motivation behind that departure happens to be. In sterilising his empathy, Holmes actually makes it more powerful: a reasoned end, rather than a flighty impulse. As Watson remarks: ‘Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his.’

In speaking of empathy, psychologists such as Daniel Batson, professor of social psychology at the University of Kansas, and Frans de Waal, professor of primate behaviour at Emory University, have invoked its evolutionary value as a skill for social animals, whether human or otherwise. The so-called mirror neurons – motors that fire mimetically in our brains when we observe someone doing or experiencing something – seem to point to the deep evolutionary origins of empathy. Not only do we learn from mirroring what others do. Such mirroring also helps smooth social interaction, helps us to help one another, and helps us to overcome the hurdles that would stymie our societies if we did not have such strong pro-social inclinations.

All that makes perfect sense. But might not the other, colder part of empathy – cognitive empathy, or theory of mind – be equally adaptive in evolutionary terms? The ability to see the world from another set of eyes, to experience things vicariously, at multiple levels, is training ground for such feats of imagination and reason that allow a Holmes to solve almost any crime, an Einstein to imagine a reality unlike any that we’ve experienced before (in keeping with laws unlike any we’ve come up with before), and a Picasso to make art that differs from any prior conception of what art can be.

There is a profound cognitive leap that we are able to make. It starts with egocentricity and the world ‘as it is to me’. It lands on other-centredness and the world ‘as it is for you’. Divorce empathy from emotion – let’s call it a sterilised empathy – and you have the seedbed of logical reasoning and creative thought. Empathy and creativity share an important, even essential feature: to be creative, just as to be empathetic, we must depart from our own point of view. We must see things not as they are but as they might be. And the value of that ability extends far beyond the simple fact that some of our neurons light up when we see someone else suffering – or that we feel compelled to help when we commiserate with another human being, be he alive or fictional.

Sterilised empathy might not be sterilised so much as expanded, from an emotional ability to an essential element in creativity and problem-solving. The emotional element in empathy is itself a limited one. It is selective and often prejudicial – we tend to empathise more with people whom we know or perceive to be like us, or simply when we have more mental space to bother. Empathy can be all the more powerful and creative in its cognitive form when it is independent of context and emotional outpouring.

Sherlock Holmes might be described as cold, it’s true. But who would you like on your side when it comes to being given a fair say, to being helped when that help is truly needed, to knowing that someone will go above and beyond the call of duty for your sake, no matter who you are or what you might have done? I, for one, would choose the cool-headed Holmes, who understands the limits of human emotions, and who seeks to ‘represent justice,’ so far as his ‘feeble powers allow’.

Syndicate this Essay

Ideas make a difference

If you enjoy Aeon, please show your support

Aeon is not-for-profit
and free for everyone
Make a Donation
Get Aeon straight
to your inbox
Follow us on
Idea/Mental Health

Psychopaths have feelings: can they learn how to use them?

Arielle Baskin-Sommers


Magic from the mundane – paper towels flourish in the hands of a coffeeshop artist

2 minutes

Essay/Social Psychology


Prejudice remains a huge social evil but evidence for harm caused by microaggression is incoherent, unscientific and weak

Scott O Lilienfeld

Idea/Cognition & Intelligence

How we learn to read another’s mind by looking into their eyes

Tobias Grossmann

Video/Gender & Sexuality

Meet the lucky little organ that is uniquely dedicated to pleasure

3 minutes

Essay/Cognition & Intelligence

How totalism works

The brainwashing methods of isolation, engulfment and fear can lead anyone to a cult. I should know – I was in one

Alexandra Stein