when it is easier to read emotions in animals than in humans

Published in mid-April, a study we conducted provided new insights into how people on the autism spectrum read emotions.

According to our work, the difficulties that these people would have in interpreting the feelings of others would be essentially limited to interpersonal situations and would spare those involving all other living beings. They would not experience any particular problem communicating emotionally with animals.

What can the study of our perception of living things teach us about the mechanisms of human empathy and the cognitive disturbances associated with it?

How can we use it to better support or better understand the autism spectrum?

Empathy, a key to deciphering the feelings of others

Despite numerous definitions and a wide range of concepts associated with this vague concept (affective empathy, compassion, theory of mind, emotional contagion, etc.), empathy generally refers to our ability to perceive and deduce intuitively by mirror effect, emotion, and mental states. . by others. Like all other neurocognitive traits in humans, our empathic abilities are the result of the evolution of our species, and our dispositions for empathy are determined in part by our genes.

The emotional empathy of autistic people would remain intact in relation to animals except humans.

At the core of all emotional communication and human prosociality (sets of social behaviors oriented toward the benefit of others), empathy is in a way comparable to the cognitive cornerstone of “living together.” Its mechanisms are complex, still poorly understood and are the subject of dynamic research in the field of cognitive science.

Disorders of empathic abilities and relationships with other species

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD, such as typical autism or Asperger’s syndrome) denote a family of more or less pronounced neurodevelopmental disorders, characterized, among other things, by impaired empathic abilities. Many people with ASD have difficulty intuitively understanding the emotional states of others or perceiving what is unsaid during a discussion. These atypical empathic abilities are the source of difficulties in terms of social inclusion and can have a negative impact on the quality of life of the people concerned.

However, despite the relational difficulties they may encounter, various studies suggest that people with ASD do not paradoxically experience particular difficulties in communicating emotionally with animals: they may form strong emotional bonds with their four-legged companions and appear to be better able to to seek out and process. emotional signals on animal faces than on humans. How to explain this phenomenon?

Emotional dimension

Our relationship to the diversity of living things has a strong emotional dimension, the expression of which varies considerably from one species to another: On a country road, running over a rabbit can be overwhelming, while the insects’ many influences on the windshield often leave us indifferent .

A study published in 2019 by our team had made it possible to highlight the fact that this “species discrimination” rooted in our affects was a powerful phenomenon and in all likelihood congenital.

This is based on the fact that the closer we are evolutionarily to a species, the more similar it is to us. It would then be so much the easier for us to perceive an alter ego in her (anthropomorphism), to understand her mental states and therefore be affected by her fate. So we think we understand better – and are more affected – by an orangutan’s emotions than by a mouse, by a mouse than by a fish, and so on.

The gaze is the most powerful non-verbal channel of communication for our emotions. The different appearances of the living world are far from equally expressive. Those at the top (human and near species) affect us much more than those at the bottom, evolutionarily distant, colder, and elusive.
Source, Provided by the author

A new approach to a new study

It is from this observation that the idea came to use this gradient of empathic sensitivities with regard to the living as a reference to explore the empathic particular conditions of people with ASD within the framework of a new study.

To do this, the perceptions of a group of participants with ASD were compared with those of a control group that reflected the general population. This new approach was based on an online photographic questionnaire covering various organisms ranging from plants to humans. Few photographs of organisms were drawn at random and presented to the participants, who then had to choose what they thought they could best understand emotions for.

Based on these numerous “matches” between pairs of photographs, it was possible for us to assign an empathy score attributed to each species. The results obtained showed that if the perceptions of the group of participants with ASD globally are similar to those of the general population, the empathic score of understanding they attribute to humans is surprisingly low.

Our empathy for other organisms (vertical axis in percent) decreases with the time of phylogenetic divergence that separates us from them (horizontal axis for millions of years, superimposed on phylogeny).
Source, Provided by the author

Thus, these participants believe that, on average, it is just as difficult to understand other people’s mental states as reptiles or amphibians.

These results indicate that the empathic difficulties in people with ASD would be specific to inter-human conditions. These can therefore not so much be due to impaired perception or reading of fundamental emotional expressions, as from difficulties in understanding them in a global context. Perceiving an emotional expression (recognizing or being affected by laughing, crying, or frowning …) does not necessarily imply a correct understanding of the mental state that causes it: Out of context, these signals can be disturbing or misleading (f. eg tears of joy or nervous laughter).

With or without ASD, the empathic perceptions of the two groups of participants are very similar for most species (the dots are aligned on a diagonal), with one exception: the empathic understanding scores that people with ASD attribute to our species are very low (black point), clearly decorrelated from the time of evolutionary divergence and at the same level as reptiles and amphibians (green level).
Source, Provided by the author

The empathic characteristics of people with ASD could be explained by the fact that while other species may seem less expressive and more difficult to interpret intuitively, their emotional expression, on the other hand, is more deterministic, spontaneous, and stereotypical. The mental state of an animal could therefore be perceived by people with ASD as relatively transparent, provided that they are aware of their behavioral signals and have learned to interpret them. On the contrary, in many situations people are accustomed to pretending, distracting, or restraining their emotional expressions, whether to preserve their privacy, to conform to social conventions, as a strategy for bluffing, or for comedy. They could therefore in a way be considered to be much more complex to understand than other animals.

Screening techniques

These findings might help refine existing screening techniques or open up new perspectives to support people with ASD. Moreover, if this work only gives us a vague overview of the communication difficulties that people with ASD are regularly confronted with, it can also, by reversing the situation, push us to question our own abilities to understand them and interact with them. them.

Finally, for more than two centuries, evolutionary biology has taught us that all living species are related to each other and that man is only one animal species among others. This study helps to take a further step in the deconstruction of the category “animals” (in its common use, that is, used without distinction between species and in contrast to humans) by demonstrating that this concept does not turn out to be no more relevant from a cognitive point of view than it is for biology.

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