Current Position:Index-Crossroads on the Way to Wisdom: Empathy and the Analytic Field

Crossroads on the Way to Wisdom: Empathy and the Analytic Field

Author:Joe Cambray       2014-04-11 Font:S M L


Crossroads on the Way to Wisdom: Empathy and the Analytic Field

Joe Cambray 


In the midst of his great treatise Science and Civilization in China,Joseph Needham tells a 5th Century CE ancedote of a Mr. Yin fromChinchow, who is reported to have asked a Taoist Monk (Chang Yeh-Yuan), “Whatis really the fundamental idea of the I Ching?” To which the monk is said tohave replied “The fundamental idea of the I Ching can be expressed in onesingle word, Resonance (kan).” Applied to the mind, ancient Taoists valued theoriginal “empty” mind as that organ which can resonate most fully with thenature. From a Jungian perspective this emptiness is not a dull blankness but areceptivity marked by non-attachment, with the releasing of prejudices and preconceptions;becoming open to archetypal possibilities. A path towards wisdom can arisesfrom the resonance of this “empty” mind with the world, noting the impact, butnot clinging to, the phenomena observed. Both Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu use themetaphor of a mirror for this state, e.g., in Chuang Tzu, Book VII we read: “When the perfect man employs hismind, it is a mirror.  It conductsnothing and anticipates nothing.” Again in Book XIII he adds: “The still mindof the sage is the mirror of heaven and earth—the glass of all things.” Forthose who know Jung on the optimal mindset for approaching dreams, or laterBion’s ideas on entering the analytic field, a curiously familiar chord issounded. 

The notion of a resonant, mirroringcapacity of mind which can bring knowledge of our environment has a particularparallel in western psychology which I would like to discuss, the concept of“empathy.” My purpose is not to suggest an equivalency between empathy and themind of the sage but rather to explore the evolving western understanding ofempathy in the hope that we may find intersections with eastern views oncultivating the mind.

The idea of empathy is ofsurprisingly recent vintage. The original term is German, Einfühlung, literally “feeling-into”, coined by the art-historianRobert Vischer only in 1873 and distinguished from an older notion, Mitgefühl, sympathy. Vischer’s workinaugurated the psychological approach to the study of aesthetics. His idea wasto relate the dynamics within a work of art to the subjective experiencesstemming from somatic and affective states engendered by viewing the art. Aestheticpleasure was seen to be based in a melding of self and object, something hederived from the study of the projection of self in dreams. Vischer’s Einfühlung thus involved anunconscious, involuntary act of transference of self into objects. All of thisantedates Freud by 25 years. “Empathy” as the translation of Einfühlung entered the English languagein 1909 through the work of the American psychologist Edward B. Titchener.

The German philosopher of Aesthetics, Theodor Lipps, in publicationsfrom 1903 to 1906 further developed the psychological understanding of empathyby proposing the inner imitation of the actions of others as crucial forgenerating empathic experiences. For Lipps human empathy included responses togestures, facial expressions and tone of voice, all carrying emotionalqualities and capable of enlivening the same emotions in the viewer. 

Both Jung and Freud derived theirviews on empathy directly from Lipps. Jung equated Lipps’ perspective to acentral feature of the analytic process: “As a rule, the projection transfersunconscious contents into the object, for which reason empathy is alsotermed ‘transference’ in analytical psychology”(CW 6: 486). While Jung doesnot write extensively about empathy as such, his ability to empathically enterinto and grasp the psychological relevance of symbolic material was essentialto his views of the psyche. After discussing some refinements in the understandingof empathy, we will reexamine Jung’s interactive field model as discussed in The Psychology of the Transference withspecial attention to unconscious communications within analysis.

The clinical utility of an empathicstance towards patients and their unconscious processes, while recognized earlyon, has developed with increasing differentiation and valuing of the innerexperience of the “other.” As analytic theories and therapeutic methods probedinto the origins of the sense of self as well as the injuries and sufferingsthis is liable to, affective and interpersonal aspects at the core of the selfwere identified. Modification of approaches to treatment were proposed anddebated. Ferenczi’s active methods, H. S. Sullivan’s interpersonal interviewing,Carl Rogers’ client centered therapy, among others but especially Heinz Kohut’s“Self-Psychology” revision of analytic theory and practice employed empathy asprimary means to enter into the interior world of the other. However, Kohut’sformulation of empathy as vicarious introspection, or "the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life ofanother person" (Kohut, 1984,p. 82) relies heavily on the analyst’s rational processing of his/herexperience of the other while downplaying affective components including counter-transferenceactivations. Lest a skewed view of empathy come to prevail a reassessment is inorder; fortunately there are some new means of studying empathic phenomena.


In the last two decades the increasing sophistication of technicalinstrumentation and scientific formulations, as in complexity theory, hasopened new frontiers in exploring the neurobiological foundations of the mind. Formost contemporary scientists and philosophers the phenomena of mind are neitherreducible to neural processes nor wholly separate from somatic experience butare said to emerge from these—where emergence refers to the observation ofinteractions between local agents producing results which operate at a level oforganization above that of the agents themselves, i.e., self-organization intoa system of complexity beyond what can be explained by study of the individualsinvolved. 

Uncovering and articulating details of the mind-body relationship iscurrently the subject of much intense research. In particular for our interests here, correlations are being madebetween a variety of discrete emotional states and specific, activated regionsof the brain, as detected and mapped by functional magnetic resonance imaging(fMRI). The relative ease and speed of “contagion” of emotions betweenindividuals is well known (for example, think of crowd behaviors such as panicand collective fear). Cognitive neuroscientists have measured the transmissionof basic emotions such as anger, sadness, disgust, or joy as occurring withinmilliseconds, often without conscious awareness, though frequently withalternations in mood.  Humans tend tospontaneously mimic and synchronize with the emotional behavior of others,especially those with whom they have some intimacy, often without consciouslyregistering the phenomena. 

Cues which may trigger spread of emotions, such as facialexpressions, body language, voice tone, speech rhythms, and so forth,associated with specific emotions, can also be studied for their capacity toactivate brain regions. fMRI comparisons between the direct experience of anemotion and induced reactions to the same emotion (such as being shown imagesof faces clearly bearing the target emotion) display a number of strikingsimilarities in the brain regions manifesting activity. Thus there is aneurophysiological base for the experience of resonance and transmission of theemotions among people. More broadly, comparative studies in zoology haverevealed that this capacity for rapid, automatic emotional communications is auniversal trait of the mammalian brain. Thus we seem to be evolutionarilyadapted to transmit and receive emotional communications which in turndescribes a fundamental affective dimension to empathy.  Naturally there are myriad problems which canvex this system inhibiting or impairing these capacities resulting in clinicaldisorders such as autism and sociopathy.

From developmental studies a second, slower system for processingand understanding the actions and appearance of others has been identified. Whileinfants are able to imitate certain behaviors (tongue protrusion) within hoursof birth, the onset of the ability to engage in pretense and especially torecognize pretense in others normally develops between 18 and 24 months.   Somewhere between ages four to six yearsnormal children develop the ability to impute false beliefs to others, tocognitively recognize that others have minds like their own which haverepresentations that can be true or false. Throughout childhood then, the“theory of mind” (TOM) by which children attempt to comprehend others graduallymatures along with their brain and neural systems. In this slower, morecognitively oriented form of empathy, the brain regions involved differsignificantly from those associated with affective resonance. 

Developmental evidence does suggest that a preponderance of positiveearly attachment experiences facilitates maturation of empathy and TOM whilenegative experiences of abuse or neglect inhibit this. Reparation of damage dueto failures of empathy, past and present, both cognitive and affective hasbecome an important feature of many contemporary psychotherapies.  The pathways of interaction between the twoforms of empathy, however, have not yet been fully delineated, though theyobviously are interconnected. 

While not forming a definitivebridge between different empathic processes, in the last decade there has beena fascinating set of related findings linking perception and action. Thesediscoveries began in a research team headed by Prof. Giacomo Rizzolatti of theUniversity of Parma, with a series of papers on a group of visuo-motor neuronsthat are now termed “mirror neurons”. First observed in macaque monkeys, theseneurons “discharge when the monkey observes an action made by anotherindividual and [also] when it executes the same or similar action”(Fogassi & Gallese in Stamenov & Gallese, 2002, p. 15), i.e., “monkeysee, monkey do!”.  Evidence for humanhomologues of these neurons has been reported in several brain sites, such asBroca’s area with its involvement in speech as well as in other pre-motorcortices (Rizzolatti, Craighero & Fadiga in Stamenov & Gallese 2002). Furtherstudies have extended the finding on neurological mirroring to tactile, auditoryand pain stimulus in humans. For example, observing someone you are close tobeing pricked with a pin causes analogous pain circuitry to resonate in you,though usually with less intensity. This is likely due to the fact that it isthe affective more than the sensory elements of the pain network that areactivated by the mirror neurons as demonstrated in these studies (Singer, al., 2004, 2005). In addition, these neurons also offer an important,primitive component of the neurological substrate for aspects of “the capacityto represent mental states of others by means of a conceptual system, commonlydesignated as ‘Theory of Mind’”(Fogassi & Gallese in Stamenov & Gallese2002, p. 30). There is growing evidence that mirroring processes are involvedacross a spectrum of emotional resonances, feeling responses and cognitivereflections on others’ actions.

The discovery of mirror neurons hasgenerated intense multidisciplinary interest in intersubjective forms ofcommunication beginning with imitation and mimicry and progressing tosimulating the mind of others as a way of grasping their intentions. Simulationtheory (ST), which is an empathy theory, investigates mental imitation. Throughattenuated mimicry of the body state of another, which may involve onlymicroscopic muscular changes as in facial expression, often outside consciousawareness, relevant activations of matching brain regions in the observerpermit a form of social knowledge to be communicated, e.g., feeling annoyanceor danger then realizing someone nearby is in an agitated, angry state. Couchedin the language of “mind-reading,” ST is based on the premise that people usetheir own minds to mimic the minds of others, discerning goals and intentionswithout the need to replicate overt behaviors—clinical, therapeutic empathydraws heavily on just such resonance capacities. 

Role playing and more generally the capacity to take part ininteractive play are seen in ST as a key element in the maturation of imitativelearning. Alvin Goldman, a philosopher and exponent of ST, notes that it hasbeen “found that children who engaged in more joint play, including role play,performed better on mind-reading tasks, but no such connection was found forsolitary pretence” (in Hurley and Chater, ed., II, p. 92). Extrapolated topsychotherapeutic training ST could have profound consequences. For example,the non-defensive exploration in supervision of transference/counter-transferenceenactments with their conscious and unconscious role-play scenarios couldprovides a means to enhance the empathic attunement of therapists to patientsas well as between therapists and supervisors.  

On the other hand, deficits in or dysfunctions of mirror neuronsystems may produce some limitations to empathic capabilities. In one of themore extreme examples, malfunctioning of mirror neuron systems has beenproposed as contributing to the basic problems involved in autism with theknown failures to imitate or to coordinate self-other representations. Morespeculatively, the attachment hunger of certain types of patients who havesuffered basic attachment injuries may be predicated on inadequate activationof incipient mirror neuronal systems during early development. The coredilemmas resulting from failures in primary object relations which leave someindividuals perpetually scanning others for micro-shifts in affectiveexpression, as has been discussed in the Jungian literature for “borderlinepatients” (e.g., see Schwartz-Salant, 1989), would be one area for furtherinvestigation. 

There are also moral and ethical concerns that are raised by thestudy of mirror neurons and imitative capacities. Philosopher Jesse Prinz hasarticulated moral milestones beginning with newborns’ attempts at facial mimicryand very young children’s susceptibility to emotional contagion, underscoringthe key foundational role of imitative capacities in moral development; thisleads him to claim “[a] bad imitator is likely to form unstable attachments”(in Hurley and Chater, ed., 2005, II, p. 278). Applying this to the study ofpsychopaths, Prinz notes that they “can imitate the behaviors of others to areasonable degree, but they cannot imitate the emotional states of others, andthis has serious implications for competence and conduct” (in Hurley and Chater,ed., 2005, II, p. 282). Thus the affective recognition and response to what isseen as evil may well emerge from a core capacity to access imitative processesand moral maturation may hinge on our creative use of those processes. 

The Analytic Field

To enhance the clinical utility of the ideas on empathy beingpresented here, I will turn first to a discussion of the analytic field. One ofthe most distinctive aspects of C. G. Jung’s model of the psyche is hispostulation of a core level, the collective unconscious, operating underneaththe personal conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind. This deeper layeris comprised of the network of all archetypes, where archetypes are the formalpatterns, without content; the universal propensities of psychological lifecapable of expressing themselves across the spectrum of human experience from theinstinctual to the sublime. When realized concretely, archetypes manifestthrough affect-laden images of a transpersonal nature, often with a numinousquality. 

There is a scale-free or fractal quality to the collectiveunconscious. By shifting focus in from the global polycentric network of thecollective to one specific archetype another parallel network at a lower levelis encountered. This can be seen when examining the network of associations andlinks that emerge through the process of amplification—applying cultural andhistorical analogies to symbolic material in order to bring archetypal aspectsof the material into clearer view, often for therapeutic purposes. General andspecific forms are seen in figures 1 and 2 respectively. An analogous imagewith multiple levels of mirroring from Indian and Chinese Buddhist philosophyis “Indra’s net” (Yin-t’o-lo kang)used in the Hua-yen or flower garland school (the Sūtra of this school isregarded in the Mahāyāna tradition as the Buddha’s first sermon):

In the heaven of the great god Indra issaid to be a vast and shimmering net, finer than a spider’s web, stretching tothe outermost reaches of space.  Strungat each intersection of its diaphanous threads is a reflecting jewel.  Since the net is infinite in extent, thejewels are infinite in number.  In theglistening surface of each jewel is reflected all the other jewels, even thosein the furthest corner of the heavens. In each reflection, again are reflected all the infinitely many otherjewels, so that by this process, reflections of reflections continue withoutend (Mumford, Series and Wright 2002, ii).

Analogs from fractal geometry have beenrecognized recently by western mathematicians; two examples are given infigures 3 (Klein Bubbles) and 4 (The Glowing Limit—the glowing yellow laceworkmanifests entirely of its own accord out of the initial arrangement of justfive touching red circles).

While there is not time today to explicatethe analogy of Indra’s net with a Jungian model of the Collective Unconsciousor an archetypal view of empathy, we can note that this “net” metaphoricallypresents a profoundly interconnected universe, in which all of the parts areinterdependent and mutually conditioned. These tenets also form the core of aholistic, emergentist viewpoint which when applied to human relationships isthe paradigm gaining ascendancy in the analytic world. Jung presaged this invarious remarks, such as “It is a well-nigh hopeless undertaking to tear asingle archetype out of the living tissue of the psyche; but despite theirinterwovenness they do form units of meaning that can be apprehendedintuitively” (1940: para. 302).  Thethird patriarch of Hua-yen, Fa Tsang saw this interrelatedness as true of the“unending relationships between wisdom and compassion” (de Bary and Bloom 1999,474). In the future we will need to further explore the mutual reflectionspossible between Chinese Buddhism and Analytical Psychology.

In the language of Jungian psychology, the activation of anarchetypal node is frequently referred to as a particular pattern having“constellated,” e.g., the propensity to face adversity with determination mayreflect the constellation of a heroic archetype in a person’s life. However,such activations by their nature are transgressive of any view of a person as awholly isolated entity; inner and outer environments are necessarily part ofthe full pattern. At deeper levels the psyche is not a closed system but opensinto a field of interactions among individuals. 

In Jung’s great study on The Psychology of the Transference, hepresents an archetypal viewpoint with alchemical amplifications of thisseemingly most personal of therapeutic problems.  His exploration of the deep background totransference phenomena brings him to postulate a bi-personal interactive fieldmodel for the analytic relationship. Mario Jacoby subsequently adapted this formore general use with the now well know diagram, figure 4, in which we have afour-node interaction between the patient (P), the analyst (A), and theunconscious of each, generating a field in which the analytic process isoccurring. 

While it would be instructive toexplore in detail the vicissitudes of empathy along each of the pathways shown,time constraints focus my considerations onto a process starting with“emotional contagion.” The unconscious, affectively resonant aspect of empathywould operate along path “b” in fig. 4 and can impact psyche and soma. Jungrefers to this variously as participationmystique as a general psychological issue, and “psychic” or “unconsciousinfection” when an illness is transferred from patient to the analyst. The dyadis then said to be in a state of “mutual unconsciousness,” through a mechanismanalogous to the Kleinian notion of projective identification. To the open andreceptive, or “empty” mind, I believe this can be an activating resonance.

Let’s turn to a clinical example:a young man with obsessional difficulties had been in treatment with me forabout a year when we had the following session. We met at the last hour of arather long day, not his usual time; I had accepted his request to rescheduleseveral weeks prior due to a time conflict. The session was laborious for me. WhileI was familiar with the constricted states that often accompanied his difficultiesin expressing himself, especially when feelings were involved, I felt unusuallytrapped and exhausted as the hour wore on. In the closing minutes of thesession, the patient surprisingly produced a dream that contained the image ofchild in a closet.  There was no time forassociations or exploration of the imagery. After he left, I felt so depletedthat I needed to lie down and rest before driving home. I felt on the verge ofa flu, however, curiously I felt fine the next day. The discrepancy signaledthat path “b” might be active. 

Working through such dilemmas begins with an act of recognition, theanalyst’s consciously identifying the affect or somatic state activated asassociated with the ingested projection—opening the mind. Next, cognitive empathyby the analyst for his/her own distressed internal state employs reflectiveunderstanding of the history and meaning of such activations within theanalyst’s own psychology. This initiates internal empathic repair of theego-self axis, path  “c” in fig 4.

Returning to the case, thefollowing week we met at our usual daytime hour. Not surprisingly, the overtaffective aspect of the field was not much altered from the week before. Thepatient did not seem to have noticed my state of fatigue or distress in theprevious session—no references or derivatives were detectable in the materialhe discussed, i.e., no direct evidence of activity along path “f”. However,through my attention to and empathic resonance with the child in the closet(path “e”), which I now experienced more directly in terms of the trapped,silenced and frustrated feelings I had been accepting previously withoutadequate reflection, we were able to explore the images of the dream left atthe door.  

Once the analyst has been able torestore an internal empathic awareness, the task becomes one of communicationwith the patient. This can flow along conscious (path “a”) and/or unconscious(path “e”) channels with resulting empathic understanding or repair bothbetween the partners of the dyad and in the internal world of the patient, (re-)establishingtransitory ego-self communication in the patient (path “d”). 

In the case at hand, the shift inmy attitude facilitated by acknowledging my previous discomforts together witha growing awareness of care and concern for the child-like elements of thepsyche which had been repressed, caused me to speak with the patient about howI’d felt a mix of constraint and concern at the end of the last hour. Iwondered aloud with him as to whether this had any relevance to the child inthe dream. In response, he began to tentatively associate to the child. As heseemed in danger of depleting his associations and falling back into a moreconstricted state, I attempted to help him more freely associate by asking theage of the child in the closet. This resulted in his revealing a piece of his historypreviously undisclosed. His associations to that time in his life includedmention of a specific illness, the symptoms of which were remarkably similar towhat I had experienced after the session the previous week—and I had had aserious childhood illness with an onset at roughly the same age, though not ofthe same type.  With the emergence ofthis link I could more fully grasp the importance of path “b” for communicationswith this patient. During the next phase of the analysis, the child of thedream came to be understood by us as representing a time in his life when muchof his natural spontaneity had receded. By beginning to get the frightened,frozen playfulness “out of the closet” a starting point was found for somelong, at times torturous work on obsessional defenses that had been locked inat a somatic level.


Within the context of the diagram (Fig. 4) we can conjecture thatmirror neurons operate as field resonators, contributing to the neuralapparatus which allows detection of the vicissitudes of the intersubjective,analytic “third” through empathic channels. The “third” could be understood asemerging from the combined pathways of Figure 4, especially those in thecentral region (paths a, b, e and f).  Inthe present case registering the emergence of the mercurial child as the“third” (co-constructed from our mutual experiences, conscious and unconscious,atop an archetypal base) was crucial to the fate of the analytic process; Ibelieve this occurred first through affective mirroring which when processedempathically allowed for the constellation and use of the “wounded-healer”pattern in the field, not simply in the analyst/me. Thus empathy when combinedwith the processing of counter-transference reactions is not constrained solelyto be an introspective examination through brief “trial” identification of themental worlds of the other but actually a way of experiencing the resonantfield itself; and more generally a way of engaging in and with the world.

The argument follows that while mirror neurons can aid empathiccommunication generally, they may be of special help to those who adopt aJungian approach in detecting archetypal patterns as they begin to constellatein the therapeutic process. Their part, however lowly or primitive, isessential in facilitating links between conscious and unconscious experience. Thusthey foster the instantiation of the transcendent function, contributing to makingit an embodied, psychosomatic reality, which in turn can continue to maturethroughout life.  Science is not yet ableto identify the origins of the mirroring system; how much of the mirrorneuronal system is present at birth and how much is emerged through sociallearning and interaction is open to debate. To the degree that this system hasplasticity and is capable of modification, its study should be of greatinterest to anyone interested in psychotherapeutic training. Likewise, sinceempathy is known to be essential in valuing the other, a key aspect of anethical attitude, the study and cultivation of all of its components atmanifold levels of abstraction should be of paramount importance both duringand after training of the therapist. 

More broadly, the well-knownneuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran (of phantom limb fame) claims the discovery ofmirror neurons with relevance to human evolution “is the single most important‘unreported’ story of the decade” (   He discusses the evolutionary importance ofmirror neurons and their role in the transmission of culture in his recent  book A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness.Our evolved capacity for empathic understanding of ourselves and our world is whatmakes us most fully human. Some contemporary philosophers feel that empathy isthe precondition for consciousness itself. Perhaps a step towards the convergence of Eastern and Westernappreciations of mind is being taken, my hope is that we are coming upon acrossroads where much more dialogue will be possible.