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Section 23
LGBTQ and Empathy

Question 23 | Test | Table of Contents

The theoretical and the practical clarification of empathy still leaves one question standing: how one person, the counselor, can have an understanding of consciousness of another person, the client. Some have claimed for empathy an intuitive primordial existence (Stein, 1964). The idea is not new. Vico (in Bergin & Fisch, 1969) stressed something akin to it, and many persons today subscribe to "gut feelings" -the acceptance of the outcome of a blind process, similar to empathy, obfuscating objective understanding. A natural explanation of empathy in intercultural counseling is essential, since the counselor cannot use sympathy for an interface and hence cannot freely employ his own emotions to understand the client. To grasp natural empathy, one should understand what happens in the perception of an event.

The layman usually assumes that what one perceives is stored in the brain in the form of a fair replica of what really happened. Inaccuracies intrude and the original perception fades, but the trace retains features of the original. The brain, in this view, is assumed to be an automatic storing box from which memory may later be retrieved. Any explanation of how the individual knows or learns from his experience assumes that all stored traces derive, in all of their essential features, from original perceptions. If the original perception has not been stored in all of its essentials, then the automatic storing box has lost traces, and the person has forgotten. On the other hand, if the individual can act on "understandings," which cannot be associated with stored traces and, in turn, with original perceptions, then the psychologist is confronted with the problem of discovering the source of the understanding. The problem resides with the assumed identity between perceived reality and stored traces-the knowledge, information, and feelings acquired by the person. The gap between "nonperceived" reality and stored traces is bridged by "empathy," "gut feeling," and extrasensory perception, which, in the last, reveals in some undisclosed way understandings that do not stem from original perceptions.

This model of the brain, accepted by many psychologists until recently, resembles that conceived by conventional wisdom. Within the subdiscipline of behaviorism, the brain was treated as a master muscle or gland. Behaviorists focused on stimuli, the input, and on responses, the output. They paid scant attention to what intervened when they described or explained behavior. Mind did not exist. Within the last ten years, however, this view of the brain has changed drastically; advances in neurophysiology, the pressures of internal disagreements in psychology, the development of computers, information theories, and the contributions of linguistics (Segal & Lachman, 1972) have contributed to that change. The intervening stage, called mind, has been reinstated, inasmuch as the previous concept of the brain made no provision to store and transform deep structures of language, organization of information, consolidations in memory, or various other aspects of perception. For these reasons it became necessary to insert mind between stimuli and response and also to suggest a causal system.

The model that is gaining in favor describes the mind as being much more active than was previously believed. Because the brain senses and scans the outside world, Gyr (1972) has described the process of perception as taking place from inside out as well as outside in. A given stimulus that impinges upon the sensory organs is abstracted or modified before it is transmitted to the brain, where the incoming impulses are again modified as they are encoded and stored (Weimer, 1973). A replication of reality, the eidola theory of perception held by the Greeks (Boring, 1950) never arrives at the brain, which can only know the ends of its nerve, so to speak. The act of storing in the brain, or memory, establishes a new order of events with its own principles governing that which is stored. This world of mental representation, or subjective space, does not correspond directly to the physical world of objects. One of the startling implications of this idea is that the only thing which a person can know directly is a mental representation which corresponds to an abstraction rather than to a concrete manifestation in the physical world of objects (Pylyshyn, 1972; Weimer, 1973). Whereas the influences on mental representations from the outside are severely limited by time, those from the inside, regulate subjective space in a timeless order.

The world of mental representation, however, is not a static condition, since what is stored does not remain impervious to other cerebral events which take place and which further modify the stored perceptions according to principles largely unknown. At some future time the original perception may be retrieved and brought to conscious awareness, but this process itself distorts what is recognized as past experience. Memory is dynamic and changing. As in a hologram, something remembered is distributed over wide parts of the mind. Remembering is an active process of reconstruction, one that is holographic in nature, as Pribram (1969) has suggested. Conscious memory seems to match this process of holographic memory. In keeping with the holographic principle, any of many fragments of the experience can serve to reconstitute the entire experience. The same experience probably can never be recovered, however, since the act of retrieving and bringing an original perception to conscious awareness distorts what is recognized as a past experience.

This view of the brain and mind involves one additional factor which again is related to the holographic principle or, perhaps more accurately, the gestalt principle. It is the consciousness (Sperry, 1969) that assumes a role in the causal sequence of a complete explanation of the cerebral process (Sperry, 1970, p. 588). This view of consciousness, attained from the field of psychobiology, resembles conclusions reached from information-processing models (Shallice, 1972). The data on consciousness have only begun to appear and the issue is far from settled. Whatever the eventual resolution, it is clear that in this complex process there is plenty of room for the past experience of the individual to provide "input" into a raw perception so that, when it is served up, the retrieved outcome, perceived as the original event, may well reveal features which are novel to the original perception. Thus, we have an instance of understanding which differs markedly from original observations. When the understanding refers to others, we have an example of empathy, and it does not seem to require an intuitive primordial process to explain it. The sources of information and knowledge are quite sufficient to provide the mysterious source of insight so frequently associated with empathy. Our task ahead is to show that the influences from the past and from the immediate present are shaped at least in part by culture, and that intercultural sensitivity in counseling implies knowing and observing the appropriate cultural forms.

The essential point in the analysis of empathy given in these pages consists of the source of the understanding, which is the experiences and the memory of the person himself. Such understanding is not derived from external sources of stimulation but comes instead from memories and traces of language, images, emotions, and unformulated perceptions in the present. They may be fleeting sensations and experiences which lend their flow to the empathic understanding. It is a knowledge obtained from the inside, constructed by imagination and memory, and it depends on participation to take root. It is a way of knowing, discovered by Giambattista Vico (in Bergin & Fisch, 1969), that assigns to memory, to imagination, and to the immediate apperception of human interaction and communication a modality of knowing which is radically different from thought formed as induction or deduction (Berlin, 1969).

Empathy leads to understanding of another individual. In an intercultural situation, empathy should generate regressions towards cultural assumptions, values, and patterns of thinking. This kind of understanding through empathy is cultivated by inducing the mind to contribute its past experience to encoding traces and revealing the assumptions and the categorizations used in encoding and decoding perceptions.

Empathic understanding should be assisted by quick, fleeting perceptions which register stimulation from another's body language, tone of voice, smells, touches, etc. These are encoded as symbols and as information close to the perceptual domain. They are quick, often peripheral, perceptions that come close to revealing the deep structure of thought and values. The patterns of thought, the use of analogies, and the train of thought all contribute to a latent level of communication which is the basis of empathy. These assumptions and values should be understood in the ways in which they function to guide behavior and not necessarily according to the operational definitions they receive when employed to collect research data. Operational definitions often have little in common with the way in which the "concept" is stored and in which it functions to guide behavior. Apparently a natural conflict exists between firm research parameters and operational categories or stereotypes as applied in psychology, such as is evidenced by encoding strategies and personal constructs (Mischel, 1973, pp. 267-268).

If we define empathy as response to the latent level of communication, and if we accept it as the desired interface, then there follows an important consequence for the use of intercultural communication in counseling. In behavior modification or in sensitivity training, the client examines his personal constructs, style of life, and feelings. He runs the risk of surrendering his privacy. When counseling is conducted as an intercultural communication, however, the counselor attempts to ascertain and work with cultural values. The client examines qualities in himself which he shares with an ethnic reference group. He is provided with a safety factor if he personally believes that he has encountered unpleasant or undesirable qualities or aspects of his behavior that he is unprepared to accept as self-descriptive. He can assign them to qualities of the cultural group to which he belongs without necessarily subscribing to them. The counselor also has a clear task. He should consider the behavior of the client within a cultural context. He is not required to make a choice or even to impose a change on the client. Both participants work with cultural factors and are partly spared from making moral or ethical judgments. At least the freedom for choice would seem to be clearer.
- Counseling Across Cultures, Paul Pedersen, Juris Draguns, Walter Lonner, and Joseph Trimble (eds.), The East-West Center: Hawaii, 1981

Personal Reflection Exercise #9
The preceding section contained information about empathy, and using empathy to effectively counsel multicultural clients. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Chong, E. S. K., & Mohr, J. J. (2020). How far can stigma-based empathy reach? Effects of societal (in)equity of LGB people on their allyship with transgender and Black people. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 90(6), 760–771.

Goldberg, S. K., Rothblum, E. D., Russell, S. T., & Meyer, I. H. (2020). Exploring the Q in LGBTQ: Demographic characteristic and sexuality of queer people in a U.S. representative sample of sexual minorities. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 7(1), 101–112. 

Thompson, M. N., Chin, M. Y., & Kring, M. (2019). Examining mental health practitioners’ perceptions of clients based on social class and sexual orientation. Psychotherapy, 56(2), 217–228.

In an intercultural counseling session, what can empathy generate? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 24
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