High Resolution Empathy (Part 1)

One Saturday morning, I brushed my teeth while watching my then-four-year-old daughter write her first computer code.   I stood with a toothbrush in my mouth, watching Allie carefully select tiles. A green arrow means “go straight”, a blue arrow means “turn right”, and a tile with colorful fireworks, means, “do a dance.”  I worked my molars while watching her little hands remove the robot’s head from its body. She placed it on a USB port next to the program she had written in plastic tiles. Pressing a green button, she watched as LED’s on the board blinked. The program was flowing from the board to the robot.

When the program had transferred, Allie re-attached the robot’s head, and then pushed the green ‘start’ button on the robot’s plastic tummy. She watched as it scooted across the floor.

As Allie watched this robot move its way across the grey wood laminate strips, I saw her finger following along the ‘code’ in the plastic tray. Each time the robot did one of the steps Allie had programmed in, she moved her finger to the next step.

I felt extremely close to her, in that moment, because I understood what she was anticipating.  I understood how she was likely to move her body next, in a very precise way. I watched as this understanding unfolded and merged with the flow of what actually happened in time. 

The feeling of empathy was intense. It lifted the box of isolation that is so ever-present, it normally feels invisible. I’m all alone in my mind, and you’re alone in yours. The only other people we have to spend our time with are merely our own approximations of each other. In the past, I would have argued that I can only know you through the way you make the hairs in my ears wiggle, or the light bouncing off of you.  But the predictive processing model of brain function suggests this is probably not true.  Those signals are combined, filtered, sorted, and arranged via code running in my brain. You have code running in your brain, too. What happens when we are running identical code?

There may be some extremely high resolution form of empathy: the kind where both of us have an identical top-down, mathematical view of the world, or some portion of it – and this top down view synchronizes the predictions we make about our sensory experiences

You and I live in different simulations – there’s one in your brain, and one in mine. Even when our experiences overlap, we’re still living in separate simulations. But these simulations can, and do, share the same code.

As I watched my daughter follow that robot, and trace the execution of the code with her finger, I felt so close to her because I could understand, with high accuracy, what was going on in her brain. I could tell, precisely, where her finger would go next, and what she was anticipating.  Our minds met in the space of mathematics, in a domain defined by problems and their solutions. This is a space in which I have met, and come to know, many minds. 

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