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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Taking Another Person’s Perspective: A Spatial and Social Skill

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Amy Shelton in her lab with tools of her experimentAmy Shelton with the tools of her work. (photo: Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins)

Psychologists who study learning and memory have a special interest in how people navigate reality in a three-dimensional world. There is a huge variation in abilities for spatial learning among adults, and some of these skills don’t even appear until adolescence. How you interact with other people has a lot to do with how well you are able to literally take their perspective.

Johns Hopkins scientist Amy Shelton has found that strong social skills may be an important factor in your spatial skills. That is, people who are very good at taking on the visual perspective of another person also test well on social abilities. And these abilities only appear when the participant is asked to take the perspective of a person — not that of an object.

The paper’s authors suggest this ability to take another perspective is important because it requires Theory of Mind, something that is often found lacking in persons on the autism spectrum. Simon Baron-Cohen describes Theory of Mind as “being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds.” Of course the author notes that there are a number of factors that influence social ability like “interest, comfort, and savvy in social situations.”

For this experiment, researchers focused on the question of perspective. They asked participants to describe the perspective of different objects placed near 22 Lego buildings. The variable that changed: one of the objects was person-like, a faceless doll, and the other two were not (a toy camera, colored plastic triangles). Participants were asked which figure had the view of the building displayed on the computer screen and tried to match them.

Tools to test perspectivephoto courtesy of Amy Shelton/Johns Hopkins

What they found was that one group of participants were much better at correctly identifying the views from the perspective of the faceless doll only. This group also scored low on “the Autism Quotient,” a questionnaire designed to assess the degree to which adults of normal intelligence show five different traits associated with autism spectrum disorders: social skill (higher score = poorer social skills), perseveration (higher score = more difficulty shifting attention), attention to detail (higher score = greater focus on details), communication (higher score = poorer communication), imagination (higher score = less imaginative).”

Amy Shelton says there are some interesting implications for thinking about empathy and viewpoints of an “other”:

“Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this research is that it emphasizes a ‘whole person’ approach. We tend to think of ourselves as being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at certain skills, but these results suggest that different skills really do interact and have an impact on each other. For instance, I might be good at giving directions to another person because I have good spatial skills, but I might be even better at it if I can also empathize or embody the other person’s perspective.”
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And slowly, I see why it might be easier to just make phone calls from the safety of one’s home than to be witness to a seemingly unending stream of medical misfortunes. … I realize that their puzzling reaction to illness is not so much selfishness as self-insulation.
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Dr. Ranjana Srivastava, from her essay "The Loneliness of Visiting" in this week’s edition of The New England Journal of Medicine

Hospital Visit"Hospital Visit" (photo: Bart Heird/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

A Doctor in the Waiting Room

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

When a close friend of Dr. Srivastava suffers a stroke, the medical oncologist from Melbourne confronts the difficulty and helplessness of being a hospital visitor. The experience makes her more empathetic towards her patients’ absent loved ones who visit sparingly.

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A Question From Behind the Glass
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer

Most of the time, Krista is not physically in the same room with the person she’s interviewing. This was the case during her recent conversation with geophysicist Xavier Le Pichon, who lives in southern France. She spoke with him from Studio P in Saint Paul while he was an ocean away in another studio in Aix-en-Provence.

A typical Krista Tippett interview lasts 90 minutes, give or take. Mitch, our senior producer, usually handles audio engineering while others take turns transcribing in real-time. In this photo you can get a sense of the set up. This image was taken by Trent on the day of the Le Pichon interview and here you see me transcribing while Colleen listens in the back. Mitch is taking notes and John Scherf, the technical director, makes sure that everything goes smoothly with the recording.

Krista (pictured at right) is situated in the studio while the rest of us listen in the control room. A soundproof glass panel separates us.

As Krista enters the last stretch of the conversation, she’ll usually pause to ask if there’s a question “from behind the glass.” This is our opportunity as production staff to contribute a question or two.

In her conversation with Le Pichon, I noticed that he became animated when Krista first referenced an emerging wave of research on the science of altruism. Le Pichon responded that in addition to altruism, scientists also need to study compassion and empathy “otherwise they will not understand anything. They need to go beyond that.” From there, the conversation took another turn to Dorothy Day and the San Francisco earthquake and then to 9/11. When the behind the glass moment came, I asked if Krista could revisit her earlier discussion about the science of altruism, compassion, and empathy.

You can hear their exchange in the audio clip above. Here Krista mentions that Le Pichon has written about a proposed research study with a colleague on vulnerability and fragility. I couldn’t remember where Krista found this reference so I went back to some of the materials Le Pichon originally forwarded. In one essay he sent, entitled “The Sign of Contradiction,” he references a colleague named Dominique Lambert who teaches at Universitaires Notre-Dame de la Paix in Namur, Belgium.

Le Pichon writes:

"…we have pleaded for a scientific research program that will try to consider the importance of the fragility and vulnerability of humans in the development of humanity. As I have implied in this short essay we believe that vulnerability and fragility played an essential role in the origin and development of humanity. We believe that the implicit and sometime explicit denial of this fragility and vulnerability in our modern societies put us in great danger of losing the meaning and value of human life."

I haven’t been able to find much about Professor Lambert’s research on fragility and vulnerability beyond this link. If more surfaces, I’ll post it here. Or, if you’re familiar with his research, let us know!

Photos by Trent Gilliss using his hand-dandy Nokia N95!

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