Invisibilia: “The End of Empathy”

I’m circling back to catch up on a podcast from last week because Invisibilia‘s final episode of season 3 was so interesting I listened to it twice.

“The End of Empathy” approaches one story from two perspectives and makes an attempt to reconcile them. The story revolves around Jack Peterson, a man who got involved with the misogynist incel movement and then left it. The first take, by co-host Hanna Rosin, makes an effort to see things from Peterson’s perspective. The second, done by This American Life producer Lina Misitzis, doesn’t extend Peterson much empathy.

This causes Rosin to do some soul-searching and she exposes a gap in how generations approach empathy. Millennials, like Misitzis, possess 40 percent less empathy than those in Generation X, like Rosin, according to survey data. Like many things these days, millennials take a tribal approach to empathy. Those on “our team” deserve it, but why should women empathize with someone, like Peterson, who (at least at one point) belonged to a group that has perpetuated violence against women? Others, like terrorists, possess an extreme empathy for their own team, according to a researcher quoted in the episode.

It’s clear that Rosin does not view incels like Peterson as those on her team. The author of The End of Men has her feminist bona fides in order. But in her view, bridging the gaps that divide groups requires seeing things from the other group’s perspective (at some point the episode reminded me of Part 2 of Radiolab’s “In the No” series which had feminists of two generations discuss their divergent views on the #MeToo movement).

While I belong to the millennial generation, I tend to side with Rosin, though Misitzis makes some legitimate points. The acts Peterson committed should not be excused, but unless we understand what led him to commit those acts, what hope do we have of stopping others from traveling down that path? It’s clear that telling people they’re garbage with reprehensible views only leads them to dig in deeper.

Paired with increased tribalism, extreme empathy for your own team paired with an absence of empathy for others seems like a recipe for disaster. “Basically, you give up on civil society at that point,” the researcher said. In the end, both Rosin and Misitzis seem to move a little closer to the other’s viewpoint. Maybe podcasts will save us.

Listen here.

Invisibilia will return with new episodes in the fall.

Pods and Ends 4/7/19

Welcome to the inaugural edition of “Pods and Ends,” a column that will appear every other week or so rounding up some recent highlights in the podcast world that didn’t occasion entire posts.

  • Reply All: “#139: The Reply All Hotline” — A seemingly unstructured episode of Reply All that packs a mean punch. Hosts Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt field calls from listeners, there are many highlights but the episode ends with a heartfelt call from a Syrian man who cannot enter the U.S. because of President Donald Trump’s travel ban and seeks help applying to college in Canada. To answer a recurring question from the episode, I wish I was a P.J., but deep down I know I’m an Alex. Listen here.
  • Planet Money/Throughline: “The Phoebus Cartel” — A recent episode of Planet Money gave listeners a taste of Throughline, the latest podcast from NPR. Throughline provides historical context to stories currently in the headlines. This episode focuses on planned obsolescence and reveals that the eternally-burning lightbulb and the cartel that sought to thwart it in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow both have a basis in reality. Listen here.
  • Embedded: “How It Ends Part 1: The Brother” — NPR’s Embedded returns this week with a new season that looks at the end of the Islamic State. The first episode tracks the journey of a Canadian woman who learns her wayward brother has been imprisoned in Syria and goes to find him, only to learn he has been radicalized by ISIS. It’s a strong episode that bodes well for the season to come. Listen here.

Invisibilia: “The Remote Control Brain”

Like the best episodes of Invisibilia, “The Remote Control Brain” feels both personal and universal.

If you could implant a device in your brain that would make you a little happier, a little smarter and a little more confident, would you? Should you?

It sounds like the premise to a science-fiction story, but it’s one this week’s Invisiblia suggests researchers are close to making a reality. The episode from co-host Alix Spiegel follows a girl named Megan. She suffers from severe depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but her symptoms nearly vanished after she took part in an experiment with deep-brain stimulation.

With deep-brain stimulation, researchers implant electrodes into the brain which are powered by a battery pack concealed near the collar bone. A remote-control can adjust the voltage the electrodes send through the brain. Prior to the treatment, Megan lived a homebound life and contemplated suicide . With the device, she enjoys what sounds like a normal, productive life. She’s married. She has a job.

The episode opens with Megan talking to a doctor about an adjustment to the device. It malfunctions at some point, and she breaks down in tears. She asks the person recording the session to leave, so she can discuss her feelings with her doctor in private. Eventually things are dialed in and Megan returns to normal.

This is the second episode of Invisibilia‘s fourth season to deal with an unusual treatment for an illness. An earlier episode, “The Fifth Vital Sign”, followed a girl with amplified pain syndrome through an extreme treatment regimen that sometimes felt as if it bordered on sadism but greatly improved her life.

Like “The Fifth Vital Sign” and the best episodes of Invisibilia, “The Remote Control Brain” feels both personal and universal, raising several questions in the mind of the listener. Co-host Hanna Rosin compared it to a George Saunders story.

A refined version of deep-brain stimulation technology could do wonders for those who struggle with psychiatric disorders, but could it eventually be used to enhance the minds of otherwise healthy people? Are brains connected to a remote-control device that has a significant effect on mood and well-being susceptible to hacking?

For Megan, the technology doesn’t lead to an existential crisis where the technology alters her perception of herself, but her now-husband wondered if a Megan without obsessive-compulsive disorder would be capable of loving him. Where does Megan end and machine begin?

The episode doesn’t answer the questions it raises — it can’t — but it opens a window into a future where such questions could have significant effects on society.

Listen here.

New episodes of Invisibilia appear on Fridays.