Mind in the Eyes

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The “Mind in the Eyes” test was devised by autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin of Sasha) to diagnose empathic deficits. The test subject looks at letterbox images of eyes and tries guess the emotional states they represent. You can take the test here.

The normal range is 22-30, with a score above 30 indicating a high level of empathy; I scored a 27, which sounds like the high end of average.

In analyzing my own responses, however, I found a disturbing bias: It seems that I tend to see negative emotions when there are none–for example, I read a playful pair of eyes as irritated; interested eyes as incredulous; and so on. This characterizes nearly all of my wrong answers…and I was super-accurate when it came to perceiving the negative emotions. My private world is perhaps a hostile one.

You shouldn’t put too much stock in a one-shot test like this one, but the mildly depressing thing about this insight is that I think it’s true; I’m one of those unfortunate people who is often overly vigilant in social situations, quick to perceive threats or slights, wary of connection.

The ironic thing is that I write about the science of positive emotions and social connection for a living through my work at Greater Good, not to mention caregiving fathers.

However, I think this is a commonplace irony. Sometimes it appears to me that people (you know…”people”) imagine that one has to be something in order to write about it.

But I’ve met many, many writers in my life, some of them famous, and I can tell you that this is rarely the case, especially for the most interesting writers. The men and women who struggle most with something, who believe they lack that thing–e.g., love, wealth, faith, whatever–are the ones who will pursue it most fiercely and sometimes have the most insight into its contradictions. The distance between wanting and having, ideal and reality, is what makes them interesting.

I’m not saying, of course, that I’m interesting; that’s not for me to say. But it just occurred to me that closing the distance is part of what motivates me to write in the first place.