Conversation: Empathy & Mastery


On April 3, 2011 at 4:23 p.m., I posted the first draft of what will eventually become the second story of the “Making and Empathy” chapter in the book “Realizing Empathy: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Making.” surrounding my experience in the woodshop. While much has changed since then, I wanted to share with you this edited version of the conversation that followed, regrouped and rearranged for clarity and relevance. Click here for the previous installment, which talks about computer and ethics.


joonkoo: This story reminds me of my recent attempts to master bread baking, namely baguettes. I’ve been baking a batch pretty much every other weekend, and one of the most delightful things that happens after you retrieve a freshly baked baguette from the oven, is to hear them singing , which is the sound of the crust cracking, and perhaps some moisture interaction going on.  I’m nowhere near the level of mastery, but I’m sure there are different sounds that you can distinguish, once you become a master baker.

slim: Did you notice the singing from the get-go or did someone point it out to you? If the former, was it highly noticeable or did you actively have to pay attention to it? I don’t think I’ve heard that sound. I’m very curious what it is like.

joonkoo: It’s very noticeable. I noticed it from the beginning. But then I also watched this French guy making a baguette on YouTube, and he was the one who mentioned this singing sound. It’s really the sound of crust cracking, but it makes the bread sound so delicious.

slim: Did you notice the sound after you heard the French guy on YouTube, or before?

joonkoo: I noticed it before, but I didn’t care that much. Afterward, I came to like the sound. But to be honest, there has been no deep understanding of the sound.

slim: See… A question I have about this is how do we come to understand, and become sensitive to these subtle nuances? There seem to be certain things that we can proactively notice, then there are things that other people have to raise our awareness to.

Is this simply a matter of time? If I spent enough time paying attention, would I eventually become sensitive to everything there is to be sensitive about — (smiles) and become miserable? Or are there always going to be things that other people have to raise our awareness to, because there is an infinite number of things, and simply not enough time?

joonkoo: The question you are raising is an excellent one! I haven’t thought about it much, but intuitively, there seems to be a need for both internal enlightenment and external stimulation to learn such nuances.

slim: Indeed.

By the way, last semester I interviewed a child psychologist, who told me that in the beginning, babies learn how to be attached to their mother, and come to understand what it means to love their mother. Then they may feel comfortable with other people who have attributes similar to mother, which allows them to feel safe and comfortable with these other people. Then as they interact with them more, they mature, and start to appreciate the nuances that make these other people different from mother, but love them despite the differences. I found that to be a rather fascinating way to think about maturity. Don’t you think?

joonkoo: The child psychologist was perhaps referring to Piaget’s idea of assimilation and accommodation.16 I have little knowledge in developmental psychology, but you may find it relevant.

Also, when I took cognitive development, I was fascinated not only by Piaget, but also by Vygotsky.17 You might want to check out his theory. My knowledge about these is too shallow to be shared here. (Smiles)

Now, returning to the idea of non-living things telling us something, I experience very similar things when analyzing data — they tell me how they should be analyzed.

slim: Yeah, isn’t that peculiar? There’s a feeling associated with it .

I’ve also heard a firefighter say the house told him to get out, and immediately after he ran out, it crumbled. Perhaps there is a combination of pattern recognition, as well as some genetic reflex that triggers a certain physiological change in our body that results in us feeling as if we’re being told?

joonkoo: Although, I think this is a very literary way of describing the gaining of expertise.

slim: What do you mean that it is a very “literary” way of describing the gaining of expertise?

joonkoo: I think it’s just one possibility of expressing how we get to know things better. I say literary because unlike other people or other creatures, it can’t be that a piece of wood is telling you something. It’s that you think that the wood is telling you something. For example, a baseball player might claim that the ball that left the pitcher’s hand told him to hit it, and it resulted in a home run.

This kind of expertise, often described as intuition, wisdom, mastery, is something that humans — and other animals — can acquire at an incredible level, as the human brain has amazing ability to parse statistical and stochastic patterns in the environment.

However, it’s an open question, I think, to ask what it takes to gain expertise in this variety of domains such as understanding other people’s mind (e.g., theory of mind ), furniture making, and computer programming. And also whether they are different, and if so, why.

slim: When you say it’s an open question, do you mean that there is no good insight into how one gains expertise as studied by neuroscientists? That because it’s such uncharted territory that it’s hard to start a discussion on it?

joonkoo: My question was whether it takes a similar amount of time and effort — if not the same amount —to master things across domains.

I remember reading from some cognitive psychology paper that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach the highest end of expertise. This may be an over generalization, but it means that it takes a huge amount of time and effort to become an expert.

For example, most of us are all experts at looking at faces, extracting facial expressions and emotions — although we know that people with autism lack this ability to some extent. On the other extreme, there are expert computer game players (e.g., Starcraft18). When you look at how they play, it’s simply incredible to look at how fast they make decisions and click the mouse buttons. This is not something that everyone can easily achieve, but some people are experts in this field.

How do the two domains that I raised as examples (face perception vs. Starcraft) differ in terms of their acquisition of expertise? What about wood cutting? What about computer using /programming? Is becoming an expert wood cutter very different from becoming an expert computer user? What are the common mechanisms and what are different mechanisms? These were the questions that I had in mind when reading your post.

slim: The question of testing expertise across domains sounds like it would be a challenge in defining the boundaries of each domain, not to mention the standards against which to measure expertise , no?

For example, Isn’t facial recognition something that we are hard-wired for? Is it fair to compare that to Starcraft? What would it mean for one to be an expert in facial recognition? Be able to tell the difference between twins you’ve never seen before within a certain amount of time?

joonkoo: Some things are definitely hard-wired and some things are not. Some things presumably use a combination of more hard-wired and less hard-wired systems to achieve expertise.

In facial recognition, there are ways to quantify it experimentally using behavioral measure of inversion effect, composite effect, and such. And recent research has shown that these abilities are pretty heritable.

A few years ago, we also found that the neural basis of facial recognition may be more genetically shaped than neural substrates for processing other visual categories. Now it’s true that I don’t think it is fair to compare facial recognition to Starcraft — one of the reasons being that some things are more hard-wired than others. But I would like to raise different facets of expertise, which might be related to your question about empathizing with objects and what it means to do that in different areas.

an-lon: Ok, I’m jumping in about the subject of 10,000 hours because it’s become simultaneously trendy and misunderstood. The gist of the research is that what makes Mozart or Tiger Woods or any virtuoso great isn’t necessarily inborn talent, but the ability to hone that talent.

The 10,000 hours translates to about a decade, but here’s the key: it is not just any 10,000 hours that makes a person great, it’s 10,000 hours always at the edge of your comfort zone, constantly pushing your boundaries. Most of us simply do not have the capacity to operate at that level. Instead, we spend most of those 10,000 hours simply repeating our old habits. We practice the same thing over and over again. Phenoms19 are those extremely rare individuals who are able to push their boundaries in an extremely focused and deliberate way.

I think George Colvin’s Talent is Overrated actually covers this better than Gladwell’s Outliers. He calls it “deliberate practice,” and gives many examples, from Jerry Rice to Ben Franklin, of how those so-called geniuses balanced on that knife’s edge over the course of an entire 10,000 hours. One useful model is three concentric circles: comfort zone, learning zone, and panic zone. Only in the learning zone can we make progress. The comfort zone is too easy and the panic zone is too hard.

Most of us, when we practice, think we’re in the learning zone, when in reality we’re simply performing extra iterations within the comfort zone. Those iterations, no matter how many, do not count towards the 10,000 hours, and do not bring us any closer to a Mozart-level accomplishment. 10,000 hours in a true learning zone is incredibly difficult, which is why there are so few geniuses out there.

I think there are excellent connections to be made between your dialogue with materials and that learning zone. The key here is to leave your comfort zone, but to not venture so far from it that the result is chaos. Inevitably, finding that knife edge requires dialogue, feedback, interaction, and discomfort.

slim: Ah . . . That’s a great way to think about it! 10,000 hours of discomfort.

joonkoo: Yes, as An-Lon described — thanks, An-Lon — it’s not merely the 10,000 hours of work. But still, what is true is that effort and time is a necessity for gaining an expertise..

Sorry if my comments steered the discussion too much toward the idea of expertise. But, I thought this was exactly what you were referring to when I got a better understanding of what you meant by being able to empathize with things.

slim: Don’t worry about steering the conversation in whatever direction. The purpose of this conversation is to understand what it means to have an empathic conversation, which would naturally require a lot of empathic conversations. (Smiles) I thank you for your patience. I really could not ask for more!

And yes, An-Lon, I do see a correlation between expertise and empathizing across time and memory. The more you empathize with an other across time and memory, the more trust, discipline, and skill you are able to build in relation to them. Whether this is with physical objects, or another human being, the model seems to work equally well .

Here’s a thought: Having a conversation with someone or something who/that has a sense of integrity, or a world view, different from your own — or simply unexpected or unpredictable — is highly uncomfortable. Perhaps the capacity to handle this gap in knowledge or this discomfort — one of the abilities I would think is necessary to stay in the learning zone — is directly related to humility.

joonkoo: Here’s also another thought, which is my current research topic. We are all experts at processing words visually — or simply reading, which is to say that we can quickly parse fine squiggly lines in our mother language. There are, in fact, many experimental tricks that you can do to show your expertise in reading letters and words. However, when you think about it, it is hard to believe that our brain is hard-wired to read words.

Script was invented only very recently on an evolutionary time-scale. Most humans were not educated to read and write until much more recently. But literate adults are very good at reading. This must be due to the extensive training with letters and symbols during development.

While I’m not sure if learning to read during childhood really pushes the boundary and enters the discomfort zone, this may be illustrating another type of expertise that we go through. It’s different from others because, unlike face recognition, it’s not hard-wired, and unlike becoming an expert in Starcraft, this kind of expertise seem to be something relatively easily achieved by the masses.

slim: I want to understand better what you say about our ability to become expert readers. You are saying that, for some reason, we can learn how to read starting at a young age, although it is not something we are hard-wired for .  This is an assumption, but a fairly safe one. I think you’re also saying that it is unclear if this necessarily implies that we are in the discomfort zone when we learn to do this, which leads to the question on whether this is a different kind of learning or not. Is that the question?

joonkoo: Well, I don’t want to get into a discussion around the idea of a discomfort zone too much. That was just a side note. What I was focusing on was that learning to read —visual processing of orthographic stimuli, to be precise — and becoming an expert at reading is something that is quite different from becoming an expert in some other domain, because it is an expertise that is ,  presumably,  not based on a hard-wired system, yet acquired by pretty much all of us — except people with dyslexia.20 When you think about it, there are not many things that are like this. This is, in fact, what makes reading very interesting.

slim: Ohhhhhhh! So you’re distinguishing between learning through the use of hard-wired facilities  ( i.e., facial recognition)  vs. learning through the use of non-hard-wired facilities  ( i.e., reading). Then you’re asking how much of the learning that happens in a given domain is facilitated by hard-wired capabilities vs. non-hard-wired capabilities, and how their proportion affects the experience of learning. And you’re saying that reading is special, because almost all — possibly an overstatement — is not facilitated by hard-wired capabilities. Am I understanding you?

joonkoo: Yes, that would be a straightforward way of saying what I was trying to say. (Smiles) Thank you!

slim: What is an orthographic stimuli? I just tried looking it up, but couldn’t make much sense of the stuff I found.

joonkoo: Oh, an orthographic stimuli might be a word that I made up. (Smiles) Just think of letters and words.

slim: Oh, then by “read” do you simply mean recognizing the letter forms that one sees or do you mean making meaning from their composition into words?

joonkoo: What I mean by “reading” is the visual processing of letters. Reading is a special case because not much of it is hard-wired. In fact, one of the recent claims is that it goes against some hard-wired neural structure that is designed to carry out other activities more efficiently. That other stuff being the mirror invariant perception of visual features. For example, it takes very little effort to view some image, then view the left-to-right flipped version of the image and know that those two images are identical. It is argued that this is a kind of basic visual mechanism that is more hard-wired. However, when learning to read, b is not the same as d even though it is a left-to-right flipped image of b. So to learn that these are different, the mirror invariant perception needs to be unlearned to a certain extent before you can learn to read.

slim: Wait, wait, wait . . . mirror invariant of perception? You mean we’re hard-wired to be able to tell something is the same regardless of whether it is mirrored or not? Where did that come from? Is it because things
in nature are symmetrical?

an-lon: Seriously! Symmetry and mirror invariant of perception? That’s fascinating! What about Asian languages where there isn’t the b and d problem? I’ve often heard that there’s no such thing as dyslexia in the Chinese because of that. Is that really true? I don’t suppose there’s a good layman’s book on this subject?

joonkoo: My understanding is that the critical ability in visual processing of written words is not necessarily restricted to the b vs. d problem, but more related to discriminating the subtle nuances in the various different visual features. Mirror invariance is just one of the examples. There are many such examples in other languages for sure.

I don’t know much about dyslexia in the Chinese population. Dyslexia is something that’s a little different from pure impairment in visual processing of words.

Most current theories and findings are putting emphasis on the phonological processing of prints. Stanislas Dehaene21 is a big name for this kind of research. I’m sure he wrote books for the general public on these matters.

High-level vision is a fascinating field for research. Reading, in particular, is intriguing for all the reasons that we discussed so far.

anson: What a lively discussion! Slim, let me just say that your descriptive writing helped me imagine myself going back to a wood workshop, with all the sensations that comes with it. I took a woodworking classes from Grade seventh to ninth, way back when.

I also think you have touched on a very important topic about truth or what is true in this world. Truth is honest. Truth is simply what is. Truth neither budges nor needs to budge. To go against the truth is like kicking against the goads.

Truth is beautiful and simple. It just remains there patiently waiting for us to recognize it and embrace it. Truth sets us free. It always teaches us an easier and simpler way. It helps us to be in harmony with this world. A lot of times when we think of truth, we think of moral categories of right and wrong, but it need not be so. Rather, I think using the categories of in harmony or out-of-tune is a better way of looking at it. Finding truth is simply finding the way of how to be in harmony with everything. Although there is indeed a lot of incredulity towards truth in our postmodern sensibilities, your story is reminding us something so basic and simple — whatever is true is honest and it is what it is. There’s a video on YouTube called “Rhythm” featuring a pastor named Rob Bell 22 on this very topic from the Christian perspective. Perhaps you will find it relevant.

slim: I recently came across a book called the Empathic Civilization by an economist named Jeremy Rifkin. In the book, he writes that “when we say that we seek the ultimate truth, we are really saying that we seek to know the full extent of how all of our relationships fit together in the grand scheme.” Your comment reminded me of that sentiment, and it resonates.

In the way that he describes it, I believe both truth as well as subjectivity can coexist. If there’s a classic pattern I recognize throughout history, it is that every time someone claims the existence of a dichotomy, it is not that it is either/or, but both in some relationship constantly shifting through time. Just as the idea of balance is not some static equilibrium, but rather an ongoing process that fluctuates, I imagine this is the same.
And although I’m not Christian, I have to say that I enjoyed the video very much. The first thought that came to mind was how different it was from what I had expected a Christian video to be like. But then I realized what does that even mean to label something as a “Christian video”? It’s nothing but a projection of my biased assumptions.

It almost seems like the words “God” and “religion” play a large part in confusing and dividing people. I can tell from first-hand experience how profound the change in one’s own world view can be when words that you once thought you knew get redefined. Perhaps a relevant quote is one from philosopher Emmanuel Levinas23 who said, “Faith is not a question of the existence or nonexistence of God. It is believing that love without reward is valuable.”


16 Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget defined assimilation as the integration of external elements into evolving or completed structures, and accommodation as any modification of an assimilatory scheme or structure by the elements it assimilates. He said that assimilation is necessary in that it assures the continuity of structures and the integration of new elements to these structures, whereas accommodation is necessary to permit structural change, the transformation of structures as a function of the new elements encountered. An example of assimilation would be the child sucking on anything they can get their hands on. As they learn to accommodate, they discern what to suck on and what not to. (Encyclopædia Britannica Online)

17 L. S. Vygotsky, (Nov. 5, 1896 – Jun 11, 1934) was a Soviet psychologist who, while working at Moscow’s Institute of Psychology  from 1924–34, became a major figure in post-revolutionary Soviet psychology. His theory of signs and their relationship to the development of speech influenced psychologist Jean Piaget. (Encyclopædia Britannica Online)

18 Starcraft is a real-time strategy game for the personal computer. It is produced by Blizzard Entertainment. According to Scientific American, it has been labeled the chess of the 21st century, due to the demands for the pursuit of numerous simultaneous goals, any of which can change in the blink of an eye. (“How a Computer Game is Reinventing the Science of Expertise”)

19 An unusually gifted person (frequently a young sportsperson), a prodigy. (OED Online)

20 Dyslexia is an inability or pronounced difficulty to learn to read or spell, despite otherwise normal intellectual functions. Dyslexia is a chronic neurological disorder that inhibits a person’s ability to recognize and process graphic symbols, particularly those pertaining to language. Primary symptoms include extremely poor reading skills owing to no apparent cause, a tendency to read and write words and letters in reversed sequences, similar reversals of words and letters in the person’s speech, and illegible handwriting. (Encyclopædia Britannica Online)

21 Stanislas Dehaene (born May 12, 1965 Roubaix, France) is a professor at the Collège de France, who directs the Cognitive Neuroimaging unit of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research. In his book The Number Sense, he argues that our sense of number is as basic as our perception of color, and that it is hard-wired into the brain. (“Stanislas Dehaene”)

22 Rob Bell is the founding pastor and pastor emeritus of Mars Hill Bible Church. He graduated from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He is the author of Love Wins, Velvet Elvis, and Sex God, and is a coauthor of Jesus Wants to Save Christians. He is also featured in the first series of spiritual short films called NOOMA. (“Rob Bell”)

23 Emmanuel Lévinas (December 30, 1905 – December 25, 1995) is a Lithuanian-born French philosopher renowned for his powerful critique of the preeminence of ontology — the philosophical study of being — in the history of Western philosophy, particularly in the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. (Encyclopædia Britannica Online)