Once Again, with Feeling

Psychologist Isabel Dziobek does research on empathy training programs at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain, an international graduate school at Humboldt Universität.

Jun 13, 2017

In her role as a mentor, Professor Dziobek also provides support for young researchers at an early stage in their career.

In her role as a mentor, Professor Dziobek also provides support for young researchers at an early stage in their career.
Image Credit: Heike Zappe

Isabel Dziobek recalls the moment it went “click.” It was 2001, and she was working on her doctoral thesis at the Center for Brain and Health at the New York University School of Medicine. To test an experimental design she needed test persons who were unable to recognize emotions in others, so she decided to contact self-help groups for people with autism. As she sat with one specific group and listened, Dziobek suddenly realized what she wanted to do. She says, “I saw the self-confident way in which those with autism perceive their personal strengths and don’t just focus on their deficits. That really gripped me, and I’ve wanted to find and activate those strengths ever since.”

What this comes down to is empowerment: measures that can increase the degree of autonomy and self-determination in the lives of those affected. This is the goal that has run like a silver thread through Dziobek’s research work since her visit to that self-help group. Since 2014 the 43-year-old professor of social cognition at the research training group, Berlin School of Mind and Brain, which is based at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, with involvement by Berlin’s Charité university hospital, Technische Universität Berlin, and Freie Universität. It is here that Dziobek develops new methodologies to find out how emotions regulate interpersonal behavior – for example, the ways in which people recognize feelings and express them. She also aims to find ways to help patients who experience difficulties with emotional recognition.

Graduate Schools

Her team works, for example, with 80 actors who sit in front of a camera and express a range of different emotions. A software company then uses the images to develop a game for use in training people with autism to recognize emotions. People without mental disabilities can also use it to strengthen their social skills. “I think empathy is important in achieving success in life. And by success I’m not talking about earning money, but about establishing a functional social network,” Dziobek explains.

Emotions have long been neglected in scientific research, she goes on. Since the so-called emotional turn in science, research into feelings is the order of the day. “Neuroscience research has shown that emotional background noise can play an important role even in rational decisions. It’s what we commonly call gut feeling.”

When Dziobek talks of her own development path, it’s difficult not to use her as an example for her own theory. She came to psychology more or less by accident. “I had taken education as an elective subject in secondary school, and l assumed psychology was a similar field, but without really knowing what job I wanted to do in that field.” She certainly hadn’t thought of becoming a researcher. “I didn’t really pay all that much attention to my studies. While at university I also worked part-time in discos, organized parties, and had an exciting social life. I thought that was all far more important.”

Nonetheless, Dziobek grabbed the opportunities that came her way, such as a scholarship for doctoral studies in New York. And back in Germany, the chance to join the ProFIL mentoring program with Technische Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and Freie Universität Berlin, working with young researchers to support them on their journey toward becoming professors. “I believe Berlin’s universities have played a pioneering role in promoting women. And I have benefited greatly from it,” says Dziobek. In 2009 she was made head of the junior research group “Understanding Interaffectivity” at the Languages of Emotion Cluster of Excellence at Freie Universität Berlin, where she qualified as a professor. This was followed by a professorship at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain, a graduate school at Humboldt-Universität. It was a seamless transition. Today, Dziobek has three mentees and regularly attends panel discussions and workshops to report on the experience she has gained – something that could also be seen as empowerment.

But to help people on their way, it is important to know what they want. This is why Dziobek always works “close to the people.” For the past ten years she has headed a participatory research group where as part of a research team with non-autistic researchers, autists work on research questions that they themselves find relevant. According to Dziobek, the focus is less on finding a cure and more on improving quality of life and ensuring better provision. In recognition of her work with the Autism Research Cooperation (AFK), Dziobek received the 2016 Antistigma Award from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Psychiatrie und Psychotherapie, Psychosomatik und Nervenheilkund, justone of many awards she has received. Dziobek believes it is important not to lose contact with her work or with people. In addition to research, she still practices as a psychotherapist, seeing two patients a week, and has set up an open psychotherapy surgery in a refugee accommodation center.

But it is not only her encounters with people that give Dziobek ideas for new research studies. She believes new technological advancements, such as emotion-sensitive machines, also play an important role. In the future, computers will be able to read dementia patients’ feelings, measure their stress levels, and make an appropriate response. “Once machines help us to meet peoples’ needs, we will develop a much deeper emotional bond with them,” Dziobek says. And because this sparks a range of new ethical questions, she is already working with Arne Manzeschke, a professor of ethics at LMU Munich, on projects to develop emotion-sensitive software.

It is impossible to foresee what technical aids the future will provide to help people cope with mental illness. For people with autism, however, special eyeglasses are already available which show them the emotions being expressed by the face in front of them. But apart from prostheses that patients will need to wear on a permanent basis, Dziobek says she also wants to develop programs to help them learn how to compensate for their weaknesses. She is convinced that “technology can help people to help themselves.”