The pharma industry is showing renewed interest in the neuro space, marking an exciting time in drug development, and a notable shift for healthcare-centric insights professionals. It’s clear that, to gather and generate insight into neurological patients, the techniques we use elsewhere might fall short. We will need to recalibrate our approaches to effectively explore the neuro landscape. Namely, the way we think about empathy—one of the most revered tools in any researcher’s toolbox.

As insights professionals, we lean heavily on empathy in every corner of our craft: methodology design, data analysis, reporting, consultation…but conducting research within neurological conditions will challenge our fundamental understanding of empathy. Because when we empathize, we’re actually doing two things at once; and when we attempt to empathize with minds unlike our own, we must do those two things differently.

The Two Types of Empathy

  1. Emotional Empathy (i.e., affective empathy)
  2. Cognitive Empathy (i.e., empathic accuracy)

We tend to think of empathy as something we can feel; that’s Emotional Empathy—experiencing, imagining, or relating to the emotions of someone else’s situation. But that’s only half the story; to fully empathize, our brains also lean on Cognitive Empathy—understanding and relating to another’s state of mind (i.e., Theory of Mind). And imaging studies prove that these two “empathy modes” are, in fact, distinctly different processes.

Where Emotional Empathy Falls Short

Understanding our two “empathy functions” becomes all the more important when exploring patients’ experiences with neurological conditions. If we don’t purposefully call upon our Cognitive Empathy, we might make incorrect conclusions based on how our brains work, not theirs. Because it’s one thing to put ourselves in another’s shoes, but an entirely different ask to shapeshift our minds into that of another.

This seems obvious for certain neurological conditions (think dementia, Parkinson’s disease, ALS); we easily recognize and accept that our empathy can only give us a partial understanding. We might turn to emotional empathy to imagine experiences like losing aspects of our independence. But we don’t expect to fully relate to what it’s like for this type of patient, so we also naturally lean on cognitive empathy to inject what we know about this condition into the equation (e.g., memory loss, disorientation, speech disturbances).

But let’s consider a condition we often misunderstand: Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). In our research, we might naively use emotional empathy more than we should – tapping into our memories of experiencing sadness, grief, heartbreak…but MDD is a serious neurological condition with mental and physiological differences. Patients might suffer from visual disturbances, like increased sensitivity to light (photophobia), impaired depth perception, and even changes to how the occipital lobe functions. Some studies have shown differences in color and contrast perception: the more depression symptoms a patient has, the lower contrast suppression they display. Like dementia, there are many differences in how patients experience the world. If we only tap into emotional empathy, we might misunderstand or completely miss out on critical insights.

We also can’t forget the neurological impacts of the actual medications patients might be taking. To name a few: blurred vision, changes in eye focus, anhedonia (reduced sense of positive emotions), emotional blunting (reduced sense of emotions, in general). These differences can alter the way patients experience and react to our stimuli in concept testing. Or we might underestimate or misread the emotional impact of a specific moment in their patient journey (was it a more emotional experience than the patient’s recounting suggests, given the effects of their medication?).

In Practice: How to Recalibrate Empathies for Neuro

As we move forward, we must continuously titrate our “empathies,” right-sizing each to uncover the truth. While it may sound daunting (given you’ve just learned that everything you thought you knew about empathy is only 50% correct), the actual adjustments begin to feel intuitive once we understand the differences, strengths, and blind spots of Emotional vs. Cognitive Empathy.

  • Before designing your research, give your Cognitive Empathy a thorough disease-/drug-specific knowledge foundation. Leverage academic sources to learn about the sensory, emotional, and cognitive differences your patients might be experiencing. Read up on the latest clinical research to get smart on what we know about the impact of their respective medications, so far.
  • Scrutinize whatever you’re putting in front of your patients (stimuli, homework assignments, marketing concepts). Ask yourself if the patient’s condition or current medications could alter their experience with these materials. Then, adjust or be sure to account for those additional variables.
  • As you observe research and analyze your data, keep an eye out for things that feel mysterious, illogical, or unrelatable. For example, if a neuro patient isn’t using valuable patient support tools, executive dysfunction might be the culprit, not a UX/UI issue. This will feel similar to the art of detecting biases.

We’re sitting squarely on an exciting inflection point. As we find new ways to access the truth in the neuro space, we’ll develop new solutions we didn’t know we needed in other disease areas. The trick? Be humble, prioritize integrity, and question everything (lucky for market researchers, questions are our specialty).

Looking to get the right insight out of a tricky patient population? Reach out today at [email protected] to learn more about how we can help you recalibrate your “empathies” to uncover the truth about your patient population.