Alzheimer’s

This is your brain on empathy

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Adventures-300x251-61668910693741e62a7a036500c98ecc4b12de27Creating a meaningful and purposeful life is an essential ingredient of human wellbeing.

But how do you discover who you are and why you’re here? Pick up any self-help book written in the past 50 years and you’ll be told that the best way to learn about yourself is to spend time on introspection or in quiet contemplation. By indulging in a little naval gazing, and examining your innermost desires, hopes and aspirations, you’ll discover meaning and direction in life.

But have we taken the quest for self-improvement too far?

Roman Krznaric, Australian-born philosopher and author of the book ‘Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It’, thinks so. He believes the introspection of our era of self-help and therapy has made us less empathic.

“The 20th century I see as the age of introspection.That was the era in which the self-help industry and therapy culture told us that the best way to discover who we are and what to do with our lives is to look inside ourselves; to gaze at our own navels. This has not delivered the ‘good-life’.”

Krznic believes that we need to challenge our highly introspective individualistic, self-obsessed cultures, in which most of us have become far too absorbed in our own lives to give much though to anyone else.

“We need to shift to the age of outrospection. Discovering who you are and what to do with your life by stepping outside of yourself, discovering the lives of other people and civilisations.”

The key to ‘outrospection’ is empathy.

How you interact with others is greatly influenced by your ability to understand other people’s mental lives — their feelings, desires, thoughts and intentions. Cultivating your ability to empathise with others has the power to transform your life and revolutionise human relationships.

Kriznic defines empathy as the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.

The neural basis of empathy.

Neuroscientists and psychologists who study the neural basis of human empathy describe two types of empathy: cognitive empathy (understanding another’s perspective) and emotional empathy (understanding another’s feelings). Researchers are busy mapping the complex neural networks involved these two distinct but related empathy traits.

Can learn to empathise, or is it hard-wired?

Researchers have also shown that empathy isn’t a hard-wired mental attribute that you either possess or not, but one that can be cultivated or learned over time.

In one study doctors were enrolled in empathy-training classes in which they focused on improving their listening skills, learned to decode facial expressions and body language, and learned about the importance of understanding patients’ life stories. Afterwards the doctors’ empathy significantly increased (and strikingly, this improvement was rated by their patients).

Children can also learn empathy.

In the Roots of Empathy program a class ‘adopts’ a baby for a year, and the baby and parent visit the classroom every three weeks. During the visits the students are encouraged to observe the baby’s development and to label the baby’s feelings. For example, the baby may start crying and the facilitator will ask the children why they think the baby is crying. Numerous evaluations of the program have shown it reduces playground bullying, improves pupils’ relationships with their parents, improves academic performance, and increases both cognitive and emotional empathy.

How to train your brain for empathy

These studies show that empathy can be thought of as skill we can practice and improve. Here are six daily (or weekly) ideas Krznic suggest for cultivating empathy.

  1. Switch on your empathic brain. Recognise that empathy is at the core of human nature. Empathy isn’t just something you are born with. Most people can expand their capacity for empathy — both cognitive and emotional empathy — by practising mindful attention towards other people’s feelings and experiences.
  2. Make the imaginative leap. Make a conscious effort to step into another person’s shoes. Acknowledge their humanity, their individuality and perspectives. Try this for both your friends and your ‘enemies’.
  3. Seek experiential adventures. Explore lives and cultures that contrast with your own. “Next time you are planning a holiday, don’t ask yourself, ‘Where can I go next?’ but instead ‘Whose shoes can I stand in next?’” suggests Krznaric.
  4. Practice the craft of conversation. Engage others in conversation and practice radical listening — simply focus intently on listening to their feelings and needs without interrupting. “Take off your own emotional mask, and risk showing your vulnerability. Ultimately, most of us just want to be listened to and understood,” says Krznaric.
  5. Travel in your armchair. Transport yourself into the minds of others with the help of art, literature, film and online social networks.
  6. Get curious about strangers. At least once a week have a conversation with a stranger. Make sure you get beyond everyday chatter about the weather and talk about the stuff that really matters in life—love, death, politics, religion.

“You might strike up a discussion with one of the cleaners at the office, or the woman who sells you bread each morning. It’s surprising how fascinating, energising and enlightening it can be to talk to someone different from yourself.”

Sarah McKay

Sarah is a neuroscientist and writer, and the founder of Your Brain Health. As a PhD trained neuroscientist (not a doctor) Sarah has found her passion writing and talking about science and medicine. Her goal is to make neuroscience research simple and relevant to your everyday life.