This is your brain on empathy

Creating 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,” says Krznaric.

11 Responses to This is your brain on empathy.

  1. I discussed this in a recent essay I wrote on the brain:
    and the first practical thing to do is to take an emotional intelligence test:

    The style of questioning will give you an understanding of what to look for.

    We don’t need car ads that tell you to get away from your neighbours – we need less distractions from pseudo empathetic media and more community oriented hands on activities. There’s no dollars in it so it must be funded by the collective i.e. the Government.

    Without empathy we lose our culture and our humanity – with empathy we lose our self interest and perhaps our wars.

  2. Dr. McKay, while I think that solely focusing on introspection doesn’t afford enough attention to the world outside of us, including other people, animals and nature, I do not think it should be relegated to something outdated or passe. Turning inwards, as one does in meditation, and nonjudgmentally acknowledging and letting thoughts and feelings go does teach one about herself or himself, but also allows for more space to be available to process external information. Besides all of the healthful brain consequences of meditation, it also makes us more self-compassionate. I’ve witnessed my own clients develop self-compassion and then, finally, become more compassionate and empathetic. Also, I know mirror neurons are controversial at present. Do you believe they have nothing to do with empathy? I do believe that empathy can certainly be learned but is it another case of the synthesis between nature and nurture?

    • I’m not too up to date on the mirror neuron debate, apart from being firmly in the ‘they are not solely responsible for the rise of civilisation’ camp. And I don’t believe we can attribute all our human capacity for social interaction to a few neurons. Perhaps they have something to do with empathy. But they also might not, empathy is a pretty complex cognitive, emotional and social behaviour.

  3. Hi Sarah, Thanks for your posts which I always enjoy reading. I just want to agree with Simone Ravicz’s comment above and say that, as a psychotherapist, I don’t agree with Roman Kraznaric that the world of therapy is solely about introspection or ‘navel-gazing’ as he describes it. I actually find this quite derogatory to the journey of people who are brave enough to seek out professional counselling/therapy to help better understand themselves, their relationships, how they operate in the world and how they can change and grow for the better. In my experience, this leads to people growing in both self-compassion and empathy for others. The counselling/therapy space is also a wonderful place for people to experience the power of empathic understanding for themselves.

    • I agree to a point. And I personally don’t intend derogatory to people who seek help. I’ve done it myself. But what Kraznaric implies is that its not the only way to figure out what matters in life, and certainly not the straightforward route to cultivating empathy.
      Funnily enough, I was teaching a primary ethics class on empathy today and we discovered (these were 8 year olds) that when they felt upset about something (e.g. imaging their dog was dying) they had FAR less capacity to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. But when they were back under control emotionally, they could much easily do so. I’m pretty sure adults have similar experiences …and this is what Simone above is getting at (I think!).

  4. I just wonder if there is a connection between people/countries who are rated high on a happiness ranking and yet are low on wealth,with a poor infrastructure,so much so that they,out of necessity,have to lead a more empathetic life.Perhaps the western world could learn a lot from empathy studies in these countries?

  5. Thank you for this post Dr. Sarah.

    I am not quite sure what Krznaric means when he says that introspection hasn’t delivered “the Good Life.” That’s an Aristotelean term and a great deal of what Aristotle writes about is how introspection and self reflection, as well as the cultivation of virtue, lead to the good life because they also lead to empathy and community involvement. Such a broad statement by Krznaric seems rather wobbly philosophically and scientifically.

    My guess also is that a lot of the empathy training is about paying attention. This is what meditation and introspection teach — how to pay careful attention. And the idea is to take that with you out into all that you do. Otherwise it isn’t true introspection or self awareness.

    If you follow the work of John Bowlby who was one of the first to research and write about attachment, then it would be hard to imagine that if we are hard wired for attachment (to other human beings) then we are not hard wired for empathy.

    Just because it has to be cultivated doesn’t mean that we aren’t born with the ability, which like other skills may be cultivated to greater or lesser degrees.

    Neuroscientist Antonio Demasio explains that the higher neural processes are inherently slow in development, so that empathizing unfolds more slowly. He follows Heidegger who cautions that some kinds of thought, particularly more decision making about other people and the situations they are in requires adequate time and reflection and paying attention. These are the qualities of mind that meditation and other contemplative practices teach.

    In fact, it may be that we find it harder to empathize because we are so distracted and too busy with life. Demasio’s research shows that fast pace and multitasking distract us and make it harder to fully experience other people’s emotions. Meditative practices are antidotes to this. Of course it’s important to find a good teacher and to do the practices. But anyone doing them seriously is likely to disagree with Krznaric.

    Thanks again for raising the topic! It’s an important one.

    • What I took from Krznaric’s idea that empathy isn’t hard-wired, is that it is a skill we can learn or cultivate, rather than a trait that only some ’empaths’ possess. I’m especially impressed by the idea we can TEACH this skill to kids, rather than expect them to automatically know how to put themselves in another’s shoes. As we get older we develop ‘layers’ of empathy – from a baby reacting to the cries of another, to and older child imagining how a friend feels if they’re hurt, to as adults imaging ourselves in situations very different from our own.
      On your point about ‘the good life’ … this idea appealed to me because I struggle with the current emphasis on mindfulness and meditation as THE panacea for all our ills. And clearly much of it isn’t working. (And as an aside, I’ve seen some pretty self-absorbed mindfulness practitioners!)

      Here’s his video on the topic:

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