When another person gets you, how does it make you feel? At times, it seems like we don’t really want to understand one another. Maybe it’s because we’re too busy paying attention to our own feelings or perhaps we’re so immersed in our digital worlds that we simply forget about in-person interactions. Yet those of us who have previously experienced empathy, even only once, will likely agree that it could profoundly change how we see the world and, of course, our roles in it.
Empathy is practical and beneficial; because of it, people are able to reach out to one another in a time of need or during a time of celebration. It has the power to unite strangers and solidify bonds between communities helping people maintain positive relationships, as well as respect for one another. Knowing that we are understood makes our suffering more bearable and our lives more enjoyable.
Because of our hyperconnected age, information about what’s happening in the world travels very fast. With just a few clicks of our mouse, we can find information about different products, places and their inhabitants. Statistical studies tell us that we can reach anyone in the world via five to eight connections; referrals are now more efficient than ever. Communication is becoming easier by the minute, but without empathy it’s superficial at best.
Empathy is wired in our brains. As a matter of fact, we have entire circuits dedicated to it. For instance, when we see someone engage in an activity or go through a particular experience, mirror neurons ignite in our brains. They play a role in helping us understand what someone else is going through, as if we were the ones having the experience. However, there is much speculation about their exact function. Many cognitive neuroscientists and neuropsychologists believe that mirror neurons play an important role in helping us learn new skills by imitation. Others believe that they act as the neural basis of empathy itself; we don’t know.
More important, we’re not even sure if the capacity for empathy is unique to humans. It could be natural to other life forms since there are many studies that suggest animals and even plants have empathetic tendencies. In humans, mirror-neuron activity has been found in areas related to somatosensory input and motor circuits, and, from an evolutionary perspective, they help us cooperate with other members of society more efficiently. In other words, they are survival mechanisms.
There are other very interesting findings about how empathy affects our choices and behaviors. Dr. Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at the Yale Infant Cognition Center, and his team carried out research that showed how 3- to-9-month-old infants had an almost universal preference for kind and social behaviors when exposed to different simplified behavior patterns that were either kind or unkind, social, or anti-social.
In one experiment, babies between 6 and 10 months old repeatedly watched a puppet show. Simple wooden shapes with attached eyes represented the characters. They saw a red circle attempt to climb a hill while a yellow triangle pushed it back down. They also saw a blue square help the red circle by getting behind it and pushing it up. After seeing the puppet show several times, the babies were asked to choose their favorite puppet. They chose the blue square more than 80 percent of the time; it was the helpful character.
In a similar study involving a cat puppet playing ball with two bunny puppets, a helpful one and a not-so-helpful one, yielded similar results. Lead author Dr. J. Kiley Hamlin stated, “Telling the difference between good guys and bad guys might be something that infants come to the world with.” How can infants understand social norms? They aren’t educated about what’s acceptable or even polite; they don’t know what’s considered good or bad. Yet they almost always show preference for characters that behaved kindly. Is empathy responsible for this phenomenon? Are mirror neurons at work here?
Worldwide empathy can bring about worldwide compassion. If it can be cultivated, shouldn’t our culture and society attempt to do so? It’s in our best interest to strive for a more peaceful and tolerant coexistence.
This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.
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