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What our Brain Tells Us About Our Ability to Empathize

You're hard-wired for empathy, whether you like it or not.

Laura Hay |

More than two decades ago now, scientists made a discovery that fundamentally altered our understanding of empathy. While observing monkeys, they noticed that certain brain cells activated both when a monkey performed an action and when that monkey watched another monkey perform the same action.

It’s a scenario we’ve all probably experienced before: If we’ve seen someone stub her toe, or cut her finger, or fall off a bike, and winced because we could feel the pain ourselves. That wincing – that unconscious reaction – is caused by “mirror neurons” firing in our brains. And these same neurons fire whether the action happens to us or to someone we’re watching.

The discovery of mirror neurons was a significant breakthrough because it revealed that our brains have evolved in a way that enables us to recognize and understand the emotions and intentions of others – not just by thinking but actually feeling. It sent ripples through a number of scientific disciplines and challenged our understanding of everything from language and philosophy to psychotherapy – and certainly of empathy. Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran has argued that these neurons allow us to learn complex social behaviors and has called them “the basis of civilization.”

Many species display empathy in some form – including rats, and chickens, and dogs, among others – but primates, and especially humans, have a more sophisticated capacity thanks to our more developed neocortex and our huge working memory. In fact, human beings are “hard wired” for empathy – it’s part of what makes us deeply social animals, and distinct from other animals on the planet.

As our understanding of the human brain gets more and more sophisticated, we’ve been able to pinpoint particular parts of the brain –  and particular chemicals – that are linked to certain kinds of behavior. For example, the brain chemical oxytocin plays a central role in social behaviors like bonding and empathy – it’s often referred to as “the love hormone” – and has been linked to higher levels of generosity.

These hormones, along with other genes and with our mirror neurons, provide a biological basis for our evolution as social creatures by enabling deep emotional connectedness, mimicry, and cooperation, among other things. They likely evolved in the context of the prenatal care fundamental to all mammals, and over the centuries they have contributed to our sense of morality – which has manifested itself in everything from The Golden Rule to modern conceptions of human rights.

Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Empathic Civilization, goes so far as retelling the human story from the perspective of empathy, arguing that empathy lies at the very core of human existence. He contends that reaching true global empathy is the only way to avoid the collapse of civilization and save the Earth.

Rifkin also makes the important distinction between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. Whereas emotional empathy refers to our biological capacity to literally feel what another is feeling (enabled by our mirror neurons), cognitive empathy – sometimes referred to as empathic accuracy – involves our ability to accurately understand and interpret another’s thoughts and feelings. Cognitive empathy is deeply connected to our imagination and emotional intelligence, and it’s the mechanism through we learn to take on multiple perspectives.

So just because our brains are wired empathy – just because we know it’s connected to our biology – doesn’t mean the story ends there. Like any other capacity or skill, empathy must be nurtured and practiced to develop fully. It is the combination of our capacities and our environments that shapes our full potential. As Rifkin writes:

“One develops a moral sensitivity to the extent one is embedded, from infancy, in a nurturing parental, familial, and neighborhood environment. Society can foster that environment by providing the appropriate social and public context. While primitive empathic potential is wired into the brain chemistry of some mammals, and especially the primates, its mature expression in humans requires learning and practice and a conducive environment.”

The challenge we all face is how to collectively nurture and cultivate empathy in ourselves, so that we thrive as individuals, as a society, and as a planet.

Thankfully, the science increasingly suggests that cognitive empathy in particular is a skill that can be learned and mastered, and we’re gaining a better understanding of just how to do so.

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