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Science, Compassion and Common Humanity

Amazing Breakthroughs in the Science of Empathy

by Jonathan Moens

When we talk about ‘empathising’ with another person, usually we think about being a nice person, being a good friend – essentially a fluffy concept sitting within the elusive realm of feelings and emotions. Yet recent discoveries in neuroscience have not only made empathy more tangible – it has also brought us closer to tackling those seemingly unanswerable questions, such as whether or not humans are inherently born with the ability to empathise, how separate we really are from those around us, and if people can actually be taught to feel more empathy.

1. The Discovery Of Mirror Neurons

The number one scientific breakthrough would no doubt be the discovery of mirror neurons, a particular type of neurons that fire not only when you perform a certain action, but also when you see someone else doing the same thing, even if you’re not doing it yourself. The discovery has been made by researchers Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues in Italy, and it suggests that our brains work not only via logical interpretation but also by feeling. Humans physically express feelings through gestures, facial expressions etc. – and in Dr. Marco Lacoboni’s words:

“Mirror neurons are the only brain cells we know of that seem specialised to code the actions of other people and also our own actions… by providing some kind of inner imitation of the actions of other people, which in turn leads us to “simulate” the intentions and emotions associated with those actions. When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile. I don’t need to make any inference on what you are feeling, I experience immediately and effortlessly (in a milder form, of course) what you are experiencing.”

2.  Psychopaths – evidence from neuroscience for lack of empathy?

It has long been said that psychopaths are unable to empathise – and there appears to be a neurological basis for this. Scientific evidence as recently as 2013 have shown that the brain regions which become active when a psychopath feels pain do not activate when observing or imagining pain in others. In fact,psychopaths experienced “an increased response in the ventral striatum, an area known to be involved in pleasure, when imagining others in pain.”

By that logic, it suggests that some people are inherently born with the capacity to enjoy observing someone else’s suffering – but is it really so simple? Children, irrespectively of culture, develop a sense of morality in their earliest years, and people who display psychopathic tendencies tend to be victims of a troubled childhood. Moreover, a study on psychopathic inmates, revealed that such people had deficiencies in their amygdala, a small, almond shaped brain structure that is the key to one’s experience of memory and emotions. This suggests that not only is there a physical basis to their inability to empathise, but also that society’s system of simple incarceration in prison, which suppresses brain development, needs to change in favour of a rehabilitation progress that allows them to take active responsibility for their actions, thus stimulating growth of their amygdala.

3. Can empathy be taught?

In short – yes. Take narcissists, for example (those who firmly believe in their self importance over others while experiencing a need for attention and generally experience low empathy): an astonishing breakthrough revealed that their small capacity for empathy doesn’t have to be permanent. Physical symptoms of empathy, as well as self reports of feeling empathy, are significantly elevated when those who scored highly for narcissistic personality traits are given the simple instruction to imagine how the other person feels. Another recent experiment in Brazil has also shown that “humans can voluntarily enhance brain signatures of tenderness and affection, unlocking new possibilities for promoting prosocial emotions and countering antisocial behaviour.”

So what can we take from all this?

That empathy is literally a part of being human, that it is something which can be taught or trained, even for those who are predisposed to a low capacity for empathy, and that, perhaps more importantly, driving society to become more compassionate and empathetic towards others is not a flimsy fantasy but a very real possibility. 



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