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Science, Compassion and Common Humanity

Unexpected and Science-Baked Ways to Develop Empathy

by Jerissa Mirandilla

Empathizing is like wearing someone else’s shoes. Sometimes, those shoes are just the right size, cut, and material for you. But most of the time, they just don’t fit.

It’s the same thing with people. Sometimes, they have the same personality, background, and experiences as you do. But most of the time, they are different from you in so many ways, and those differences can make it challenging to empathize with them.

Still, empathizing is something you need to do. It’s crucial not just for nurturing genuine, healthy, and long-lasting relationships with others, but also for maintaining your mental, emotional, and psychological health.

With that in mind, here’s how you can become more empathetic, according to the latest scientific breakthroughs.

Read (Literary) Fiction

If you want to figure out how people think, take a Literature 101 syllabus and pick any of the assigned readings. That, in a nutshell, is the conclusion of David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, after they conducted five experiments on a group of 18- to 75-year-olds.

Throughout the experiments, the participants were asked to read literary fiction, popular fiction, and/or nonfiction within a few minutes. Occasionally, they were instructed not to read anything at all. Then, they took Theory of Mind (ToM) tests, which measured their ability to empathize with others.

As it turned out, those who read the works of authors like Don DeLillo and Wendell Berry scored the highest in the tests. Even the participants who disliked literary fiction performed well, suggesting that personal preference wasn’t an issue.

Albert Wendland of Seton Hill University explains this relationship best: “(Literary) fiction is literally putting yourself into another person’s position — lives that could be more difficult, more complex, more than what you might be used to in popular fiction. It makes sense that they will find that, yeah, that can lead to more empathy and understanding of other lives.”


Apparently, meditation isn’t just a mindfulness exercise anymore.  According to researchers from Emory University, it can also be used to inculcate compassion – and, by extension, empathy – in a person.

The researchers developed a program called Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT), where they recruited 13 people to undergo meditation exercises for eight weeks. Additionally, they had eight people take health discussion classes only, to function as a control group.

Before and after the CBCT, all the participants received fMRI brain scans as they completed Reading the Mind in the Eyes tests (RMETs). None of them had any previous meditation experience.

Out of the 13 who underwent the CBCT, eight were able to improve their scores by an average of 4.6 percent. In contrast, those in the control group had unchanged, or lower, scores.

Based on these results, it would seem that mindfulness and compassion are connected. To quote Christopher Bergland from Psychology Today: “Systematic (loving-kindness meditation) may actually blur the lines between oneself and others by dissolving the rigid differentiation of suffering between: me, you, us, them, friend, or foe at a neural level.”

Join a Musical Group

You’re probably aware that music affects your mood. Apparently, it has an effect on how you interact with others too, judging from the results of a study conducted by University of Cambridge researchers.

The researchers took 52 children, whose ages ranged from 8 to 11, and divided them into two groups. The first group was assigned to a specially-designed music program, where the children participated in interaction-based activities. The second group had a similar program, albeit without music.

Before and after the programs, the children were tested on their levels of emotional empathy. Unsurprisingly, the children from the musically-oriented group fared better in the post-program tests.

The researchers are hesitant to draw definitive conclusions from this, though. Still, you’d probably want to join your nearest band/choir/music club anyway.

Make Empathy a Habit

So far, we’ve discussed methods to increase empathy for a short period of time. But whether those methods have any lasting impact remains to be seen.

At any rate, experts agree that anyone can be trained to be more empathetic, including psychopaths and narcissists. Yes, you read that right; even people who apparently lack empathy can learn to be more attuned to others’ feelings – as long as they consciously, and consistently, train themselves to be such.

There’s still much to learn about the exact workings of empathy. It’s much more complex than just “seeing the world through someone else’s eyes”. Nonetheless, it’s a worthwhile skill to learn, not just for the sake of others, but also your own.


Source: Pick the Brain


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