Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Neuroscience of Empathy

“The buffalo and the coyote are our brothers; the birds, our cousins.  Even the tiniest ant, even a louse, even the smallest flower you can find – they are all our relatives.  We end our prayers with the words mitakuye oyasin – ‘all my relations’ – and that includes everything that grows, crawls, runs, creeps, hops, and flies on this continent.”
~ Jenny Leading Cloud, White River Sioux ~

Empathy is the understanding and sharing of the feelings of another.  It is described as “feeling with a person, rather than feeling for them.”  It is the capacity to understand what another person might feel or think, and to act appropriately.

A 2010 meta-analysis found a 40% decline in self-reported empathy by college students between the 1970s and the early 2000s.  Researchers have discovered that one reason for a decline in empathy is that it involves hard work.  They asked participants to choose between a card labeled feel and one labeled describe.  When shown a picture of a person’s face, the describe participants were asked to describe the person’s appearance, but the feel participants were asked to try to experience and describe the person’s feelings.  Over several experiments, researchers found that participants greatly preferred the description deck of cards over the empathy deck, even if the emotions being investigated were positive.

Choosing to avoid experiencing empathy plays out in our lives when we mute a sad tv commercial or internet add (such as one describing animal abuse), cross the street to avoid a homeless person, or fail to educate ourselves about the experiences of oppressed individuals or marginalized communities. 

Humans categorize others in numerous ways, such as by favorite sports team, college affiliation, political party, religion, neighborhood (rural, city, state), socio-economic status, ethnicity, and race.  When you have something in common with the people in the category, you can experience in-group bias for those who belong to that group, but you can also discriminate against folks in the out-group.  This was an important skill when recognizing a tribe member was key to survival, especially during battles. 

Social categorization, and the potential for in-group preference and out-group prejudice, is highly context dependent because people align with and differentiate from others as we move in and out of the groups we belong to.  Our tribal affiliations can change throughout our lifetimes, which demonstrates how arbitrary social categorization can be.

Research indicates that people express less empathy for individuals who are not part of their tribe.  When white and Chinese people were shown video clips of faces either being touched with a Q-tip (non-painful) or poked with a syringe (painful), MRI scans showed greater activation in the brain areas where they would experience pain themselves for people of their own ethnicity, than for members of the other ethnicity.  This study revealed that “in-group bias affects how much someone feels the pain of somebody else, which might contribute to why racist individuals would have less of a problem hurting somebody belonging to a different ethnic group than somebody who belongs to their own ethnic group.” 

But if we can choose to avoid empathy, so too can we choose to develop empathy.  Skill-building takes work, but this type of effort is evident when people volunteer, participate in charity runs, protest, or listen to and read the stories of folks in other tribes. 

Another empathy-building strategy is Lovingkindness, a practice designed to enhance feelings of goodwill toward others.  One study asked college students to walk around a building for 12 minutes and think about the people they encountered in the following ways: they wished for the people to be happy (lovingkindness); they thought about how connected they were, such as taking similar courses or having similar hopes (interconnectedness); or they considered how they may be better off than others (downward social comparison).  Each group was compared to a control group, and those students practicing lovingkindness felt happier, more empathetic, caring, and connected, and less anxious than all the other groups.

Lovingkindness is a practice where you wish yourself safety, happiness, good health, and peace.  Then you send the same wishes out to loved ones, then extend these wishes to others who are not part of your tribe, and then to all beings.  Research shows that a lovingkindness practice can increase positive emotions, feelings of connectedness, compassion, and empathy.  It can also decrease bias, anger, stress, self-criticism, and symptoms of depression and PTSD. 

If your heart is breaking over the horrors inflicted on some members of our society, and over the deep divisions in the American tribe, you might spend 3 minutes watching some of the Hamilton cast perform America, a musical story by Lin-Manuel Miranda: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDv-MBqmMak.

May you, and all my relations, be safe, healthy, happy, and at peace.

Lovingkindness Resources

Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, Loving-kindness Meditation, https://www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree/loving-kindness

How to Practice Loving-kindness, Lion’s Roar, https://www.lionsroar.com/how-to-practice-loving-kindness/.

A Meditation on Lovingkindness, Jack Kornfield, https://jackkornfield.com/meditation-lovingkindness/

This Loving-kindness Meditation is a Radical Act of Love, John Kabat-Zinn, https://www.mindful.org/this-loving-kindness-meditation-is-a-radical-act-of-love/

Sources

Ingrid Newkirk and Gene Stone, animalkind: Remarkable Discoveries about Animals and Revolutionary New Ways to Show Them Compassion 4 (2020).

Penn State, The Empathy Option: The Science of How and Why we Choose to be Empathetic, Neuroscience News, Dec. 12, 2019, https://neurosciencenews.com/empathy-science-psychology-15314/.

Sebastian Ocklenburg, The Neuroscience of Racism: Can Brain Science Help to Understand one of Society’s Most Complex Problems, Psychology Today, Jue. 2, 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-asymmetric-brain/202006/the-neuroscience-racism.

Gentile, D.A., Sweet, D.M. & He, L., Caring for Others Cares for the Self: An Experimental Test of Brief Downward Social Comparison, Loving-Kindness, and Interconnectedness Contemplations, Journal of Happiness Studies (2019), https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10902-019-00100-2; Iowa State University, A Simple Strategy to Improve your Mood in 12 Minutes, Neuroscience News, Mar. 28, 2019, https://neurosciencenews.com/psychology-strategy-improve-mood-happiness-10944/

Emma Seppala, 18 Science-backed Reasons to Try Loving-kindness Meditation, Psychology Today, Sept. 15, 2014, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feeling-it/201409/18-science-backed-reasons-try-loving-kindness-meditation

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