The Empathic Brain

Empathy is a powerful interpersonal tool which is under-valued in our society.  Ineed it is a skill that is frequently underutilised. Perhaps this is in part due to the misconception that em-pathetic somehow implies pathetic? It is often confused with sympathetic, but while empathy denotes a deep emotional understanding of another’s feelings or problems, sympathy is more general and can apply to small annoyances or setbacks.

In Deep Brain Learning: Pathways to Potential with Challenging Youth, Brendtro, Mitchell, and McCall summarize empathy as follows:

Empathy is the foundation of moral development and pro-social behavior. The original word began in the German language as Einfuhlung which is literally translated as feeling into. Empathy taps the ability of mirror neurons to display in our own brain the emotions, thoughts, and motives of another. Empathy allows us to share anothers joy and pain and motivates care and concern.

Stephen Covey writes in his book, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’

Empathetic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with.  Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you are dealing with the reality inside the other person’s head.

Empathy allows us to not only  interact with each other effectively, but
also to predict the actions, intentions, and feelings of others. A useful trait indeed. But is empathy something that we can cultivate or is it more innate? Are we hard wired for empathy?

Despite the advances in our understanding of neuroplasticity, research on the empathic brain is still in its early stages. In recent years, the field of social neuroscience has begun to shed light on the neural underpinnings of empathy.

In an interesting review paper,”The Social Neuroscience of Empathy“, Tania Singer and Claus Lamm of the University of Zurich,  give an overview of this research, and provide recommendations for future research. If you are interested in learning more, you can download a pdf copy by clicking here.

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