Often when we think of learning, we think of concrete material to know – facts, details, information. But learning is also encompassed in our daily interactions with people, and the instrument of this learning is empathy. Rousseau suggested that humans are linked by a natural tendency to care about others, and that our natural drive towards self-preservation is curbed by innate compassion and empathy. We recognize the pain and suffering of others in memories of our own experiences and through our imagination. More recently, science has shown that empathy is where emotion meets rationality. The use of higher level cognition is required to imagine what another person’s situation feels like, while older regions of the brain elicit emotion.
Learning how to develop empathy doesn’t require a strict nature versus nurture approach, but rather, an understanding of how biological and environmental factors interplay and influence one another. Although our society often treats emotion and rationality as distinct functions, the brain systems involved with each are interconnected. Emotion’s limbic system and rationality’s cerebral cortex are physically linked and communicate readily with one another, rendering the proposed mutual exclusivity between the two impossible. In a world where rationality has historically been associated with masculinity and emotion with femininity, the devaluing of the latter is rooted in sexist traditions. Fortunately, significant progress has been made in recognizing the role emotion plays in communication, our values, and in making rational decisions.
However, there’s still a tendency to dissociate emotion from rationality. When people are upset, we tend to think of them as detaching from their thinking faculties, and to an extent this is true. We tend not to be as logical when overcome with emotion as when we are not. Nonetheless, it’s important to note that the expression of emotion doesn’t preclude rationality. We can be perfectly rational while conveying emotion, and the ability to do so is a useful, harmonizing skill. Instead of thinking of individuals as being rational or emotional, it would be more effective to think of them as being both at once. The empathizing-systemizing theory, developed by neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen, illustrates how individuals can be both emotionally intelligent and analytically intelligent, although most individuals are stronger in one dimension (the empathy quotient can be taken here).
Empathy is, in many ways, innate. The discovery of mirror neurons by Dr. Rizzolatti in the early 1990s was an important scientific milestone in establishing the biological basis of empathy. Mirror neurons fire not only when an individual is completing a particular task, but also when watching another individual complete that same task. It’s because of mirror neurons that we often feel the joys and pains of others as though they were our own. For example, we flinch while watching others endure physical pain, and this reaction feels reflexive.
In addition to the strong evidence supporting its biological foundations, empathy is heavily cultivated through an individual’s environment. Early bonding between infants and their parents is especially critical for the healthy development of the stress response system. Infants who are allowed to roam freely, safe in the knowledge that they will be cared for when upset, develop secure attachment to their parents. Conversely, parents who overprotectively or anxiously hover over their children, depriving them of the opportunity to discover their surroundings freely, hinder the development of stress tolerance. Without exposure to small doses of stress, larger amounts seem unbearable. This becomes a hindrance to the development of empathy, because individuals become more preoccupied with escaping their own discomfort than acknowledging discomfort in others. On the opposite extreme, infants whose parents are consistently absent in their lives are taught not to depend on others, and may come to form a misanthropic view of humanity. A constant distrust of others leads to the development of distance between oneself and others, the very opposite of empathy.
Given the essential role the environment plays in the cultivation of empathy, exposure to different people, situations and cultures greatly expands the ability to relate to others. Volunteering, traveling and simply conversing with others expose us to different ways of thinking and feeling in unfamiliar settings. We can also learn how to develop our empathy in the unlikeliest of places. Drama is typically thought of as a form of entertainment, but also serves as a tool in exercising empathy. Meryl Streep believes that “Empathy is at the heart of the actor’s art,” and acting is perhaps one of the most powerful ways individuals can gain a glimpse of what it feels like to be someone else. Reading is yet another effective way to cultivate cognitive empathy, given that literature by its very nature explores the human spirit, what motivates characters, and how their surroundings impact them. Collectively, lessons learned in empathy can translate into a practical kind of wisdom when working with others. When faced with competing interests in the real world, differences tend to be exaggerated and similarities minimized. Actively listening rather than merely hearing stories from individuals about how their experiences have impacted them is essential in being able to bridge gaps arising from conflict and to seek mutually beneficial solutions.
An interesting aspect of empathy is that it entails understanding another individual’s position and feelings, not necessarily agreeing with them. In this sense, empathy differs drastically from sympathy, which is characterized by feeling for someone rather than truly understanding their point-of-view, although the two sentiments can be conflated. An excess of empathy can be just as harmful as a deficiency, and may manifest as self-sacrifice and resentment. A high level of empathy is cited as a risk factor for compassion fatigue; that is, individuals who are most naturally drawn to a profession of service in the first place are most likely to burnout because of their empathy. For this reason, it is important to strike a balance between harbouring personal emotions and those of others. The development of resilience alongside empathy is essential in being able to address conflicting interests without developing resentment towards others for constantly sacrificing one’s personal needs. Parenting in the form of tough love is an example of how having an individual’s best interests at heart involves honesty and a willingness to disagree with others, rather than merely enabling poor behaviour to avoid confrontation. In this sense, taking care of oneself is an integral aspect of taking care of others.
The power of empathy lies not only in the ability to understand the world at large, but also in being able to understand ourselves. Although experiences differ drastically between individuals, the basic sentiments behind each – happiness, sadness, anger, relief – are remarkably similar. In others we see a reflection of what we have learned and the opportunity to learn what we have not. Empathizing with others allows us to learn about ourselves, and knowing ourselves empowers us to form stronger connections with others.
Photography courtesy of Wanderer Online Photography Editor Antony Ta