Empathy is the ability to understand and share the emotions and feelings of another person. This ability, which is not merely inborn but can be taught, facilitates interpersonal relationships.
Dr. Tania Singer – the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Neurosciences in Leipzig, Germany – is not only convinced that people can become more empathic, but also that a more compassionate society can be created.
Research carried out with the support of UCL, University College London, was published under the name Empathy and Compassion in the journal Science, whose objective was analyzing how members of a couple reacted to seeing each other suffer.
During the experiment, they placed the couple in front of the other and attached electrodes to their hands. These electrodes delivered either non-painful or rather painful shocks to one member of the couple or the other. On a screen, the participants were able to see three seconds in advance how bad the upcoming shock was going to be, and who would be receiving it, all while a scanner recorded their brain activity.
The reactions of the people who were scanned showed that the sensorimotor cortex and the insula – different parts of the brain related to pain and perception – were activated during the observation. According to this experiment, the observing partner relived some of the other person’s pain, more so if the person involved described themselves as empathetic, and as stated by Dr. Singer, “that overlap is the root of empathy.”
When Dr. Singer wanted to go a little further in her research, she asked a Buddhist monk to think of disadvantaged children in orphanages. The results proved that the same areas as in the other experiment were activated – the ones connected to pain. When the Buddhist monk saw children in pain, his brain mirrored the same feeling.
In conclusion, compassionate nature is ingrained and part of human beings, so much so that the brain has specific areas where our empathic nature is reflected. However, it seems to be a characteristic that must still be cultivated, strengthened, and stimulated throughout life.