On April 21, 2018 former first lady Barbara Bush was laid to rest. She was 92, the wife of our 41st President and the mother of our 43rd. Two former Presidents, Barbara's son, George W. and Obama shook hands with the clear aim being the consolation at the death of a mom. The photo dispells the very title of today's show - the death of empathy. But not really.
Empathy, as a widespread, viral-like experience may not be dead, but she's on life-support. Greater Good Magazine, produced by the University of California at Berkley, defines empathy like this...
The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.
Contemporary researchers often differentiate between two types of empathy: “Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety. “Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions. Studies suggest that people with autism spectrum disorders have a hard time empathizing.
Empathy seems to have deep roots in our brains and bodies, and in our evolutionary history. Elementary forms of empathy have been observed in our primate relatives, in dogs, and even in rats. Empathy has been associated with two different pathways in the brain, and scientists have speculated that some aspects of empathy can be traced to mirror neurons, cells in the brain that fire when we observe someone else perform an action in much the same way that they would fire if we performed that action ourselves. Research has also uncovered evidence of a genetic basis to empathy, though studies suggest that people can enhance (or restrict) their natural empathic abilities.
Having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll want to help someone in need, though it’s often a vital first step toward compassionate action.
Psychology Today tells us 6 things about empathy that may help our conversation.
Empathy and sympathy aren't synonymous. According to them we feel sympathy for others when we identify with their situation. But that feeling - sympathy - doesn't necessarily connect us to that person or what they're feeling. Proven by the fact that we can be sympathetic to somebody's situation and have no idea about their feelings or thoughts. Sympathy rarely urges us to take action - except for writing checks to make donations. Sympathy, according to Psychology Today, doesn't build a connection. Empathy does. As they write, "Sympathy is feeling for someone; empathy involves feeling with them."
Empathy isn't intuition. Research has shown that it's both unconscious and it's also supported by what's going on in our brain. Neuroscience reveals that when we see others in pain it activates the parts of our brain that register pain. It appears that empathy is feeling, brain chemistry and physiology. Much of it stems from our ability, or lack of ability, to employ systematic thinking to read others.
Empathy engages specific neural circuitry in our brain. Our ability to mimic and mirror others is a capacity that takes place in specific areas of the brain.
Empathy is learned. The capacity for it is in us, but we learn it. All of us who have raised kids know that little kids have a difficult time regulating their emotions. Infants learn from the adults who surround them. Identifying with them helps kids learn to regulate their emotions. Being swept up in somebody else's emotions isn't empathy, by the way.
The capacity for empathy varies by individual. Today we hear a phrase that's reasonably new to our vernacular, emotional intelligence. Sometimes you'll hear it referred as EQ.