Are you empathetic?

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. It is Sometimes do you happen to imagine the thoughts and feelings of another person? To feel the same discomfort? Then you can probably call yourselves empathetic.

This characteristic generally leads to empathic concern, that is a feeling of care for the other person, which stimulates a compassionate attitude in us. In many cases, empathic concern also leads us to help others we see in difficulty.

Our empathic capacity requires specialized neural circuits that allow us to perceive, process, and react to others. The integration of these three activities of human beings indicates how “empathic” a person will be.

How to trigger empathy

Neuroimaging studies demonstrate the way empathy is triggered in the brain.  Theseimages of the brain are captured while subjects watch photographs or videos that activate structures involved in empathy. Researchers have identified several brain regions that are activated when people feel empathy for others.

It was proved that this ability has both emotional and cognitive components. With that in mind, we now know that empathy is triggered when a person understands the difficulties of others and reacts appropriately even if they do not feel the same identical emotion, because he is still capable of finding cognitive access to an experience through imagination.

Empathy is a fundamental characteristic of human beings. It accompanies us in every area of life: parenthood, education systems, health care, the workplace, business, legal practices, art, the environment, the digital world, and so on.

The difference between solidarity and empathy

When you support someone, you agree that his unhappiness and suffering are undeserved. It’s the feeling you get when you see a person shudder from the window in the pouring rain. You feel sorry for that person.

If instead, you have an empathic attitude. You imagine going out in the rain and standing next to that person. You imagine feeling his discomfort as if it was yours. But, as the psychologist, Carl Rogers pointed out, you neverlose the quality of “as if”.

The empathic response

Empathy is a dynamic ability that allows us to share experiences with others, feel worry, take on the perspective of others and produce a caring response. The complete empathic cycle leads to an empathic response. Going back to the previous case, the empathic response will lead us to really go out in the rain and offer a raincoat and an umbrella to the unfortunate one.

Emotional empathy

A study examined two groups. For the participants in the first group, a scanner recorded their brain reactions when pricked with a needle. The second group was instead examined, with the use of a scanner, while watching someone pricking himself with a needle.

The researchers found that the nervous system of the subjects in the second group basically reproduced the same experience as those who had actually felt pain, reacting as if they were themselves to prove it. Curiously, the neural networks that were active during the actual perception of pain, were the same ones that were active in the subjects who observed the scene.

The function of emotional empathy

It is a kind of mirror image of pain, though of lesser intensity. It’s a remarkable phenomenon. It’s useful because, if we felt exactly the same pain as the victim, empathy would be hindered. You can wince when you see another person suffering, but your experience is not identical to his. If so, you would focus on your pain and probably not be able to help. This sophisticated neurological system allows you to observe people who are suffering by making you feel pain just enough to make you consider the idea of helping them.

The brain is ready to feel the pain of others for two important reasons: to teach us what to avoid and to stimulate us to help the suffering person. A side effect of helping others is that others in turn will often help us.

Emotional empathy activates more easily when the other is more like us, or when we at least feel an affinity that unites us. Psychologists call our preference for those familiar to us “favouritism for the in-group”.

Cognitive empathy

The first step for cognitive empathy is to realize that another person has emotions and thoughts distinct from our own.

This does not mean knowing how to “read the thought”, but it means having the ability to understand, within certain limits, what happens in the brain of another person at that time and at the same time to understand that his decisions, intentions, and certainties may be different from ours.

The ability to realize the feelings of others must take place without their emotional involvement influencing our own judgment. Empathy includes the cognitive evaluation of the feelings of others, an emotional resonance, and the ability to distinguish the experience of others from ours. This helps us have accurate perceptions and not  risk being emotionally overwhelmed by the feelings of others.

Empathic concern

It is inner motivation that causes people to respond to the strong desire to take care of t another person.

Sometimes our empathic capacity is activated and sometimes instead, even in similar circumstances, it is suppressed. We all come to empathic concern in different ways. Some often tend to experience waves of concern. Others are tougher emotionally.

Empathy has a genetic and neurophysiological basis.  In some cases, indifference is not due to a lack of empathy. It is dueto the depressing idea that any attempt to help is in vain.

Faced with overwhelming and global needs, individuals, however empathetic, simply do not have the mental capacity to consider suffering of similar dimensions.

Want to know more? You can read the book The Empathy Effect: 7 Neurosciences Based-Keys for Transforming. The Way We Live, Love, Work and Connect Across Differences by Helen Riess

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