Are we hard wired for empathy or is it a learned skill?

Uncovering many important aspects of being human by understanding what goes on inside our brains under different contexts and modes is the focus of this series.

The series will be incomplete if we don’t talk about the thing that makes us better animals, empathy. 

The future of humanity will depend on two important skills (emotional intelligence and mental balance) as predicted by Yuval Noah Harari. Empathy plays a huge role in this.

Empathy is defined as a cultivated openness to being morally moved to caring action by the emotions of the other members of our world. 

Earlier empathy was seen as a virtue. Now neuroscience shows data around what happens in the brains during empathy (or lack of).

It shows objectively what does it mean to be more empathetic? What does it mean be a psychopath? Is empathy a biological factor? Can empathy be learned? Are we wired a certain way at birth? Let’s dig in 👇

Tendency to be egocentric is innate for human beings. The beauty of our brain is it recognises a lack of empathy and autocorrects when needed. That part of your brain is called as supramarginal gyrus which is a part of cerebral cortex and is at the junction of parietal, temporal and frontal lobe. 

Have you heard this statement, “what you are is what you project and see around you?” This is so true from our brain’s perspective.

Our brains understand the context and world around us only by comparison (relativity). We use ourselves as a yardstick and tend to project our own emotional state onto others. It feels like own emotional state can distort our understanding of other people's emotions however the right supramarginal gyrus ensures that we can decouple our perception of ourselves from that of others.

When the neurons in this part of the brain were disrupted in a research study, the participants found it difficult to stop from projecting their own feelings and circumstances onto others. At a neurobiological level — without a properly functioning supramarginal gyrus — your brain has a tough time putting itself in someone else’s shoes.

The other cornerstone discovery in the field of empathy is mirror neurons. The neurons react both when I do something and when I see you do something. Mirror neurons help us create empathy automatically without thinking about it. May be this is why when i eat something sour, you are salivating.

Studies have suggested that this ability to mentalise the experiences of others so vividly can lead us to take prosocial steps to reduce their pain. Empathy is an emotional contagion. This is why when you feel the pain inside you, you are more empathetic. Typically when someone has gone through similar pain can feel it, others can’t. For example, if you take anaesthesia and you see someone go through a surgery without one, you can’t empathise. May be that is why a lap of luxury creates more unempathetic people. The good news is our brains are continuously adapting and changing (neuroplasticity) so go ahead and make some changes to it.


So what are the strategies to develop empathy in oneself?

  • A mindfulness practice called as loving kindness meditation (LKM) can help. Through this practice, the individual spends a few minutes everyday to spread love and kindness systematically to oneself, to their inner circle, to their enemies (yes) and strangers who are suffering in the world.

  • Writing a journal everyday to revisit the blessings and pain helps.

  • A tough run or a workout everyday helps. Being in touch with pain on a regular basis will help you understand pain better.

  • Living in less fortunate societies will give you deep life experiences. Given the strata is getting better and higher, we may be slipping into luxury and becoming oblivious to pain.

  • Practising altruism helps. Keep giving whatever you could without attaching expectations and this grows your compassion. Giving doesn’t mean currency and gold, it also applies to knowledge, helping others when they are stuck, giving time to people who are several steps behind you etc.

  • Self care is the most compassionate act you could ever do. We abuse ourselves by being very hard on self. If there is a Pareto to empathy, then it is self care. In this one shift, your world view will completely change. I am a living example.

The subject is very deep and there is growing body of research that shows the layers of empathy. If you are a designer, this is your super power. For this series, we will stop here. If you are excited about this topic, get in touch with me via DMs.

🥂to empathy

Yo! Thanks for reading. Means a lot to me as attention is the hardest currency 🙏

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