What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to read other people’s thoughts and feelings. It is a branch of emotional intelligence; some would argue that it is the most important feature of emotional intelligence. It is certainly a key ability in interpersonal communication as it enables to choose the most appropriate response, whether the person is angry, sad, or just disinterested.

This article explores recent research on mirror neurons in the brain, and how they enable us to exercise empathy.

Empathy through mirror neurons

Brain research is now showing us how the brain ‘reads’ other people. For example, when we watch other peoples’ facial expressions those areas of the brain which are populated with mirror neurons show greater activity. Suggesting that we are scanning those facial expressions in order to match the relevant emotions implied by the expressions with our own. Similar findings apply to hand gestures and lip movements, which correlate to non-verbal communication.

In each case scanning other people cues us to search our own memory banks  for clues to how others are feeling.

Reading other people through empathy

Other research (most carried out on monkeys but sometimes on humans) shows that mirror neurons also light up when we are trying to work out thoughts and intentions in other people. For example, when subjects are shown a film of someone picking up a cup from a table their mirror neurons light up, presumably because they are working out whether the intention is to drink from the cup, or just clear the table.

What is still more interesting is that monkeys (and people) who excel at interpreting facial expressions, emotions, attitudes and intentions have highly-active mirror-neuron systems. Simply because the more you practice the bigger the growth in the cells within the system.

Developing empathy in yourself

The bottom-line is that most of us are born with a built-in capacity for empathy right from birth. It is not something we learn (although practice improves ability). And this skill underpins many other things that make us uniquely human: social interaction, interpreting spoken communication, compassion, altruism and ethical behaviour. In short, everything we now call emotional intelligence.

However, all skills, no matter how deep they are embedded in the brain, require practice. Here are three ways to develop empathy in yourself:

  • Active listening. When you talk to others about their emotions listen carefully and summarise each thing you hear, checking for whether or not you have captured the person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions.
  • Observe and reflect. Take the time to watch other people without intruding on them. Pay special attention to their facial expressions, movements, body posture, and voice tones. As you do that consider which emotions, attitudes and thoughts go with the observable expressions.
  • Talk to empathetic people. As you listen to people gifted with empathy, observe how they elicit information from other people about their feelings. Ask them to show you how it is done.







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