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Can empathy be learned? Science offers some clues

Jenni Tillett writes a message at the Las Vegas Community Healing Garden, Monday, Oct. 16, 2017, in Las Vegas. The garden was built as a memorial for the victims of the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas. AP Photo/John Locher

(RNS) — The mass shooting in Las Vegas has become yet another example of human capacity for evil. Almost immediately, people cried for gun control, greater checks on assault weapons and measures to increase hotel security.

But what about calls for increasing levels of empathy in society?

Empathy has long been a core belief of many major religions around the world. The Abrahamic religions, Hinduism and Buddhism all emphasize kindness and compassion.

It’s also an instinct scientists say humans can learn to hone.

Empathy means to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings or state of being. Research also shows that other mammals are capable of emotional contagion, where an emotion transfers from individual to individual.

Stephanie Preston, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, recently co-authored a paper discussing the latest evidence on empathy research in humans and other mammals.

Apes such as chimpanzees and bonobos are able to develop a so-called theory of mind, which means they can take into account the perspective of another animal, for example by offering comfort and consolation. Empathetic capacities have also been observed in mice, birds and ants. Even rats will have emotional responses when they see other rats in pain.

“These emotional responses will even lead to the rodents helping the victim, so rats have been shown to help one another,” said Preston. “If one is trapped in a box in a cage, the other rat will work to free the rat. Across species, there’s different capacities for empathy.”

There are many biological processes behind empathy. Mirror neurons are specific neural cells that fire both when one performs an action and when one observes another person performing that same action.

Mirror neurons are only part of the story, though. Memories help relate on a conceptual level to what the other person is experiencing, providing context as to how a person might be feeling.

“There’s all these distributed neural representations based on your own past experiences that helps you relate to the experience yourself,” said Preston. “If someone is going through something difficult and you’ve experienced that yourself, you are more able to relate directly to how they feel.”

What’s more, those who are highly altruistic have larger amygdalas, which are parts of the brain that are responsible for emotions, survival instincts and memory.

These people are more responsive to people’s fears and are better able to identify people’s emotional expressions, said Abigail Marsh, a psychology professor at Georgetown University who worked on a study earlier this year exploring why kidney donors are more altruistic.

“There’s some evidence suggesting that having had really impactful life experiences helps you empathize with other people,” Marsh said. “There’s also evidence that larger cultural and populational variables like well-being and flourishing cause people to be more empathetic to strangers.”

Researchers say empathy is not only a biological instinct, but also a skill human beings can learn and improve upon. If people practice it, their body will respond to that, and it will become second nature over time.

Preston, who has studied how people develop altruism, said mammals evolved to care for their offspring. Mammalian infants take longer to develop before they become independent. Over time, mammals adapted, responding to distress not only from their offspring but also from kin, friends or other individuals in their social groups.

Preston is now working on a brain imaging study in which subjects lie in an MRI machine as they are shown descriptions of different charities that need monetary donations. She found that people tend to donate more when the person needing help is either a child or needs immediate assistance.

Just how religion plays into our biological impulse for empathy is not yet clear. One study from the University of Chicago shows that religious upbringing is associated with less altruism. Other studies have shown the contrary; a University of Warsaw study found that religious beliefs are positively associated with empathy, as empathic skills are crucial factors for religion.

Not only do belief systems ask followers to understand other people’s feelings, but also to take action and help others. People and animals tend to care about their family, friends and others in their social groups. That’s why religions often elevate human empathy.

“It works to enhance certain kinds of emotional states like fruits of the spirit, kindness, joy and so forth,” said Stephen Post, professor of family, population and preventive medicine at Stony Brook University, who studies religion and health care. “That’s what a lot of spirituality is —  a sense for oneness and divine power of some kind that can sway us towards warm and loving emotions, away from destructive and hurtful ones.”

Major religions and philosophies around the world have teachings on empathy that ask followers to identify with the feelings of others:

  • “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” Exodus 23:9.
  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” Matthew 5:44.
  •  “Hurt not others with that which pains yourself,” the Udanavarga, an early Buddhist collection of verses.

In religion, empathy is often among the highest of virtues.

“Empathy in religion is not just an intellectual notion or a feeling, and it’s not just refraining from acting unkindly towards others. It’s also a call to action to show kindness towards others,” said Yudit Greenberg, religious studies professor at Rollins College. “It also implies an action.”

And some scientists believe empathy can be cultivated.

Marsh, who wrote a book called “The Fear Factor,” argues that mass shootings notwithstanding, people are becoming more compassionate over time. According to the Charities Aid Foundation, altruistic behavior increases every year.

Marsh said horrific acts of violence do not have much to do with empathy, as they are committed by people who are either suffering from mental illness or experiencing outbursts of rage directed at specific people, or people generally. In these cases, rage can overpower compassion.

To develop empathy, Marsh suggested compassion meditation, which involves training oneself to foster and extend feelings of care and compassion to ever-wider circles of people.

Another way, said Greenberg, is to participate in service-learning projects and community engagement courses, which can help people develop empathy toward people outside their normal social groups.

“Without empathy, we lose our moral compass,” Greenberg added. “With all the tragedies, natural disasters, as well as human-made disasters, of course we feel the horrible pain of families and friends that are involved in all of these horrible, horrible events. It makes me think of the extent to which we not just have empathy, but also act on it.”

A DNA strand next to the title of the series.


These stories are part of a series on science and religion, brought to you with support from the John Templeton Foundation. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation. (RNS logo, John Templeton Foundation logo}

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Rosalie Chan


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  • Let’s not confuse empathy with sympathy, true empathy requires that the one expressing such an attitude must also have experienced an event closely similar to the one which affected the person to whom empathy is being extended.

  • Well – it helps but so does imagination.

    Empathy – “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”

    “those who are highly altruistic have larger amygdalas, which are parts of the brain that are responsible for emotions, survival instincts and memory.” –
    The downside of which is that those who have mal/nonfunctioning amygdalas are incapable of empathy, remorse, love (any true emotion other than anger?), have very low self-esteem and act impulsively without concern for consequences (whether for themselves or others). The belief is that those without normally functioning amygdalas are incapable of learning empathy.

    There is a technical term for such people – they are called “psychopaths”. Reckoned at 1% of the general population it is estimated that around 30-40% of certain populations are psychopathic including mass murderers, rapists and politicians (local, regional and national).

    Psychopaths think in a way most cannot really understand – to a psychopathic rapist the victim was at fault because they chose to say no – to the psychopath who destroys a marriage through infidelity the answer is simple – the betrayed partner should also cheat – that makes things even and therefore OK. Self-criticism is not possible because they are never at fault, their desires are not negotiable and if people get hurt then, “very sorry but they shouldn’t have chosen to get in my way”.

  • “Self-criticism is not possible because they are never at fault, their desires are not negotiable and if people get hurt then, “very sorry but they shouldn’t have chosen to get in my way”.”

    You just described Trump.

  • I don’t have neither the training or nor the experience to make that judgement.

    I would be massively surprised if those who do have the training and the experience have not already come to that conclusion.

  • Given that everything you stated is correct, and there is no reason to suppose otherwise; why is it that we have such difficulty in identifying such people before they put others in harm’s way?

  • Edward – I’ve done quite a lot of reading about this – due to personal experiences which I tried to understand – but I’m nothing more than an interested amateur.

    As far as I know there are only two ways which are regarded as reliable methods of identifying such people. One is through analysis of their behaviour over many years (normally using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist [revised]) by highly trained specialists, and the other is the use of fMRI imaging.

    Behavioural analysis is not about the last few days/months – it requires the ability to analyse behaviour over many years – from childhood through to adulthood. From memory, the amygdala is part of the frontal cortex which is not fully developed until around age 25 – so it is necessary for the subject to be well past that age prior to analysis since childhood traits may be modified by subsequent brain maturity. Not all children who pulled wings off flies go on to become psychopaths!

    fMRI scanning is expensive and would normally only be triggered by behavioural indications -so the same time constraints apply.

    I suspect that the only way we have to identify such people early is through mass-screening which is probably not politically acceptable and I’m not sure that anyone really believes that scans before mid-twenties(say) would be worthwhile.

    The implications of the research in this area, given that psychopaths can no more grow an amygdala that I can wings, is that they be isolated from the rest of society. The problems are massive,
    is some level of psychopathy good within society?
    might we mis-diagnose non-psychopaths?
    how do we treat the children of psychopaths – it is a genetic variation which is often transmitted parent to child.

    There are other brain abnormalities which affect behaviour – which do we categorise as societally harmful. Gene therapy holds the promise of being able to correct the errors which cause such traits as psychopathy. Such therapies are probably two generations away and bring a whole new raft of moral quandaries.

    Modifying genetic material seldom leads to a single physical change – the chemicals produced from the DNA expression often fulfil many varied functions in different cells and in different parts of the body. Changes which create an amydala will almost certainly impact other parts of the body and we need to fully understand the implications.

    Who decides what is normal? The biggest danger is that it’s politicians and that’s an area heavily populated with psychopaths!

    How much influence should tradition, religion(s) and “feelings” play in the application of scientifically developed treatment?

    What do we do with those who refuse treatment – typically psychopaths refuse to accept that they have a problem and decline participation in experimental behavioural modification programmes involving counselling etc..

    In the old days we simply tolerated them or disposed of them – neither. IMO, a moral response to their naturally occurring and unchosen lack of normal human capabilities.

  • Just an add on – at a facility for the criminally insane that I was slightly familiar with, one occupation these men went to work as when discharged were as mercenaries.

  • I would add that empathy also requires active communication to be effectively conveyed given that one’s reaction to a similar situation cannot be assumed to be identical. Subtly mirroring body language helps intuit emotions along with paraphrasing for clarification and matching language use (see, hear, feel, think).

    I am glad you started the conversation with your comment.

  • Wow! Your reply, unsurprisingly (which is not meant as a criticism) raises more questions than it answers, some of them quite problematic. Gene therapy may hold promise, but as you note, likely includes attendant risks. I think it probable that for the practical near future this particular human difficulty will remain beyond our scientific and medical ken. Though we should not be discouraged from continuing to make efforts to mitigate it.

  • Yes – the implication of the absence of effective treatment for the penal system is considerable.

    In the UK we can sentence criminals to time in secure mental facilities – but only if there is reason to believe that their stay will result in effective treatment for their condition. If they are deemed to have responded they can be transferred to a normal prison to complete their sentence. If there is no prospect of effective treatment such people (the estimate is that one in four psychopaths are female) will not be accepted by such institutions so they can only be sent to a regular prison from which they will eventually be released untreated.

    The situation is complicated by the fact that psychopaths know that they do things that the 99% consider evil; and they don’t care – indeed the core problem is that they are unable to care. It is not a choice. They are pathological liars, even lying when the truth suits their whim more effectively and their “comfort zone” is failure. Despite their bragging and their all encompassing competitiveness they have no self-esteem and, if the opportunity to be a success arises will push and push the envelope until they rescue failure from triumph.

  • Makes sense doesn’t it.

    As I understand it there has long been an understanding that most people are rotten infantrymen, until you persuade them that the enemy is a form of vermin. Belittle the enemy by calling them derogatory names; wogs, jerries, huns, tommies, reds, gooks, queers; lie/exaggerate their crimes – particularly in matters sexual and financial; portray them as skulking in holes in the ground etc. etc…

    A psychopath is a ready made hater – take it out of the freezer, warm it up, give it a gun and it will take revenge on all the “little people” who deny its essential superiority simply by being in opposition.

  • The chink in the armor, as it were, is the fact that in the absence of effective treatment, placement in the general penal population according to your statement creates a strong likelihood that they will eventually be released, potentially resulting in greater harm and risk to themselves and others.

  • In one sir!

    however, we can use fMRI scanners to confirm or deny the diagnosis from interview etc.. That means we have an option, after they have harmed, been convicted and been diagnosed to separate them from society – as a protection for society. The two obvious ways of doing so are

    1) The creation of a remote facility (an island?) where they are largely self-governing, supported with reasonable life-sustaining opportunities – perhaps through creating goods/services that benefit society – in return for security, healthcare etc.. Remember – these people have NOT chosen their character and therefore, rationally, punishment is immoral. And yes the estimate is 1% but many psychopaths don’t even have a speeding ticket to their name – they find the respectability of abiding by the law beneficial to their immoral escapades.

    2) Kill them

    There may be people much cleverer than I who could find other means – I could never support 2.

  • I’ve heard the “island” proposal before in relation to other issues, all linked to criminality, of course. It might make for an interesting experiment, though likely a costly one. #2 also seems inadvisable to me.