Empathy is the new word in our recent popular vocabulary. It is used for a variety of different emotional settings such as compassion, sympathy, “walking in another’s shoes”, kindness, “doing unto others”, and charity. Recent studies done at the German Research Center lead by Max Planck, have revealed some interesting insights into this mysterious innate human trait, though some are missing this capacity due to spectrum autism or possible personality traits. You can view a summary of Max Planck studies and examples of circumstances that impede the connection between the brain and empathy.

Physiologically, neuroscientists at the Max Planck Institute turned up a hidden and little known nucleus called the supramarginal gyrus, part of the somatosensory association cortex, located next to the lateral sulcus and in front of the angular gyrus that make up the inferior parietal lobule. The right supramarginal plays a central role in controlling one’s projected emotions of empathy toward others. This right supramarginal gyrus is easily distracted by an observer’s elevated egocentrism that blocks empathy when an observer needs to make quick, important decisions or enjoys a highly pleasurable life environment like wealth with multiple conveniences or just feels good about one’s self.

It should not be presumed that empathy automatically works when someone sees another showing an emotion. Empathy is defined by three settings between an observer and another who manifests an emotional experience – 1) the person experiencing the manifested emotional event; 2) the observer who tunes into the person’s emotional experience; 3) the observer’s corresponding emotional response as recognized by the observer not to be his own though senses the other’s experience AS IF his own. The emotion of one is shared by another though ownership remains with the one showing the emotion.

The Psychology Today article of Max Planck studies (2013) is comprehensive in its treatment of empathy and the role of the supramarginal gyrus. It explains when and why this newly discovered nucleus works with empathy and goes on to clarify with detail and examples of how everyone is not capable of empathizing.

Another interesting resource in how modern technology is handicapping empathy is The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World by Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips[1] (2020). In spite of people’s obsessions with social media’s iphones, TV news, games, ipads, and computers, there have been efforts to bring empathy programs, software, and online courses to the public. In the face of sexual harassment so pervasive in the workplace, there are more and more empathy training programs available through human resources departments and even hiring processes. Schools across the nation have initiated empathy classes that included awareness of bullying and harassment. The New York Times ran a front page April 4, 2009 article “Gossip Girls and Boys Get Lessons in Empathy” at Scarsdale Middle School by David Levine, author of Teaching Empathy, who conducted empathy workshops for eighth graders.

A popular program was launched in Canada that has found its way to the U. S., U.K., Australia, and Japan. Roots of Empathy, Changing the World Child by Child by Mary Gordon[2] is the brain-child of the author. Daniel Siegel’s foreword summarized the impact of the book:

By introducing a baby into the school year’s regular activities, students enter a receptive state of mind, open to seeing not only the soft signals of affection between mother and child, but also the non-verbal communication sent from baby to eagerly observing pupil. The baby comes ready to connect—and the invitation is inescapable to come wide-eyed and mind-open to receiving what nature intended: care, connection, and communication.

In his monumental book Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin[3] explains Mary Gordon’s book:

In many schools the empathy curriculum starts as early as first grade with five- and six-year-olds. One of the most interesting innovations is the Roots of Empathy Project, begun by a Canadian educator, Mary Gordon, which has been successfully introduced into classrooms across Canada and more recently in the United States. A mother and her baby visit the classroom once a month for an entire school year. (The baby is five months old at the beginning of the school year.)

 

Before the visits, the students are prepped on what to expect, what to look for, and how to interact with the baby and mother. They will be asked to closely watch the interaction between mother and infant, especially how they communicate and respond to each other. They will observe temperament, mood, and intentionality with an eye to relating back to the group their impressions and feelings in the post-visit debriefing, with particular emphasis on their emotional reactions. The students are encouraged to dig into their own memories and life experiences as a way of understanding what the baby might be feeling or thinking or intending.

Empathy is an innate trait that functions much like a reflex as ducking when sensing a projectile about to hit you. So, too, with empathy, most of us will react reflexively upon seeing someone emotionally distraught or even exuberantly joyous. Empathy is common the younger the child.

But our empathy can fade over time through lack of engagement. Empathy should be exercised. The Psychology Today article of Max Planck research makes several suggestions for rejuvenating and maintaining this important human faculty. Our second most important human faculty after consciousness is being attuned to others emotionally.

Suggested Action: Meditation, physical exercise, volunteering. Meditation awakens us to mindfulness; exercise reminds us of life struggles; volunteering is for others, the joy of giving. Relish the feelings.


[1] Phillips, Kaitlin Ugolik, (2020) ; The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World. Little A, New York, N.Y.
[2] Gordon, Mary (2009); Roots of Empathy, Changing the World Child by Child, The Experiment, LLC, New York, N.Y.
[3] Rifkin, Jeremy; (2009); Empathic Civilization, The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, Penguin, New York, N.Y.

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