Dr. Helen Riess[1] is a psychiatrist who developed an empathy training approach based on research in the neurobiology and physiology of empathy at Harvard Medical School and is Director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She authored the renowned book, The Empathy Effect: Seven Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences., that is based on her research in the neurobiology and physiology of empathy.

This blog is not a review of her book; rather, it is a sharing of some of her insights into empathy with the accompaniment of two sites – speed summary of the Empathy Effect and her Ted Talk, the Power of Empathy. Both the speed summary and YouTube are worth your time to listen and read.

Empathy is considered an innate human trait that needs development primarily through parental interaction with children to ensure survival through caring behavior. Unfortunately, like many things human, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” As Dr. Helen Riess points out, our capacity for empathy is not just an innate trait―it is also a skill that we can learn and expand.

Dr. Riess’ research discovered that the nervous system of the observer essentially duplicates the experience of people who felt pain as if feeling it himself, as in an example of a needle prick happening to the person being watched. The insular cortex fires. Dr. Riess clarifies empathy more deeply with:

We are all connected on a neurobiological level far more than we have previously realized. Consciously or not, we are in constant, natural resonance with one another’s feelings. When we are engaged in shared mind awareness, the possibilities for mutual aid and collaborative problem solving abound.

Empathy is a human capacity of different facets that work together to enable us to be moved and motivated by the emotions of others. Empathy has both emotion (affective) and cognitive (thinking) aspects. Empathy is a delicate balancing act of evaluating the feelings of others and managing our own emotions to be objectively helpful to another to deliver the appropriate and caring response when it is time to complete the empathic circle with a response.

Dr. Riess uses her ABC approach, especially in therapeutic engagements: A – Acknowledge an entry into an emotionally challenging conversation; B – take a deep Breath to manage my own reaction. C – engage my Curiosity to learn more. These are the three steps indicated in the previous paragraph of balancing an empathic event of appraisal of another person’s feelings with managing one’s own emotions to complete the empathic circle with an appropriate follow through.

Empathy is a human capacity of different facets that work together to enable us to be moved and motivated by the emotions of others. It is an essential human capacity and trait that carries us into every aspect of our lives. Empathy can be taught, even though we believe we are born with empathy.

Empathy is a rather complex human engagement because of the many brain circuitry that it involves. It might be considered “everyday mind-reading” for in its real sense it is the “meeting of minds.” This is why Dr. Riess’ book is an important study. To help us through this present introduction, we are posting two sites – the speed summary of her book and the Ted YouTube of her own presentation at TEDxMiddlebury. It is our hope that these additions will arouse an interest in learning more about the valuable trait of empathy, already innate but maybe languishing for lack for more practical use. Enjoy!


[1] Riess, Helen, (2018); The Empathy Effect: Seven Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences. Sounds True, Boulder, CO

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