Hot Thought

Psychology meets philosophy: knowledge, reality, morality, meaning

This Is Your Brain on Empathy

Empathy understands people’s emotions in two modes, automatic and deliberate.

I recently attended a research conference in Toronto sponsored by Roots of Empathy, an organization dedicated to increasing empathy in schools. The method that they have pioneered involves bringing babies and mothers into classrooms to provoke interactions and discussions among students, from kindergarten to grade 8. This technique has been so successful in improving classroom behavior that it has spread across Canada and to several other countries, involving more than 1500 classrooms and 600,000 children. Before the conference, I was fortunate to attend a local grade 6 classroom visited by a darling infant girl named Meadow.

The question I addressed in my presentation was whether neural theories of emotion can explain why the Roots of Empathy method works so well. I argued that there are neural mechanisms that explain why babies in classrooms can foster empathy, operating in two different modes.

First, the baby visit employs an automatic and unconscious mode relying on basic physiological connections between the baby and the children, and among the children. The children naturally mimic the facial expressions and body language of the babies. This mimicry helps to put them in physiological states similar to the babies such as smiling, so that nonverbal, non-inferential processes can put them in approximately the same emotional state. For example, when the baby was given an unfamiliar food and generated a negative emotional reaction to zucchini, the students shared this emotional reaction with facial “yuck” reactions as well as utterances of “I don't like zucchini either”. Toward the end of the visit, Meadow raised her arm, and after I saw children mimicking her and each other by raising their arms, which can result in similar patterns of brain activity based on neurons known to mirror observed actions.

The second mode of empathy is more deliberate, conscious, and verbal, resulting from a skilful teacher using words to draw parallels between the baby’s situation and the situation of the students. The teacher also uses words to draw parallels among the situations of the various students, thus increasing the empathy they have with each other. The overall goal is to reduce aggression and bullying by enhancing the ability of students to take each other’s perspectives.

How does this increase in empathy work at the psychological and neural levels? Psychologically, empathy is a kind of emotional imagery. People are capable of many kinds of imagery, when they remember previous sensory experiences including sights, sounds, smells, taste, touches, motor movements, pain, balance, and the need to go to the bathroom. Once images are recalled, they can be transformed to create novel images of events and situations that may never have occurred. For example, imagine Justin Bieber hugging Miley Cyrus as they sing together.

In empathy, you need to form an image of your own emotional experience and map it on to those of another. The goal of the mapping is to achieve an emotional experience that is approximately similar to the emotional experience of the person you are trying to understand. In neural terms, having roughly the same experience is a result of having a pattern of neural firing in your brain that is functionally similar to the pattern of neural firing operating in the brain of the other.

The two modes of empathy provide different ways of generating similar patterns of neural firing. The automatic mode does it by nonverbal means such as eye contact, mirror neurons, and mimicry of facial and bodily expressions. The deliberate mode does it by verbal means that can include analogical mapping and working out in detail similarities between the situation of yourself and the situations of others. What impressed me about  the Roots of Empathy classroom was how both modes of empathy were effectively employed in interaction with each other.

This interaction is compatible with the integrated theory of emotions as both reactions to physiological changes and cognitive judgments about situations. Some theorists think that emotions are responses to physiological changes, for example heart rate, breathing, and hormone levels. In contrast, other theorists claim that emotions are judgments, evaluations of the relevance of the situation to one's goals. My view has long been that emotion involves both cognitive evaluation and physiological perception, in a way that is performed in parallel by numerous brain areas. Similarly, empathy is both a physiological and a cognitive process, and its achievement is enhanced by tapping into both aspects of emotion using automatic and deliberate modes of empathy. If you want to emphasize with somebody, you should try to align your bodily states and also your cognitive evaluations, both of them integrated in patterns of brain activity that approximate the experiences of another.

 

Paul Thagard, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life.

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