The Building Blocks of Empathy

We become empathic when we develop our abilities to mirror others' actions.

Posted Aug 11, 2018

E. A. Segal
Source: E. A. Segal

We all can be empathic

We human beings share the potential to experience the full scope of empathy.  We may express it differently, we may take actions that vary based on that empathy, but we can all work to develop the building blocks that lead to empathy.  And that is important because when we are empathic, we are better at understanding others, we feel better understood ourselves, and we are more likely to be kind, cooperative, and helpful. 

The building blocks of empathy

Empathy is a combination of unconscious and conscious actions that cognitive neuroscientists have mapped in our brains.  Through years of study, my research team has framed the full scope of empathy as the combination of seven components of actions in our brains.1 Five of those components express interpersonal empathy and two more give us social empathy.  

Interpersonal empathy, the ability to feel for and with another person, rests on our unconscious ability to physically mimic the actions of others.  This is called mirroring.2  When we see an action by another person, we have similar brain activity as if we are doing the action ourselves.  We might even unconsciously repeat the action.  Think of that yawn that comes upon you right after seeing someone else yawn.  Or smiling because someone smiled at you, and you don’t even know why!  Those are mirroring experiences.  When we physically imitate others, even unconsciously, we can begin to step into their shoes and feel what they are feeling.  That unconscious connection can trigger the next components of empathy.

We take cognitive steps to process what the other person is experiencing, feeling, and what that might mean.  We begin to imagine what it might be like to be the other person.  We are aware that we are sharing their feelings, but also aware that it is not our own experience.  So we take care to not get overwhelmed when we focus on the other.  When we are fully empathic, we are not imagining what we would do in the shoes of another, but really work to understand what the other person would do.  To help us be more insightful without our own bias, we need to become socially empathic. 

Social empathy leads us to take in the context of other people’s lives.  What might their lived experiences be based on the history of their lives?  How has the history of the groups they may be members of, whether by race, gender, ethnicity, or religion, impacted their lives?  What might it be like to walk in the shoes of entire groups of people living today with the influence of history?  None of us are born without any prior identity history.  Some of it is personal, like the influence of your parents and grandparents.  Some of it is based on the groups we belong to, like our religion or race or ethnic background.  Most of it gets absorbed into who we are without planning.  But to be fully empathic we need to consider that those influences are there and impact how we and others act.

Empathy takes effort

If this sounds like a lot of work, I am afraid it is.  If you have done very little to walk in the shoes of people who are different from you, doing so now will be challenging.  It takes conscious effort to identify the feelings of others and reflect on what those feelings might mean.  But empathy as a process gets easier with practice.  You may be wrong about others.  You might have to check if you are reading others right.  We call this “empathic accuracy.”3  If I walk into a room and people are crying, I might assume that something very sad has happened.  But we all have heard of “tears of joy” and maybe something very special and good has happened.  That is why understanding context is so important. 

Putting it all together

The full scope of empathy, interpersonal and social, is so much more than sharing someone’s emotions.  It is taking the time and effort to step into their lives to try and understand what really is happening.  It is having the humility to know you might be wrong, and so you need to learn about the context and how history has contributed to what people are feeling now, in today’s world.  You need to check if your interpretation is accurate.  Remember, empathy involves numerous parts of your brain, it is complex.  But take heart.  Even when we don’t get all seven components operating fully, we are still able to experience empathy.  It is a process, and taking steps to understand others builds our abilities.  A child who is taught to care about the feelings of others, even if that child is young and does not fully understand what those feelings mean, is building the foundation for deeper empathic abilities.  We all have to start somewhere, and build from there.  So today, take an extra minute or two to imagine what a friend is feeling.  Take a step further, and try and imagine what someone who is different than you might be experiencing and how that might feel.  Empathy leads you to step out of your own world, and that can bring you new life experiences, different ideas, and a deeper connection to others.

References

1.   Those components are Affective Response; Affective Mentalizing; Self-other Awareness; Perspective-taking; Emotion Regulation; Contextual Understanding; and Macro perspective-taking.  Details can be found in Segal, E.A., Gerdes, K.E., Lietz, C.A., Wagaman, M.A. & Geiger, J.M. (2017). Assessing empathy. New York: Columbia University Press

2.   Iacoboni, M. (2008). Mirroring people: The new science of how we connect with others. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

3.   Zaki, J., Weber, J., Bolger, N. & Ochsner, K. (2009).  The neural basis of empathic accuracy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(27), 11382-11387.

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