Empathy Is Like Fine Wine — It Gets Better with Age
We’re not born with empathy, but we can develop it over time.
Posted Mar 10, 2020
In previous posts, I have explained there are multiple aspects of empathy. When we are fully tuned in to others and practicing empathy, we simultaneously engage different skills:
- we have physical reactions that involve imitation of others’ actions and emotions;
- we are aware of our personal boundaries that tell us that the feelings and actions we are sharing ultimately belong to the other person;
- we can imagine what life is like for someone else by picturing their experiences and stepping into their lives to see the world through their eyes; and
- we do all that while maintaining emotional harmony, keeping our own emotions even and not letting the other person’s actions and emotions overwhelm us.
Empathy gives us better ways to communicate, can encourage people to engage in positive social behaviors, diminishes misunderstanding others, and on a larger scale, can lessen group animosity. Thus, gaining empathic skills can benefit individuals and our larger society.
We are born with some foundational abilities that help us engage in these skills and others we learn over time. Putting all these skills together is something we must learn and takes practice throughout our lives. Learning these skills is connected to our developmental life stages. We cannot be good at empathy without the development of certain key abilities that emerge as we age.
Babies are born with the ability to mimic others. Research has documented among newborns the contagious effect of crying when hearing other babies cry.1 This ability and other skills at mimicking others are early evidence of mirroring, the unconscious imitation we see in brain neural activity. With mirroring, we see the actions of others and our brain reacts as if we are actually doing the activity ourselves.2 These abilities set the stage for learning empathy. It takes into the toddler years to begin to differentiate between ourselves and others. By the middle of the second year of life, focus on the self widens and the skill of self-other awareness emerges as toddlers mature – they can begin to perceive that distress belongs to someone else.3 This form of empathic responding has been documented in children as young as two years old4 and then develops into a stronger ability with age.
Having such self-other awareness is important when taking the perspective of others. We need to know that we are separate from the other person, although we are feeling their feelings or experiencing what they are experiencing. We begin to learn this skill as a child, and it continues to evolve throughout the developmental years.
Another important skill involved in empathy is emotion regulation, the ability to temper our own feelings when experiencing or sharing the feelings of others. Developmentally, we see this skill evolve through adolescence as the brain’s prefrontal cortex and cognitive functions mature.5 In addition, adolescence is a time of deepening perspective-taking and greater self-awareness, both critical abilities involved in empathy.6
Stepping into empathy as an adult
By young adulthood, we can develop all the necessary tools for empathy. We can tap into our cognitive understanding of what we are physically sharing with others and figure out what the meaning might be of the other person’s actions or experiences. But deeper learning and understanding still takes time. As we become adults, such deeper learning and understanding involves making the choice to do so.
With age, we can gather new and insightful experiences that expand our understanding of others. This grows our empathy. Unfortunately, we can also choose not to explore new dimensions of life, and that can have the effect of diminishing our empathic abilities. Stretching ourselves to try new things, meet new people, and visit new places can expose us to others who are different. This expanded exposure contributes to building greater empathy.
Empathy as we age
Like fine wine, embrace the fine-tuning that comes with age. Explore differences between yourself and others, imagine what life is like for them. Learn about their personal history and the historical journey of the groups they are part of – how did they get to be the person they are today? And then use that information and insight to explain how we might seem different, but in fact, are so often the same. You can learn about others and, in turn, learn about yourself. That is the gift of empathy, it gets better with age and you can make it a part of your life forever.
1. Sagi, A., & Hofman, M. L. (1976). Empathic distress in the newborn. Developmental Psychology, 12, 175–176.
2. Iacoboni, M. (2009). Imitation, empathy, and mirror neurons. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 653–670.
3. Hoffman, M. L. (2000). Empathy and moral development: Implications for caring and justice. London: Cambridge University Press.
4. Eisenberg, N., & Eggum, N. D. (2009). Empathic responding: Sympathy and personal distress. In J. Decety and W. Ickes (Eds.), The Social Neuroscience of Empathy, (pp. 71–83). MIT Press.
5. Blakemore, S-J. (2012). Imaging brain development: The adolescent brain. Neuroimage, 61, pp. 397-406.
6. Decety, J. (2015). The neural pathways, development, and functions of empathy. Current Opinion in Behavioral Science, 3, 1–6.