Jan 9, 2011

Can Empathy be taught?

Empathy is an essential ingredient for good parenting, good treatment, and good psychotherapy. Empathy allows one to see the world through the eyes of the other, walk in that person's shoes, share emotions, and build common experiences. Intersubjectivity, share emotions, share attention, and complimentary intentions form a core of empathy. It is these shared experiences (when concordant) that can help form the bedrock of stable, secure, safe, and positive relationships.

Many people are aware of "mirror neurons" as a neurological component of empathy. Mirror neurons are activated when one observes another's actions and the same motor neurons in the observers brain are activated as the ones in the "doers" brain that are necessary to carry out the action. Mirror neurons are activated in the emotional centers of the brain when we observe another and share affect.

While all this interesting and informative, it is not prescriptive. The question is, "is there some way to teach or enhance empathy?" Well, it turns out there are a number of ways. One of the easiest, simplest, and best ways is simply to listen and listen carefully. This is one way to get into another's head, so to speak.

Traditional views of the communication process held that speech and listening happened in two different parts of the brain: Broca's area and Wernicke's area. Yet studies show that communication partners unconsciously change their grammar structure, their speaking rate, and even their body postures to that of their partner. One could say that their communication changes show empathy for each other; some call this establishing a common ground. Studies by Dr. Hasson at Princeton University and graduate student Lauren Silbert demonstate this. The study involved having Ms. Silbert talk about emotionally meaningful events, tell stories from her life, while in a functional MRI. Then subjects were put into the f-MRI and listened to the recorded stories.

The most attentive listeners' key brain regions "lit up" in a f-MRI before her words came out. This suggests that the subjects anticipated what Ms. Silbert was going to say; empathy.

So helping parents, professionals, and therapists listen more carefully, more fully, and more deeply will increase their empathic capabilities. Listening is a skill that can be taught, improved on, and mastered.

For more information see:
Center For Family Development

Useful books & DVD's are:

Attachment Parenting

Principles of Attachment Parenting

Creating Capacity for Attachment

Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy: Essential Practices & Methods

Introduction to Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy

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