Tag Archives: empathy

Brain/Mind: Forever Lovers

I write for several mental health and psychology journals and blogs. Every month, I field questions that may be relevant to several people and their interests. Recently, I was asked to differentiate between sympathy, empathy, and compassion, and their significance. While there is overlap, the empirical data and clinical experience indicate differences among these concepts.

In addition, I have been exploring the concept of Empath, which is somewhat different, and does not yet have sufficient research. As you know, I believe in the combination of clinical, empirical, cultural competence, and lived experience, so it’s an intriguing area for further study.
*Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling.
*Sympathy means you can understand what the person is feeling.
*Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another. It is an active process of wanting to help others.

When you are viscerally feeling what another person feels, you are experiencing empathy. Thanks to your brain’s “mirror neurons,” a concept still under neural investigation, empathy may arise when you witness someone in pain. For example, if you saw someone in distress, you may feel awful. This has even been witnessed in infancy, such as babies and toddlers who may start crying if they see or hear another child in tears.
Several interesting developmental psychology studies in Finland and Denmark have shown that empathy can be taught from an early age, as an active skill and strategy, so ‘baby, you were born with it,’ is not necessarily the only scenario. Just think about the possibilities of teaching empathy as an active life strategy and the possibilities for what that would mean across the world.
For more info: Why We Should Teach Empathy

It can be tricky to differentiate sympathy and empathy. The main difference? When you are sympathetic, you are not experiencing another’s feeling. Instead, you are able to understand the content of what the person is feeling. For example, if someone’s loved one has passed away, you may not be able to feel that person’s experience. However, you can understand that your friend is sad. This includes societal norms of grief and loss.

Compassion kicks empathy and sympathy to the level of activity. When you are compassionate, you feel the pain of another (i.e., empathy) or you recognize that the person is in pain (i.e., sympathy), and then you do what you can to to alleviate the person’s suffering. It is the basis of volunteering, community service, mentoring, and helping others.
At its Latin roots, compassion means “to suffer with.” When you’re compassionate, you’re not running away from suffering, you’re not feeling overwhelmed by suffering, and you’re not pretending the suffering doesn’t exist. When you are practicing compassion, you can stay present with suffering, actively.

Dr. Thupten Jinpa, was the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator and author of the training known as Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT).  Jinpa posits that compassion, trained in neural science, is a four-step process:
-Awareness of suffering
-Sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering
-Wishing to see the relief of that suffering
-Responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering through behavioral activity and reaching out.
For more info: Compassion Institute

I posit one additional concept, that does not yet have sufficient Cognitive/Neural research data. I call it the mind meld, or empath. It’s being with someone in the mindful moment or experience, and has been anecdotally described in indigenous cultures and spiritual practice. Think of Diana, from Star Trek; or the conduit described by the Iroquois, and dogs who stare into your eyes, which they do not do with any other species, except their beloved humans.

Also read:
The Neuropsychology of Dog Love

When I began my neuroscience studies, the epitome of writing and research was represented by neurologist, Dr. Eric Kandel. Many chapters in his landmark textbook ended with: this is all we know, and how much we still need to learn about brain functioning. Still true.I enjoy your neuropsychology questions and comments. And I love that people are interested in the brain/mind connection. They are forever spouses.

More info:
Mental Health and Empathy
The Science of Compassion
The Neuropsychology of Self Compassion

No Revenge is the Best (Non) Revenge

Photo: Poseidon, Virginia Beach 2018

Deception and betrayal. Countless plays, poems, novels, stories and fables, and shows have focused on our universal experience of being stabbed in the back. The desire to get even, to be made ‘whole,’ is also universally human. We may feel it for the wrongs done to us, or to loved ones. In Eastern thought, Confucius wisely said that before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves. One for you and one for your adversary.

Even with caveats, revenge still seems appealing. We are attracted to the idea of someone getting their comeuppance. Most people at some point have felt so aggrieved, hurt, and offended that the shadow of that bitter but tempting idea has gone through their minds: revenge. Our moral compasses can deviate a few degrees when we feel wounded and we imagine ways we can give them a taste of their own medicine. The expression that hurt people hurt people is often true. Interestingly, research conducted by clinical psychologist, Dr. Gordon Finley, found that revenge has little to do with morality. Individuals who rate high on morality measures can also be capable of desiring revenge. Dr. Finley found that revenge is an impulse; with the goal of catharsis of rage and deep hurt.

In my professional work, I have found that a desire for revenge is related to our personal relationship with empathy. Many people who have been wronged cannot fathom that somebody would treat them in such a manner. It is a violation of the Golden Rule, taught since kindergarten, treating others as we would want to be treated. How could they do this to me, I’m a good person. This creates dissonance, and people can actually become aggressors who perpetuate the painful behaviors of the person who originally hurt them.

The Research
Characteristics of perpetually vengeful people include the following variables:

*Poor emotion regulation.
Easily reactive or affronted, difficulty modulating emotions or seeing nuance.

*Little self-knowledge or insight.
For many vengeful people, thinking about their own motives, antecedents , and consequences does not come easily.

*Sense of moral authority.
They have the belief that they know what is absolute and universal. They are the law/justice, an example of what every person should be; that they are always right.

*Concrete thinking. 
Seeing everything as black or white. Either you’re with me or you’re not. Things are done correctly or they are done wrong.

*Little empathy.
Neither forgiving nor forgetting, living chained to the past and resentment. They may frequently reflect on old hurts from years ago.

*Poor impulse control.
They want immediate satisfaction, even if there are permanent consequences or new data.

*Representation of authoritarianism and social dominance.
Social anthropology researchers believe that revenge may have played a part in our earlier cultural lives by keeping people who had wronged the society in check. However, as communities evolved, different sets of checks and balances rather than personal revenge or vendettas became normative.

According to the journal Social Justice Research (Vol. 138), in cultures and communities where there is a sense of fairness as a ‘village’, vengeful behavior and thoughts are reduced.

Why revenge is bad for mental health
*It does not provide any significant relief from pain or an increase in satisfaction. In fact, research shows that people who hold onto vengeful feelings tend  to feel worse in the long run. Dr. Kevin Carlsmith, a social psychologist at Colgate University, found exactly the opposite happens, according to a study published in the May 2008 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  This is in line with neuropsychology research that the more you think about some thing, the more neural pathways are activated and maintained.

*People do not accurately assess the emotional consequences or fall out achieved from revenge. For example, they may expect to feel much better if they can act on vengeful feelings, but find that these words or retaliatory behaviors actually create MORE activation of negative feelings such as anger and hurt. Revenge often keeps wounds open and fresh.

*Psychology research shows that keeping a healthy routine and moving forward with personal goals after being wronged is related to positive mental health. You are much better off channelling your energy into moving forward positively with your life.

It appears that living your best life, according to the science, truly is the best non-revenge. Also see The Neuropsychology of Schadenfreude

“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled –but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.
― Edgar Allan Poe, The Cask of Amontillado

Empathy is a Ferrari

LaFerrari Aperta, 4.7 million dollars. Top speed 218. Early Fall, 2017

Her: I wish I wasn’t so empathic. It hurts so much because I see and feel a resemblance of myself whenever I see anyone in pain. I have to do something about fixing them. And I don’t have a routine that works to control it. I don’t have an off switch.

Me: Think of empathy as a high end Ferrari.
It’s absolutely amazing, has a high cost, requires maintenance and care, and very few people have it. Other people notice it and think it’s beautiful. They want to go for a ride, because experiencing empathy feels wonderful, but they may not fully appreciate it or understand it. Empathy is very sensitive and requires skilled handling.

Treatment goals :
– You don’t have to drive 200 mph, even if you can.
– It is OK to avoid curvy cliff roads.
– Ferrari maintenance and care is crucial. Don’t ignore it.
– Watch the gas gauge, because empty happens.
– A high level of driving skill is required and can be practiced.
– It is not the only car in the garage. Because snow and ice.

Empathy is a Ferrari

LaFerrari Aperta, 4.7 million dollars. Top speed 218. Early fall, 2017.

Her: I wish I wasn’t so empathic. It hurts so much because I see and feel a resemblance of myself whenever I see anyone in pain. I have to do something about fixing them. And I don’t have a routine that works to control it. I don’t have an off switch.

Me: Think of empathy as a high end Ferrari.
It’s absolutely amazing, has a high cost, requires maintenance and care, and very few people have it. Other people notice it and think it’s beautiful. They want to go for a ride, because experiencing empathy feels wonderful, but they may not fully appreciate it or understand it.Empathy is very sensitive and requires skilled handling.

Treatment goals:
– You don’t have to drive 200 mph, even if you can.
– It is OK to avoid curvy cliff roads.
– Ferrari maintenance and care is crucial. Don’t ignore it.
– Watch the gas gauge, because empty happens.
– A high level of driving skill is required and can be practiced.
– It is not the only car in the garage. Because snow and ice.

Strengthening Your Empathic Muscles

Image courtesy: Krissy Murphy Benson

We are wired to care, down to the neurochemical level. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide (hormone) that is produced in the brain (hypothalamus) and is then distributed through your body by your bloodstream. It’s commonly know that breastfeeding mothers release oxytocin, as do couples during intimacy and friends during a warm hug. It is also released when we show compassion and kindness to others.

A review of the neuropsychological research on oxytocin states that the hormone has a significant impact on “pro-social behaviors” and emotional regulation, and contributes to relaxation, trust, decreased anxiety, and psychological stability.

Exciting Developments in Empathy Research
Studies have also found that oxytocin may help induce altruism. For example, in one research study, participants were given a nasal oxytocin spray which resulted in increases in generosity. The study participants were given money to keep or to share with others. They were significantly more willing to share money with a stranger with a squirt of the neurotransmitter. As such, oxytocin has been dubbed “the moral molecule,” by neuroeconomist Dr. Paul Zak.

Psychology researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler studied a neighborhood in Massachusetts, and found that many community behaviors are contagious. If your neighbor goes on a diet, you go on a diet. If a person a couple of blocks away started smoking, other people on the street started smoking. However, they found that prosocial behaviors, such as community service and sharing meals and resources were among the most “contagious”. Community members participating in acts of kindness showed significant increases in satisfaction and happiness, and decreases in anxiety.

An MRI study led by Dr. Gaëlle Desbordes at Massachusetts General Hospital indicated that both compassion meditation (also known as Loving-Kindness meditation) and mindfulness meditation training decreased activity in the amygdala in response to emotional images; however, brain activity simultaneously indicated a response to the emotional images. This suggests that meditation can help improve emotion regulation and increase calmness, WITHOUT reducing awareness of emotionally-laden or upsetting information.

How to flex your empathy muscles:
Actively Listen More Than You Speak

    • Commit your undivided attention to the conversation. That means no cell phones, tablets, or computers.
    • Let the speaker actually speak. Give them the time they need to finish their thoughts and avoid interrupting them.
    • Summarize your understanding. Once the speaker has finished talking, summarize your understanding back to them. Then ask, “Have I understood this correctly?”
    • Allow the other person to vent. When someone’s having troubles, they may be emotionally flustered. Give them the space to feel that.

Be Vulnerable
People often fear vulnerability because they worry others may perceive them as weak. Dr. Brené Brown has written that vulnerability actually helps us directly connect with others, by communicating that we’re human; complete with weaknesses, hurts, grief, and fears.

Make it a practice to help one person every day
Clinical psychologist Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky showed that people who perform acts of kindness (five acts each week in her studies) tend to feel happier and more connected to others after six weeks.

Visualize helping
Every morning, take a few minutes to visualize helping some of the people you know you will encounter during the day. In psychology, this is called “priming,” and lots of new research suggests it’s very effective in shaping behavior. For example, a study by psychologists Mario Mikulincer and Phillip Shaver found that people were more willing to help someone in need after being prompted to think about a caring and supportive figure in their personal lives.

Draw on personal talents
Research shows that people find it easier to consistently help others when they are doing things they are good at. Reaching out in the way that best reflects you has the most longevity.

Acknowledge others in your life
Research by psychologist Christopher Peterson found that writing a gratitude letter made people feel significantly happier for a month.

Read also: The Science of Compassion.

Mental Health and Empathy

Who are Highly Empathic People?

Neuropsychology research has shown us that we are wired for empathy—that we literally have brain circuits devoted to trying to understand how another person is feeling and to “feel with” them.

Highly Empathic People (HEPs) are highly sensitive individuals, who have a keen ability to sense what people around them are thinking and feeling. Psychologists may use the term empathic to describe a person who experiences a great deal of empathy, often to the point of taking on the pain of others at their own expense.

There are many benefits of being highly empathic. On the bright side, empathic folks tend to be excellent friends. They are superb listeners. They consistently show up for friends in times of need. They are big-hearted and generous. They also tend to be highly intuitive and emotionally intelligent.

However, some of the very qualities that make them such fantastic friends can be hard on the empaths themselves. Because they may literally feel what others are going through, they can become overwhelmed by painful emotions, such as anxiety or anger. Empaths have a tendency to take on the problems of others as their own. It is often difficult for them to set boundaries for themselves and say no, even when too much is being asked of them.

It is common for empaths to feel drained after spending a lot of time around people. Empaths can present as introverts, because they require a certain amount of alone time in order to recharge. A fascinating study from 2011 suggests there may be a link between highly empathic individuals and ‘symptoms’ of social anxiety. Crowds can feel particularly overwhelming to HEP, who are often extremely sensitive to certain noises, smells, and incessant chatter or small chatter. They often feel their best when they are surrounded by animals, quiet, plants, or nature.

Types of empathy may include:
Cognitive Empathy
Cognitive empathy refers to thinking processes called perspective taking. Perspective taking is an essential part of the definition of empathy. It means that you think about a situation from a different viewpoint than your own. To do this, you have to imagine what the situation is like from someone else’s perspective. Rather than thinking about how you might feel in that situation, you picture what it would be like if you were the other person, with their beliefs, emotional health, relationships, and personal history. In short, you see things from their perspective.

The brilliant writer, George Orwell, most known for Animal Farm and 1984, worked for several years as a colonial police officer in British colonized Burma. In the 1920s, after his colonial stint, Orwell returned to England determined to discover what life was like for those living on the social margins. “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed,” he wrote. He lived on the streets of East London with homeless individuals over the next year. The result, recorded in his book “Down and Out in Paris and London”, was a radical change in his beliefs, priorities, and relationships. He not only realized that homeless people are not “drunken vagabonds or scoundrels”—Orwell developed new friendships, shifted his views on inequality, and produced exemplary literary material. He eloquently wrote that ‘empathy doesn’t just make you good, it’s good for you, too’.

Emotional Empathy
Emotional empathy, also called affective empathy, is a subjective experience in which you pick up the emotions of others and feel them yourself. For example, if they show their sadness, you feel sad, too, even though you may not feel have felt sad before. You share in their feelings.

This may include:
Recognizing suffering
Understanding that everyone suffers
Feeling for the person who is suffering
Allowing yourself to feel the uncomfortable feelings that result
Doing or wanting to do something to alleviate their distress
How to rejuvenate if you’re a Highly Empathic Person (Recovery Acts)
Give journaling a try

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with emotion, it can help to get it out in some way. There are lots of different options. Dr. James Pennebaker is a clinical psychologist who has shown that putting pen to paper for at least 10 minutes a day, without editing, actually reduces depression and stress. Just writing whatever’s on your mind, can not only be a release, but can also reconnect you with your own emotions, and help you not feel so full of everything. To get into the habit, perhaps start by writing a few lines every evening or morning to process the day.

Start a mindfulness practice
While mindfulness has often been associated with meditation or breath work, there are many other strategies that can be used in this practice. For example, we all have to take out the trash. Taking out the trash mindfully can mean you are mentally removing the detritus of the week, or letting go of ballast. You can walk mindfully, cook, eat a meal, do a tea ritual, garden, or massage your dog or cat. Mindfulness is just paying attention to all of the intricate steps in any given activity.

Try visualization techniques
Visualization is a great strategy, because you can use it as a tool anywhere you go. One that I teach is called ‘the relaxation place,’ in which we use our individualized images of soothing to make makes this so powerful.

Other visualizations you could try include picturing yourself in a protective bubble, imagining other people’s emotions as water that flows over you, or even seeing their emotions as a balloon and letting that balloon go.

Be in nature regularly
Nature has a wonderfully grounding effect, helping you to clear your mind and feel closer to the earth. If you can, aim to get outside often and seek out green areas. Taking time to notice the leaves on a tree, or clouds in the sky, can help you anchor yourself in the moment and feel more connected to yourself and your emotions. Nature includes your green babies, your companion animals, your favorite tree on your street, everything around you.

Plan ahead for emotion overload
Being prepared can help to avoid unexpected emotion overload. If you know you’re going to be in a draining situation, make sure you give yourself plenty of time and rest the next day to get back to baseline.

Practice release mantras
Dr. Judith Orloff, a physician who teaches other doctors how to be more empathic, has taught what I call ‘release exercises’ in my practice. For example, at the end of the day when feeling full from the energy or hurts of others, she suggests chanting ‘ send it back, send it back, send it back.’ There are many release exercises, and like mindfulness and visualization tools, they are highly individual.

Therapy, in whatever form that fits you
In addition to talk therapy, art therapy, movement therapy, expressive therapy, spiritual counseling, life coaching, and more, are all very helpful for highly empathic individuals to maintain their vibration without damage.

The Science of Compassion

In my doctoral studies, I had the honor of working on a research study on conjugal bereavement with Dr. Dacher Keltner. Dr. Keltner, in addition to prolific work in a wide range of areas, has developed the science of compassion and empathy into a multidisciplinary field. In short, the study I co-authored found that in a study of individuals who had lost a long-term partner, and who ultimately showed greater psychological health over a five-year span after the loss, were those who received ongoing empathy and social support in response to their vulnerability, as the primary variable related to mental health and adjustment.

(Bonanno, G. A., Siddique, H. I., Keltner, D., & Horowitz, M. J. (1996). Correlates and consequences of dispositional repression and self-deception following the loss of a spouse. The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC).

Dr. Keltner runs a compassion-based research studies program at UC Berkeley. He writes prolifically about the importance of compassion for psychological health, social justice, and even the survival of our species.

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion.

While cynics may dismiss compassion as touchy-feely or new age-y, neuropsychologists have started to map the biological basis of compassion, suggesting a deeper evolutionary purpose. This research has shown that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to care for other people.

Compassion makes us feel good: Compassionate action activates pleasure circuits in the brain, and compassion training programs, even very brief ones, strengthen brain circuits for pleasure and reward and lead to lasting increases in self-reported happiness.

Being compassionate—tuning in to other people in a kind and loving manner—can reduce risk of heart disease by boosting the positive effects of the Vagus Nerve, which helps to slow our heart rate. A recent study found that people who have a greater level of empathy live 9 to 10 years longer than others, controlling for other factors. 

One compassion training program at Stanford has found that it makes people more resilient to stress; it lowers stress hormones in the blood and saliva and strengthens the immune response. Compassion training may also help us worry less and be more open to our own and others’ negative emotions. In short, people who are more compassionate tend to be less avoidant of the range of emotions.

Compassion could improve our mental health: One research review found that practicing compassion meditation improved participants’ emotional life, positive thinking, relationships, and empathy. Brain scans during loving-kindness meditation, which directs compassion toward suffering, suggest that, on average, compassionate people are happier.

Practicing compassion could make us more altruistic. In turn, it may also help us overcome empathic distress and become more resilient in the face of others’ suffering. Too often, we hear people say, I can’t watch the news because it’s just too much for me. Instead, the practice of compassion makes people more able to tolerate the pain of others, and yet provide support.

Compassion helps make caring parents: Brain scans show that when people experience compassion, their brains activate in neural systems known to support parental nurturance and other caregiving behaviors.

Compassion helps us be better friends and partners: Compassionate people are more optimistic, forgiving, and supportive when communicating with others.

Compassion helps make better doctors: Medical students who train in compassion feel less depressed and lonely, and avoid the typical declines in compassion that sometimes happen during medical school.

Employees who receive more compassion in their workplace see themselves, their co-workers, and their organization in a more positive light, report feeling more positive emotions like joy and contentment, and are more committed to their jobs. A compassionate workplace culture is linked to less burnout, greater teamwork, and higher job satisfaction.

Compassionate people are more socially adept, making them less vulnerable to loneliness; loneliness has been shown to cause stress and harm the immune system.

Compassion is contagious. According to Dr. Keltner’s “the greater good project”, based out of UC Berkeley, compassionate behavior rubs off on other people.

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