The Neuroscience of Empathy

Humans are wired to connect with one another

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and understand how they feel- to be them, even for a second. It’s the link between self and others: how we connect, heal, and relate.

Considering its importance in every aspect of our lives, we are taking a deeper look at the neuroscience behind it all – starting with this basic question about empathy.

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Is empathy something we are simply born with, or is it a skill that we can practice and improve?

The most recent research suggests that, actually, it’s both. While empathy skills can be learned with coaching and practice, recent neuroscience research has found that humans are, quite literally, wired to connect.

Wired to Connect by Imitating

Imitation is often thought of in its most overt form, like a great impression of a movie character.  But recent research from UCLA shows that imitation is more fundamental and pervasive than we think. We imitate others even when we aren’t aware of it.

In the imitation study, two groups were instructed to complete a scrambled sentence language task. One group was given a neural set of words, like “was man flower motivated the.” The other group was given a set of words that were all related to the elderly, like “retirees in bingo play Florida.” Both groups completed the task by making the following sentences, and left. 

“The flower man was motivated.” — “Retirees play bingo in Florida.”

What the participants didn’t know when they left is that they were still very much in the middle of the study.

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The researchers were really interested in whether the words they unscrambled would have any effect on the participants once they finished the task, so researchers videotaped participants walking to the elevator. Incredibly, the group that had unscrambled words about the elderly walked significantly slower than their counterparts — unknowingly imitating the slowness of old people.

As this study shows, and others like it, imitation is a complex, subtle and often unconscious process – an automatic part of our social functioning. This means that even people who “don’t believe in” or “are not trying to” interconnect are doing so. Empathic connection is a continuous, automatic process.

We are hard-wired to feel what others experience as if it were happening to us

Marco Iacaboni

Neuroscientist, UCLA Brain Mapping Center

Okay, We Imitate – Why?

imagesThe purpose of this tendency is to understand the emotional states of others. It’s the basis of empathy. Imitation is a way for humans to understand what others are going through, feeling, sensing – and that data is vital for knowing how to interact with them.

We are wired to connect because humans are social creatures.

How to Be More Empathic

While we have this natural tendency toward empathy, it’s something we can strengthen through intentional practice.

In a recent study on facial mimicry, researchers found that the degree of facial mimicry increased when the participants were given the explicit goal of understanding the other person’s emotional state.

So even though we practice facial mimicry on a subtle level all the time, we have the ability to ramp up those efforts — and, in turn, this will ramp up how well we understand and connect with others.

Increase Empathy with Emotional Intelligence

You can strengthen empathy, and other emotional intelligence capabilities, through a blend of training, intentional practice, and coaching support.

Six Seconds, the global leaders on emotional intelligence, partnered with FedEx Express to test the extent to which these capabilities could be learned- and the results were even more promising than you might think.

If you want to read more about the study, click here.

Interestingly, one of the lowest EQ skills for managers at the start was empathy. But after the five-day course and a six-month coaching follow up, participants were able to strengthen empathy and all of their emotional intelligence capabilities. 

 

 

Improve Your EQ

You can improve your EQ – and in turn, help others be more aware, empathic, purposeful and optimistic. Join the movement.

Michael Miller

Michael Miller

EQ Librarian at Six Seconds
Michael Miller is a writer and contributor for Six Seconds- The Emotional Intelligence Network. He is passionate about living a balanced, healthy life and helping others to do the same. You can reach him at [email protected]
Michael Miller

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