By Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Intern. Is empathy a bad thing? The ability to feel someone’s pain or suffering, joy or excitement. The ability to share in the feelings of what it is to be human. This ability of our brain helps us be better people… or does it?
In a 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival conversation Paul Bloom, chairman of the Cognitive Science program at Yale, and Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shared research that lets us better understand empathy and its consequences. They also introduced encouraging data on the positive effects of compassion training.
Empathy has positive and negative aspects. When we are feeling empathic, we tightly focus our attention on what is at hand. If we are fully involved in empathetically feeling the pain of another, we may be blinded by the spotlight of pain. This may prevent us from being in a position to be of the most help. We may also be at a weak vantage point for seeing the bigger picture and possibly being of help to many more who are suffering. Paul Bloom shared the example of what happens when we focus on the plight of one little girl trapped in a well. With our empathetic concern, our attention is riveted on the one child; at the same time we may gloss over the millions of people whose lives are being devastated by climate change.
This zoom-in ability of empathy can also potentially make a situation worse. Paul Bloom asked us to consider how giving money to child beggars in India or Africa inadvertently supports criminal operations that kidnap, maim, and exploits children.
Research has also shown that empathy exhibits bias. Humans have a greater capacity to feel empathy for someone who is most like themselves. This can easily lead to bigotry and encourage violence, including imposing harsh punishments on others. This is important to remember, especially in the political arena, where our innate impulses can be triggered by those interested in manipulating our base instincts against others not like ourselves to further their own agendas.
Compassion Can Take Us Beyond Empathy
The good news is that there is a better way to help and connect with people. Bloom and Davidson suggest practicing a combination of:
By taking a step back and examining the cost-benefit relationship, we can rationally think through what will help the most. One way to do this is by cultivating the awareness of the moment between an action and reaction. By also applying compassion (including love, kindness and caring), we can engage emotions that don’t swallow us up in the suffering of others. Exciting research in this field has shown that both the ability to act with mindfulness and to act from a center of compassion are learnable skills and ones that we can improve whatever our age.
Davidson and the team at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds have developed a program to teach compassion, called the Kindness Curriculum, that is currently being tested in schools. The results of a recent study showed that participating students exhibited improvement in many areas, including demonstration of kindness and sharing, as well as the ability to calm themselves when they felt upset. Highlights of “ABC’s” they teach are:
- Attention: Students learn that what they focus on is a choice.
- Breath and Body: Students learn to use their breath to cultivate quietness.
- Caring: Students learn to think about how others are feeling.
- Depending (on others): Students learn to think of themselves as helpers and develop gratitude for the kindness of others.
- Emotions: Students learn about how emotions look and feel.
- Forgiveness: Students learn that everyone makes mistakes.
- Gratitude: Students learn to recognize the kind acts that others do for them and how to express thankfulness.
Compassion training can lead to changes in brain functioning. The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds has also conducted research on compassion training in adults. They found after only 7 hours of training they were able to observe alterations in brain functioning. Helen Weng, the lead author of this 2013 paper, said that with the training, “People seem to become more sensitive to other people’s suffering, but this is challenging emotionally. They learn to regulate their emotions so that they approach people’s suffering with caring and wanting to help rather than turning away.”
Implications for Schools. As teachers and administrators, it is important to keep in mind that personally engaging in empathic resonance is what can lead to burnout. Interesting studies done by Tania Singer and Matthieu Ricard have shown that unlike empathy, working from a place of compassion does not lead to emotional fatigue or burnout. In fact, their work shows that compassion strengthens fortitude, sense of inner balance, and determination to help those who suffer.
There are still questions about whether empathy is neurologically a component of compassion, and if so, to what degree. In our current society and media, the word “empathy” is used to mean different things. It is important to carefully choose our words, especially around the concepts of empathy and compassion, and thoughtfully select the types of training to offer to students.