Altered Traits: Empathy, Empathy, Empathy!!!


The word empathy entered the English language only in the early years of the twentieth century, as a translation of the German word Einfühlung, which might be translated as “feeling with.” Purely cognitive empathy has no such sympathetic feelings, while the defining sign of emotional empathy is feeling in your own body what the suffering person seems to feel.



But if what we feel upsets us, all too often our next response means we tune out, which helps us feel better but blocks compassionate action. In the lab one way this withdrawal instinct shows up is in people averting their gaze from photos that depict intense suffering—like a man so painfully burned that his skin has peeled away. Similarly, homeless people complain that they become invisible—those passing by on the street ignore them, another form of averting the gaze from suffering.



Since compassion begins with accepting what’s happening without turning away—an essential first step toward taking helpful action—could meditations that cultivate compassion tip the balance?


Researchers at Germany’s Max Planck Institute in Leipzig taught volunteers a version of loving-kindness meditation. The volunteers practiced generating such loving-kindness in a six-hour instructional session, and at home on their own.


Before they had learned this loving-kindness method, when the volunteers saw graphic videos of people suffering, only their negative circuits for emotional empathy activated: their brains reflected the state of the victims’ suffering as though it were happening to themselves. This left them feeling upset, an emotional echo of distress that transferred from the victims to themselves.



Then people were instructed to empathize with the videos—to share the emotions of the people they were seeing. Such empathy, fMRI studies revealed, activated circuits centering on parts of the insula—circuits that light up when we ourselves are suffering. Empathy meant that people felt the pain of those who were suffering.



But when another group instead got instructions in compassion—feeling love for those suffering—their brains activated a completely different
set of circuits, those for parental love of a child. Their brain signature was clearly different from those who received instructions in empathy.


And this after only eight hours!


Such positive regard for a victim of suffering means we can confront and deal with their difficulty. This allows us to move along that spectrum from noticing what’s going on to the payoff, actually helping them. In many East Asian countries the name Kuan Yin, the revered symbol of compassionate awakening, translates as “the one who listens and hears the cries of the world in order to come and help.”


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