What does empathy means?
In fact as Alfred Adler says, it is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another. While this might be a little more difficult in practice, I’m sure you feel you understand the meaning. And, at this point, most people feel they have understood empathy and are ready to practice it. But have they? Really?
Empathy is hard-wired into our brains.
Did you ever have that sensation where you’re watching someone do something — serve a tennis ball, say, or get pricked by a needle — and you can just feel exactly what they must be feeling, as if you were in their shoes? Scientists have now come to the conclusion that this is the working of the ‘mirror neurons’ in our brain. This is how Dr. V. S. Ramachandran puts it in technical terms:
It turns out these anterior cingulate neurons that respond to my thumb being poked will also fire when I watch you being poked — but only a subset of them. There are non-mirror neuron pain neurons and there are mirror neuron pain neurons. So these [mirror] neurons are probably involved in empathy for pain. If I really and truly empathize with your pain, I need to experience it myself. That’s what the mirror neurons are doing, allowing me to empathize with your pain — saying, in effect, that person is experiencing the same agony and excruciating pain as you would if somebody were to poke you with a needle directly. That’s the basis of all empathy.
Apart from mirror neurons, humans have long been known to have a very robust ‘Theory of Mind’ which is essential to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own. Around the age of three, humans start developing a Theory of Mind. These two aspects are the basis of empathy in humans.
Given that most of us posses the requirements, we should all be capable of empathy. Why, then, is it such a rare and in-demand trait?
We need an individual connection for empathy to be activated.
Scientists categorise empathy into three types which can be further subdivided as follows:
- Affective Empathy
- Somatic Empathy
- Cognitive Empathy
Affective Empathy has two parts:
- Empathic Concern
- Distress & Regulation
And Cognitive Empathy has three parts:
- Perspective Taking
- Tactical Empathy
Affective Empathy and Somatic Empathy lean on the mirror neurons and the somatic nervous system for activation and hence are best activated when you are in the presence of the actual event or with the person towards whom you generate empathy. And while cognitive empathy is supposed to work primarily on the basis of a Theory of Mind, it works best when you at least have some sort of a support for the thought. This could be a memory, a film, an article or even a story. Not everybody however can develop cognitive empathy without the mnemonic. So what are the various ways in which we can develop empathy both for ourselves and our team? Let us look at some of the ways one can develop empathy.