The name of this blog, Rainbow Juice, is intentional.
The rainbow signifies unity from diversity. It is holistic. The arch suggests the idea of looking at the over-arching concepts: the big picture. To create a rainbow requires air, fire (the sun) and water (raindrops) and us to see it from the earth.
Juice suggests an extract; hence rainbow juice is extracting the elements from the rainbow, translating them and making them accessible to us. Juice also refreshes us and here it symbolises our nutritional quest for understanding, compassion and enlightenment.

Wednesday 8 May 2024

Empathy: Learnt or Reflected?

A few days ago, on a cycle ride with my neighbour, I reached down for my bidon (cycling water bottle) to take a drink. My cycling companion did the same a fraction of a second later. I was reminded of the role of mirror neurons in empathy.

The actions described above are often described as automatic imitation: the situation in which an individual observes a body movement in another person and unintentionally performs the same body movement themselves. Many researchers attribute this imitation to mirror neurons in the premotor cortex of our brain.

Mirror neurons have been studied since the 1980s and are considered to be a major factor in our ability to empathise with others, including, sometimes, with non-human species.

The word empathy itself is a fairly recent immigrant to the English language. In 1909 it was translated from the German word Einf├╝hling (in-feeling). It was to be over one hundred years before the neuroscience of empathy was revealed. Only in 2010 did Californian neurophysiologists identify individual mirror neurons in the human brain.1 These neurons effectively mirror in our brain what is happening emotionally for another person. Via this mechanism, our brains react as if what we are seeing or hearing from another person is actually happening to ourselves, within our own bodies.

Fortunately, our mirror neurons don’t confine themselves just to feelings of suffering. When others are happy, joyful, or having fun, we can feel those emotions also via our mirror neurons. We have the capacity to feel empathetic towards someone experiencing ecstasy just as easily as we can towards someone in pain.

Although we may have mirror neurons and hence the ability to be empathetic, that does not mean that we are automatically highly skilled empathic people. We are able to increase our ability to empathise. Neuroscientists are discovering that the brain has the ability to adapt and change its neuropathways. Neuroplasticity is a very recent science, but already the findings from that science have radical implications for the way we relate to one another. One of those implications is that we can learn to become better empathisers. We can improve our empathy quotient if you like.2

In order to be able to empathise with someone else, we must be able to identify with our own feelings and emotions. The more self-aware we are the better we are at empathising with others.3 Thus to be able to outwardly empathise we need to inwardly become attuned to our own feelings and emotions. When we can better understand and identify our own feelings and emotions then we become better empathisers.

Feelings and emotions have a language, and like any language, it must be learnt. For men, until very recently at least, this language had a limited vocabulary. Men in my cohort, growing up in the middle of last century, often got told to “man up,” “don’t get emotional,” “big boys don’t cry,” and other inhibitions on emotional literacy.

Fortunately, this seems to be changing, and men are becoming more emotionally literate.

Let us now return to the question posed in the title of this piece. Is empathy learnt or does it come from reflection?

It seems that it is a bit of this and a bit of that. Mirror neurons reflect in ourselves what we see or recognise in others. Neuroplasticity tells us that we can learn to become better empathisers by understanding and learning about our own emotions.

We could say that through the process of reflection (whether internal or external) we gain an understanding of ourselves and of others. Crucial abilities in a fast-changing world.

Notes:

1. Cited in Stefan Klein, Survival of the Nicest, Scribe, Melbourne & London, 2014.

2. An Empathy Quotient (EQ) has been developed at the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge.

3. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ, Bloomsbury, London, 1996

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