By John Lussier
The other day a friend asked on social media “…do you think reading about the lives of the poor in America cultivates empathy? Why or why not?” She’s a writer and has purposefully chosen to live in a low-income community with her family, so this isn’t an abstract question. It’s one that, I’m sure, she thinks about often. Her question got me thinking about the nature of empath: how can we better identify with the emotions of others, and join in embodied solidarity with them? Those questions are at the heart of this blog post series on sociobiology, evolutionary and moral psychology, and the nature of emotions.
All this science of the mind stuff is great, but if it doesn’t help us understand and live with one another better it doesn’t really matter.
You probably have a favorite definition of empathy. For whatever reason its one of those words that people love to define. My favorite right now is “feeling with." When we empathize with someone, we "feel with" them. Have you ever watched someone trip, and wince with them? That’s empathy. In a way you’re tripping with them. You’re feeling with them what they’re feeling. I love that empathy, like most emotions, is something we feel in our bodies. You hurt, I hurt. For a time we are connected in pain, or in laughter; in sadness, or in joy …
It’s no surprise then to hear that our brains seem to have a built in system for empathy.
In his book, The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about research done on what is known as "the mirror neuron system." During the 1980's a team of Italian scientists studying macaque monkeys were listening in on the electrical firings of their subject’s brain. The monkeys would go to grab an item or move around, and the brain would fire off. In between sessions of testing, the researchers noticed that the monkey’s neurons were still sparking, even while they were doing nothing in particular. Eventually they noticed a particular pattern when the monkey grabbed an item with their thumb and forefinger. This same pattern was showing up during times when the monkey was sitting still. What was happening? The monkey wasn’t grabbing anything. However: one of the researchers was! The macaque was observing a researcher grasp something, and their brain would mirror this action.
Later research has gone on to find similar systems in other primates, birds, and humans. This research has clarified what’s going on. The mirror neurons don’t seem to fire based off of particular movements or actions, but instead mirror intentions and goals.
Mind-reading is real… ish.
Our brains interpret and mirror the intentions of others. While primates and birds primarily seem to have mirror neurons in their centers of movement, interestingly humans possess these systems not only in our brain's center of movement, but also in our emotional centers like the “insular cortex […] amygdala, and other limbic areas”.
Okay—so the brain is wired for empathy. Why then does empathy often seem so hard? It turns out our brains are conditionally empathetic. We “feel with” most easily for those that are most like us: those that we see as part of our tribe and those that we agree with. Our brains might be built to empathize, but we often do so only selectively. According to Haidt (and other evolutionary psychologists like him) this unique ability for group empathy evolved as a survival mechanism.
Those that are better able to feel with/for their group survive, and those that can’t empathize— don’t.
I responded to my friend’s question above with two pieces of advice that I will now also leave with you. If you’re seeking to empathize with someone, first, purposefully find some commonalities with them. Get to know them. You’ll find all kinds of things in common. Out of that commonality you’ll have the emotional foundation to try and be empathetic. Your brain will be less opposed to “feeling with” someone if you realize, “Hey, we’re not so different after all!”
Second, try and think about life from their perspective. That seems obvious of course. If you want to empathize with someone, think like them! It might be obvious, but I don’t think it’s something we purposely do very often. Empathy is an emotion, but it’s one we can attempt to engender through perspective-taking. Trying to be empathetic with someone? Ask them about what they’re thinking, feeling, and what they’d like to do about it. You’ll notice that there are ways you think differently. Why is that? Are you perhaps missing some information, or a way of talking about something, that they’ve got?
As a Christian I can’t think of a better exemplar of empathy-building than Christ. The incarnation is far more than an attempt to build empathy, of course, but it is by far the best model of empathy I can think of. As Eugene Peterson put it, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” That’s the basis of empathy building.
Feeling with demands being with.
[The above is part of a series on sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and the nature of the mind by Master of Divinity student, John Lussier. In this series he will be asking some pretty big questions: How might biology inform our sense of the moral? Where do emotions and reason come in? Who are we and what were we made for? Definitive answers are often hard to come by, but sometimes becoming informed is just as much about learning to ask the right questions. We hope you will come alongside him--and us--on this intellectual journey! ]
["Mirrored" Photo Credit: Zoltan Voros]
 By embodied solidarity I mean a posture and presence of being there for someone with the whole of who we are as people. I was introduced to phrase “embodied solidarity” through the words of Larycia Hawkins. The writing of Esther Lightcap Meeks on knowing and the embodied, covenantal nature of this lifelong process has also been hugely formational here.
 Haidt, 236.
 In later posts we will reflect on Haidt’s research into moral matrixes, for now its suffice to say that often division between people happens because we aren’t thinking about something the way they are.