By Max Kabongo, Carleton Neuroscience Student
As a university student, you will be interacting with people from different cultures or situations. These factors result in a different lived experience than one in which you may be accustomed such as living with a mental illness or constantly being harassed due to racial prejudice. Recently, the case involving the murder of Ahmaud Arbery concluded with the convictions 3 white males for a racially charged hate crime. How do you feel? Thoughts may have gone through your mind such as anger as an innocent man was murdered for being Black. Perhaps you felt relief or happiness knowing that those who are responsible are facing life imprisonment and justice has been served. Without having known Ahmaud Arbery, you may be sharing emotions held by those he was close to; a phenomenon we describe as empathy. Empathy is the ability to share and understand the emotions of others (ex. “I feel what you feel”). It is important to be empathic as to show authenticity when communicating. But what is empathy? How does empathy emerge? Can we enhance it?
What is empathy?
At the most basic level, empathy is a complex process that seems critical for the formation and maintenance of social bonds. Indeed, understanding how others feel and being able to imagine how others are feeling (independent of our own feelings) may be a hard-wired mechanism to determine when others are in need of support. In short: Empathy helps us to coordinate our emotions and respond to them in others. The ability to do this varies. For instance, we expect greater empathy in those who work in shelters for the homeless, in people choosing to care for a sick relative, or those who are there for a friend after a tough break up. We also know there are individuals that have low levels of empathy, and these individuals appear less able to form social bonds, such as individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). While this does not mean that these individuals do not form social bonds, they do have difficulties interacting socially and understanding that others have feelings different than their own.
While many consider empathy a uniquely human trait, there is evidence that non-human animals also show at least some processes associated with empathy. These processes include emotional contagion, theory of mind, and experience/social learning.
Emotional contagion (Emotional Empathy). Emotional empathy involves a sensitivity to the emotional state of others, and an awareness of how their emotions affect how we feel. In effect, emotional contagion involves recognizing a particular emotional state in another (i.e., fear, sadness, happiness, anger) and becoming “infected” by their emotional state. This more primitive aspect of empathy can be seen in many species of animals and in humans. For example, rats will show fear when observing a cage mate experience a stressor. Humans also respond to injustices with anger and actions such as ongoing protests in response to police brutality against black people. The capacity to experience emotional empathy in this form appears to be innate.
Theory of mind (Cognitive Empathy). Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand that others may be feeling or thinking differently from us, and yet, we are capable of understanding the situation from their perspective. This is referred to as a theory of mind, which is related to perspective taking. For instance, humans are capable of detecting differences between what we think and what others believe our mental state to be. In this sense, the emotions we show to others may not reflect what we feel in order to be mindful of others’ emotions. While non-human animals display emotional empathy, it is more difficult to determine if they demonstrate theory of mind. However, some suggest that highly social animals like elephants, dolphins and chimpanzees are capable of such perspective taking.
Learning and Empathy.
There are components of empathy that appear to be strengthened by experience. For instance, one may have emotional reactions to social issues like discrimination, social injustice or lack of access to health care, but the degree of empathy one has for those suffering may be enhanced by personal experience. A person that has been homeless in the past or knows someone close who is homeless, is much more likely to participate in caring for the homeless. Someone who has experienced high levels of pain may display more empathy for a movie character that is going through some traumatic physical experience despite the situation not being real. Thus, empathy can be elicited and enhanced by previous experiences.
So how do all of these aspects of empathy come together? Empathy in the brain
Many brain regions are associated with empathy, including the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus (PVN), a tiny cluster of cells located deep in the middle of the brain. The PVN secretes a hormone called oxytocin, which is thought to be involved in development and maintenance of social bonds and has stress buffering effects. A stressful experience will elicit among other things, the release of oxytocin, and event that may be related to the generation of social support. The effects of oxytocin, together with those of social support during a stressful event may be a critical biological signature of empathy. McQuaid (2015) found increased responsiveness to positive and negative interactions in university students carrying a certain gene polymorphism of the oxytocin receptor which has previously been associated with enhanced empathy.
Another region implicated in empathy is the amygdala, a structure nested within the temporal lobe that is crucial for emotional processing, most notably in the context of fear, stress and anxiety. Stressful and traumatic experiences activate the amygdala, leading to a sequence of downstream events which ultimately lead to responses aimed at escaping a threat. Critically, activation of the amygdala leads to a learned association between the stimuli (the sounds, smells, sights) associated with the threat and the experience of the threat, so that these events can be predicted and avoided in the future. Unfortunately, overactivation of the amygdala leads to conditions in which this region becomes stimulated by cues that normally would not produce fear responses, such as anxiety or posttraumatic stress syndrome. This can occur when individuals observe traumatic events happening to others, such as with children in homes where a parent is physically or verbally abused, or when people witness a traumatic event (i.e. a traffic accident, terrorist attack, military combat) in which others are hurt or killed. The amygdala plays an important role in the production of emotional empathy, and in the mechanisms elicited in the face of fearful events.
The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is a strip of tissue located at the front of the brain containing cells that are connected to several brain regions implicated in memory, emotion, and reward. Interestingly, scientists have discovered that this brain region responds to direct or observed experiences of pain or pleasure. In primates, a subset of cells within the ACC termed “mirror neurons” become activated when observing an experimenter eating a snack that the monkeys had tasted before. Further research on this population of cells suggests these may be implicated in the Theory of Mind: individuals on the Autism Spectrum (who often lack Theory of Mind) have less activation in this brain region when viewing facial images corresponding to different emotional states. Another a brain region called the frontotemporal junction seems to be critical for individuals to imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes. This region develops through childhood. Finally, the prefrontal cortex seems to play a role in human’s ability to understand that the behavior and feelings of others are independent of our own. These three cortical regions form a network that is critical for fully experiencing empathy.
Empathy across the life span
How we react to the emotions of others changes throughout development. Evidence of emotional empathy begins to appear during infancy (e.g., when an infant cries while observing another infant crying, or displays facial mimicry). Within the 2-3 of years, a toddler shows more cognitive aspects of empathy such as expressing distress when observing a parent experiencing pain. A toddler’s response to another’s distress may be accompanied by prosocial behaviour such as comforting. These responses are the beginnings of cognitive empathy. Theory of mind begins to develop around the ages of 4-5 as children become aware that others have unique feelings, thoughts, and desires, and that other will respond to their actions when they are happy or displeased. Neurodevelopmental and genetic factors, as well as familial relationships influence how empathy develops across the lifespan. As the brain matures, so does our understanding of the emotions and intentions of others. Unfortunately, in older adult years, those brain regions important for empathy begin to deteriorate. While this does not necessarily produce impairments in understanding the emotions of others, it may produce cognitive alterations that decrease the ability to interpret the motives of others (cognitive perspective-taking), and this has been linked to the increased vulnerability of older adults to being exploited or taken advantage of, for example susceptibility to scamming.
Can we enhance empathy?
Forming strong social connections allow us to better communicate how we feel. Empathizing with others places a critical role in this process, as it allows us to understand the desires and problems of those around us and to act accordingly. The human brain has been shaped to function in a social context and providing a rich social environment will maintain the cognitive processes that allow for empathy Empathy develops with age and is shaped by our experiences either directly or vicariously. This also entails those emotions and actions of others are addressed as we show support through listening; even to differing opinions or beliefs. It is easier to empathize with those we are close to, such as friends and family. But by informing ourselves of the experiences of others, we can begin to see things from a different perspective. Furthermore, understanding the importance of empathy helps us communicate with others, especially on a university campus.