Can We Train Our Brain for More Empathy and Compassion?

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We often hear that we have come to this world only to fight for our own interests and individual survival. But is this true or could it be possible that as human beings we have the compassion that moves us to worry about others as an instinctive characteristic? These are the questions widely discussed in various contexts of our society. 

In general, we live in a society that promotes competitiveness, individuality and a struggle fostering a misinterpretation of Darwin’s Law of Natural Selection: survival of the fittest. The artificial environments existing in large cities and accompanied by technological advancements have been favouring this competitiveness, largely fostered by the dominant political-economic system. This substitution for individual economic survival makes the empathetic, cooperative and altruistic spirit disappear that should instead lead us – as a society – on a more natural path.

We are altruistic by nature

Empathy is nothing but the ability to be in resonance with the feelings of another person. It is the ability to identify and understand the situation of the other, putting ourselves “in their shoes” and seeing things no longer from our own perspective, but from the viewpoint of the other. Being empathetic helps us understand why or how others react to certain situations, which in turn gives us useful information about how we deal with people. Empathy is an extremely positive characteristic to have, since it can help create better relationships and a more peaceful and harmonious world.

The biologist Frans De Waal in his book The Time of Empathy shows us how empathy and altruism arise in humans and animals. For example, it has been scientifically proved that human beings evolve in a group, not individually like other species do. In the following text, I will present evidence from the analysis of the behaviour of great primates, such as chimpanzees, bonobos and Capuchin monkeys, as well as dolphins and elephants, which show that many animals are concerned about their peers and are willing to help them, in some cases even risking their lives. Thus, empathy is an ancestral trait that characterises animals and men, which contradicts the sombre vision of human nature proposed by some (as noted by the famous psychologist Sigmund Freud).

Is empathetic brain predetermined?

Nowadays evolution and the natural world show us that the condition of empathy and altruism towards others is something that is a part of our own nature. However, it is undeniable that some people have a greater capacity than others for expressing these traits and putting them into practice. So, is it that some of these skills are fixed and predetermined or can we develop and improve them throughout our lives?

From the neuro-physiological point of view, empathy is the ability to be in neural resonance with the feelings of another person. Studies carried out by the renowned Max Planck Institute in Germany have showed that some of the autonomous (unconscious) processes of our body undergo changes when a person “comes into resonance” with another. Examples of this are the fact that our eye pupils dilate or contract, our temperature increases and the rhythm of our breathing can be altered, among several others.

The responsible part of the brain for this is called right supramarginal gyrus, and is a part of the cerebral cortex that is located approximately at the junction of the parietal, temporal and frontal lobes. When this region of the brain does not function properly, or when we have to make particularly rapid decisions, our empathetic capacity and compassion are drastically reduced, as researchers have found. This area of ​​the brain helps us distinguish our own emotional state from that of other people, revealing something unusual: that the empathy could be actually represented by brain structures and cell populations

Because the neural circuits of our brain are malleable and can be reconnected through neuroplasticity, the tendency of empathy and compassion is not fixed. We must all practice “putting ourselves in the shoes” of another person to reinforce the neural networks that allow us connect in a positive way with the feelings and circumstances of others. Luckily, these findings provide us with an early evidence that compassion is a skill that can be trained, rather than a stable and a predetermined trait gained at birth, as previously thought. This could be applied in various areas in our society where it is necessary to improve relationships and communication skills such as, health care, education and business.

As easy as sitting down, closing your eyes and meditating

Various studies in the fields of neuroscience have showed that through meditation techniques we can actually “train” our ability to feel compassion and empathy for others, as if it were a muscle of our body. In this sense, areas of our brain change when we train it to be more compassionate through meditation, and as a result, the chemistry of our brain changes activating areas that were not active previously.

There are no easy answers on how to raise people’s awareness and empathetic response. However, by adopting new habits that change the mentality and behavioural choices made on a day-to-day basis, anyone can reconnect their brain to be more empathetic.

One of these habits that allow compassion training, as demonstrated more and more, is to practice a rigorous mindfulness training and loving kindness meditation. This practice, although powerful, is very easy to do. All you need is take a few minutes every day to sit quietly and systematically send thoughts charged with love, well-being and compassion to: (1) family and friends; (2) someone with whom you have tension or conflict; (3) strangers and all living beings around the world who may be suffering; (4) connect with the feeling of self-compassion, forgiveness and love towards oneself.

Doing this simple 4-step practice literally reconnects our brain by involving neural connections linked to empathy. We can feel that the vessels in our brain change and open up to empathy just by spending a few minutes going through this systematic practice of meditation.

How much lightness and joy it is to know that we can improve our capacity to love and interact positively with those around us every day! You and I are the result of four billion years of successful evolution. Let’s act as such! 

Photo by: Hermes Rivera on Unsplash.

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