Empathy can be a tricky subject to learn and teach

You asked: Can empathy be learned?

Having empathy comes naturally to most, but for some, it may be a learning process
November 29, 2017

Pain and sadness are normal parts of life, much like their counterparts: happiness and pleasure. For the sake of our survival and well-being, we have learned to take in the good and avoid the bad. However, for the sake of our social needs and healthy relationships, sharing in other people’s emotions can help nurture more fulfilling lives.

Being empathetic is beneficial, but can it be taught—or is it either something you have or you don’t? A psychiatric expert from the Texas A&M College of Medicine talks about learning empathy.

Empathy 101

The first thing to know about empathy is that it’s not the same “sympathy.” Sympathy is defined as the feelings of pity and sorrow for someone’s misfortunes, while empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

“Sympathy is much easier to feel because it takes less of a connection,” said Patricia Watson, MD, interim head of the Department of Humanities in Medicine at the Texas A&M College of Medicine. “Making that emotional connection to share in another person’s emotion can lead to feeling things that aren’t pleasant, but offers more comfort to the person suffering.”

According to Watson, empathy is broken down into four distinguishable attributes. People who are genuinely empathetic tend to:

  1. Stay out of judgment.
  2. Take the subject’s perspective.
  3. Identify the emotion felt by the subject.
  4. Communicate the understanding of that person’s feelings.

Empathy can be a tricky subject, and we often make errors in offering empathetic condolences.

“When someone has a car crash and tells you about it, you may say ‘oh I remember when I had a crash, I was so frightened,’ which isn’t very consoling,” Watson said. “Or you may say ‘I’m so sorry this happened to you,’ which is a way to distance yourself from experiencing empathy and only be sympathetic to that person.

We can all learn to be a little more empathetic by following the four steps above, but are there some people who are hardwired not to grasp empathy? The answer isn’t as clear.

Can sociopaths be empathetic?

If we are to find an extreme case of someone who couldn’t be empathetic, it’d be someone who suffers from sociopathy, and while people often have the notion that sociopaths are violent criminals, sociopaths (someone who suffers from antisocial personality disorder) have a mental health disorder characterized by disregard for other people—and a corresponding lack of empathy.

“Sociopaths can be superficially charming, but they are devoid of the healthy interpersonal connection that others have,” Watson said. “They may learn to read emotions and play off of the emotions that are expressed, but they do so in a way that is much different than other people.”

Watson explained that sociopaths acknowledge that rules exist, but they may not always believe that they apply to them—similar to how narcissists inherently believe they always deserve special treatment.

“If you hooked up electrodes to a healthy person and told them to lie, you would likely see some physiological response, such as sweaty palms,” Watson said. “However, if you did the same test with a sociopath, they’d be able to lie without physical response. They’re not devoid of emotion, but they lack the natural empathy that comes to us.”

The physiological answer: mirror neurons

Have you ever watched a close race and had your heart pounding? How about wince at someone getting hit with an errant football? Did you ever wonder why your heart was pounding or why you flinched or winced? After all, you weren’t in the race, nor were you hit. Science attributes this phenomena to “mirror neurons,” a cell in the brain that mirrors the behavior of the other, as though we were the subject.

“Mirror neurons can allow us to better empathize with a person,” Watson said. “If we feel some sort of physiological response, if a story makes our stomach churn or heart race, then we are more likely to be empathetic to the person.”

It’s uncertain if mirror neurons in sociopaths work exactly the same way as someone without sociopathy, but I’m sure you could empathize with Watson’s curiosity.

“There is still a lot of research being done about mirror neurons,” Watson said. “There may be a lot of answers we have about sympathy and empathy left in the research.”

— Dominic Hernandez

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