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Empathy: Can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes?

You’ve probably talked or heard about it, but do you really know the implications of empathy and its meaning? Empathy is much more than putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.  Find out everything you need to know about empathy: What is empathy, definition, and concept, characteristics of empathetic people, types of empathy, differences between empathy and assertiveness, its benefits, how to improve or practice it and much more. If you want to share your experience or ask us any questions please leave your comment below.

Empathy

What is empathy? Definition and Concept

The term “empathy” comes from the Greek ἐμπάθεια: empátheia. Dictionaries define it as a feeling of identification with something or someone. The Oxford dictionary defines it as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

The first description of empathy is the one we usually use and refers to the emotional aspect. The second is the cause of the first since it would be impossible for us to feel if our cognition and thoughts didn’t allow it.

Therefore, we could say that empathy is the ability to put oneself in the other’s place, both emotionally and intellectually. Thus, the verb “empathize” appeals to the action of understanding other’s reality, including cognitively and emotionally.

The art of understanding emotions is more complex than it may seem. A study done by the University of Amsterdam indicates that empathy is bidirectional. This means that empathic interaction is significant for both individuals, for the one that is empathic and the one who feels comprehended.  It is easy to see that we are not empathic to the same extent everybody in the same way.

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Empathy: Characteristics of empathic people

People who feel empathy share a number of personality traits or behavioral patterns among themselves that foster the development of empathic capacity. Take a look at the following list to know the main characteristics of empathic people:

  • They are highly sensitive. Empathetic men and women are good listeners, open-minded to new experiences, kind and selfless. They are usually attentive to the needs of others and do not hesitate to lend a hand. It is not surprising, then, that they have a fascinating ability to transmit good feelings while interacting with others. However, the negative side of being highly sensitive is that people are more susceptible to feeling more empathy, more than they can handle. Therefore, any offense or ugly gesture they may receive hurts them more.
  • They capture people’s emotionality. As if it were a sponge, someone empathic is capable of absorbing the emotions of others. The mood of the other person has a significant influence on that of a person with a high level of empathy so that their emotionality is intensely adapted to both negative and positive feelings. Thus, it is difficult for them not to feel overwhelmed if they meet someone who is going through a time of anxiety and stress, or not to catch the joy of a happy person.
  • Your kindness can affect your own well-being. Having a big heart and caring sincerely for others are indisputable virtues. The disadvantage of this is that empathic people become more dedicated to other people’s problems than to their own, which often leads to frustration, stress, and difficulties in managing their lives.
  • They are careful with their language. Communication is essential to demonstrate empathic skills. When we empathize with others, we review our words twice before we say them because we are aware of the impact language can have on the other person’s well-being, for better or for worse.
  • They avoid extremes. People with empathy prefer the middle ground. They avoid extreme thinking. Therefore, when they surround themselves with someone who is extremist, they are able to teach them that not everything is black or white, but that there are many colors from which to perceive things and the most appropriate thing is to be open to that diversity that life offers us.
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Types of empathy

There are different types of empathy among which are:

Affective empathy: also called emotional empathy, it consists of three differentiated elements. To begin with, you need to feel the same emotion as the other person. Then, a distressing component appears as a natural reaction to vividly perceiving the feelings of the other. Finally, this leads to compassion.

Cognitive empathy: refers to the intellectual potential to perceive and understand the emotions of others. It could be said that cognitive empathy is the previous step to feeling affective empathy. It is necessary to learn to recognize emotions and then to understand their repercussion on one’s state of mind.

Unconscious empathy: Unconscious empathy implies a high level of involvement. Excessive involvement can lead to confusion caused by emotional contagion. Unconsciously empathetic people become so involved in others’ emotions they end up making them theirs. Consequently, controlling, and managing one’s emotions becomes tremendously complex.

Conscious empathy: This kind of empathy involves less emotional involvement. Conscious empathy allows you to observe the other person from an objective perspective and distance, which is essential to encourage emotional self-regulation and allow for a better understanding of the other person’s needs. A person who consciously empathizes is more effective in helping others because they support others without being overwhelmed with their feelings. This is the healthiest way to empathize because in this way you don’t carry the weight of the emotions that don’t correspond to yours and you can offer your best self.

Intercultural empathy

From empathy, one learns to respect and value the decisions of others, and also to understand the concerns and aspirations of others. And this process occurs in the same way across cultures. To empathize with other cultures means to know and understand the importance that each person gives to their customs, traditions and artistic productions.

To recognize multiculturalism is to accept human diversity because not all people are equal and have not grown up in the same environment. There are many cultures, languages, religions, professions, ways of thinking, skin tones, etc. and they are all equally valid.

Intercultural Empathy

It is essential to teach this kind of empathy in school, as children educated in the diversity of ethnic groups will develop a much healthier and more open way of thinking. Moreover, learning to accept the differences and not confront them will avoid numerous social problems in the future.

Empathy and assertiveness

It is important to make the distinction between empathy and assertiveness, given the confusion that both terms can cause.

To begin with, the similarities observed indicate that both empathy and assertiveness are considered to be potentially developable social skills in all human beings, since both can be learned in different contexts intentionally, by chance or due to daily life experiences.

Both skills need respect to be put into practice: respect for others (because the last thing you want is to hurt others’ feelings or hurt them) and respect for yourself (because you are defending the rights of another human being). In addition, other qualities such as honesty, integrity, and consistency are important.

The differences are more noticeable. While assertiveness implies a more personal aspect where there is a concern for not attacking others with words while allowing others to express their thoughts and opinions. Empathy doesn’t restrict or concern itself about feelings or others opinions when it needs to be expressed. Assertiveness defends the words that are pronounced, and empathy understands the words that others pronounce.

In conclusion, when we have the capacity to say what we think without hurting someone else’s feelings, and we also have the capacity to understand others by giving them the opportunity to speak, and express what they think, an enriching dialogue is established. This allows both parties to learn from each other, and communication flows clearly towards the goal that has been established.

These are two very useful skills for learning and communicating that complement each other. Both of these skills need to be learned to develop excellent communication and listening abilities.

Benefits of empathy

Empathy has many benefits. Let’s look at some examples:

1 – Helps emotional harmony:

Empathic people connect quickly with others, making the vast majority feel comfortable and making interpersonal relationships seem easier.

2- Helps to be objective and fair:

The best way to gain the respect of others is to show it to ourselves, even if we may differ in opinions.

3- It improves self-esteem and stimulates our learning:

Feeling that we have a positive effect on others works as a powerful personal enhancer. Furthermore, the empathic exercise allows us to learn from other’s, enriching the prism of reality with different perspectives.

4- It transmits generosity:

Those who demonstrate empathy are collaborative and more successful. It helps them act as brilliant catalysts for change by influencing others to achieve common goals

5- Strengthens professional relationships and maintains them over time:

Working empathically increases the strength of the bonds. This aspect is great in negotiation as well as in those cases in which it is necessary to seal agreements based on trust.

6- It helps show our most peaceful and constructive side:

There is numerous scientific evidence to corroborate that empathy and violence are, neuropsychologically, incompatible with each other. As our understanding increases, our inclination to belligerence decreases and the way we are perceived socially improves.

Keys to practicing empathy

Like all skills, empathy can be trained. Here are some tips for practicing empathy:

  • Listen with an open mind and without prejudice. Be respectful of others.
  • Pay attention and show interest in what they are telling you because it is not enough to know what the other person feels, but we have to show them you care.
  • Do not interrupt while being talked to and avoid becoming experts at giving advice, rather than trying to feel what the other person feels.
  • Learn to discover, recognize and reward the qualities and achievements of others. This will not only contribute to building their capacities but will also reveal our concern and interest in them.
  • When we have to give our opinion on what we are being told, it is very important to do so constructively, to be honest, and not to hurt anyone.
  • Be willing to accept differences with others, be tolerant and patient with those around you and with yourself.

Mirror neurons: The most powerful learning tool

Mirror neurons. Imitation has always been a powerful learning tool. The human brain is enabled with different mechanisms that allow us to imitate actions. Babies are capable of reproducing facial expressions, and as adults, we imitate basic behavior. Laughter can be spread, we can cry while watching a sad movie… It seems like we have the capacity to feel what others feel, empathize with them and understand their feelings. What happens in the brain for this to happen? The answer is mirror neurons. In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about mirror neurons. What are they? How do they intervene in education and empathy? Why is emotion contagious? 

What are Mirror Neurons? Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

What are Mirror Neurons?

In humans and primate species there are neurons called Mirror Neurons. These brain cells activate when we see someone doing something. For example, when a chimpanzee sees its mother opening a nut with a rock and then tries to imitate her with another nut. Mirror neurons are related with empathic, social and imitations behavior. They are a fundamental tool for learning.

“We are social beings. Our survival depends on our understanding the actions, intentions, and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to understand other people’s mind, not only through conceptual reasoning but through imitation. Feeling, not thinking.”- G.Rizzolatti.

In the 90’s a group of neuroscientists, directed by Giacomo Rizzolatti from the University of Parma (Italy), discovered something surprising. A hundred group of neurons in the brain in primates were activated not only when the monkey was doing something but also when the monkey saw another one doing that same action.

Mirror neurons can be defined as a group of neurons that activate when we perform an action or when we see an action being performed. 

Mirror neurons are essential for imitation which is key in the learning process. From birth these group of neurons are active and it allows us to learn to eat, dress, speak… Mirror neurons are also important in planning our actions as well as understanding intentions behind actions.

In the next video, Ramachandran a neuroscientist, explains what are mirror neurons and why they are important.

Mirror Neurons and Education

Mirror neurons allow us to learn through imitation. They enable us to reflect body language, facial expressions, and emotions. Mirror neurons play an essential part in our social life. They are key for the child development, as well as relationships and education.

Humans are social beings programmed to learn from others. We all reach our goals working as a group than individually. Seeing a parent, professor or student show a cognitive skill or any other skill, gives us a tangible experience rather than learning from explanation.

How do mirror neurons intervene in our daily lives?

  • Mirror neurons are responsible for yawning when we see someone else yawn.
  • These neurons also act when we see someone sad or crying and in turn feel sad.
  • The same thing happens with smiling or laughing. The way laughter can be contagious.
  • Studies suggest that there is an activation of the anterior insula when we see someone expressing disgust.
  • Another study shows that the somatosensory cortex is activated when we see someone touching another person the same way it activates when we are the ones being touched.

8 tips: How do mirror neurons influence education?

Thanks to mirror neurons the emotions we portray have a direct influence on others. This is why teachers have to make the effort to control their emotions, avoid teacher burnout, in order to use mirror neurons as an asset.

  1. Show happiness and optimism and that way you will transmit that to your students and children.
  2. Control and avoid negative emotions. We all have bad days but teachers have to be sure this doesn’t reflect on the children. However, the tricky part is that this doesn’t mean children should repress these emotions. As a teacher be sure to detect what emotion the child is feeling and help them learn to identify and manage them accordingly.
  3. Use visual signs and imitation any chance you get. Make examples practical with physical demonstrations so that children can imitate you.
  4. Encourage group interactions. This will maximize the use of mirror neurons and therefore the child’s social relationships and empathy.
  5. Use imitation in any activity that you want the children to learn (washing teeth, cleaning up after themselves…)
  6. Run from violence. Children learn what they see. If a child is educated in a hostile environment, his mirror neurons will activate and he might repeat these violent behaviors.
  7. Teach children the importance of how we listen, particularly body language. That way when someone has to share something or needs help the mirror neurons will activate and empathy will be reinforced.
  8. Teach children about emotional intelligence so that they can be able to identify their own and other people’s emotions.

Mirror Neurons and Emotional Contagion

Do you feel happy when people around you are happy? Do you get sad or depressed around negative and pessimistic people? This is due to the emotional contagion produced by the mirror neurons.

Emotional Contagion is a process through which a person or group influence the emotions and emotional behavior of another person or group. This can be done through emotional induction conscious or unconscious.

When people communicate they have the tendency to imitate gestures and facial expressions and in many cases feel what others are feeling. It has been proven the high impact emotional contagion has in our personal and work relationships. We are still not conscious of the influential ability we have in other people’s emotional state and in turn other people on our own emotional state.

Mirror neurons allow us to literally feel what others are feeling and “live” their emotions. Mirror neurons are based on empathy.

Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.

This is proof that we are social beings. Empathy has been essential to our species survival and shows how without attachments and protection we wouldn’t have survived.

How can we take advantage of emotional contagion?

The fact that we can interconnect to each other and understand each other’s feelings can work to our advantage.

  • Happiness is more contagious than sadness, so try to surround yourself with happy people. However, don’t avoid people who are sad, we all need support sometimes and giving them love might help them recover faster.
  • Imitate happy and positive people, do what they do. Practice sports and smile more (even if you don’t feel like it, you will later feel better). Keep a healthy self-esteem and stop thinking negatively.
  • Think before acting or saying anything, especially if its negative. Try to say it politely, educated and as calmly as possible since your emotional state can be contagious.

Check out how laughter can be contagious with this video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fM45JMTpkBU

Mirror Neurons and Culture

Does culture influence our brain? The answer seems to be yes. According to an investigation from the University of California, mirror neurons respond differently if the person in front of us shares our same culture or not.

Researchers used two actors, one American and another Nicaraguan to show a group of American participants a series of gestures (some American, others Nicaraguan and others without cultural meaning).

With Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) they investigated mirror neuron activities. They found that participants showed more activity when they saw the American do the gestures in comparison to the Nicaraguan. When the Nicaraguan showed American gestures to the group, the mirror neurons decreased their activity drastically.

It’s possible to conclude that mirror neurons are influenced by culture and in turn have an influence on our behavior. The results from this study show us that we are more prepared to understand and empathize with members of our own culture and ethnicity than those who are not. This also explains why we connect faster and easier with members of our own culture.

Mirror Neurons, empathy, and psychopathy

Psychopathy is a personality disorder distinguished by a superficial charm, pathological lies, and low empathy.

It’s common for psychopaths to lead a criminal life, however, not all become, serial killers or murderers. Some can actually lead a normal life.

If these psychopaths are not capable of empathizing, does that mean their mirror neurons are not working? A recent study answered this question.

Researchers observed the brain activity of two groups (18 psychopaths and 26 healthy people) while they watched short videos. The videos showed images of hands touching, gently, painfully, socially, rejecting each other and neutrally. They were instructed to watch the video and then to try to feel what the people were feeling. The next part of the study the participants were hit with a ruler to register their pain area in the brain.

Scientists found that only when psychopaths were asked to feel something did they actually feel something, mirror neurons even activated the same way as in the other group. However, when no instruction was given, the psychopath’s group showed less activation of the mirror neurons and pain receptors of the brain.

It’s not that psychopaths don’t have empathy, it’s that it’s a switch that can be activated and deactivated, and by default, it is always deactivated.

Mirror Neurons and Autism

Symptoms of autism include a delay in language and strained emotional recognition. They are not capable of perceiving different emotions, including their own.

Scientists, therefore, studied the mirror neurons in people with autism to check if they were “broken”. They found that the system has a developmental delay, where the activity is slower, weaker and less activated than in others. Nonetheless, the activity increases with age and by age 30 it becomes normal and then unusually elevated.

Other studies have discovered that not all people with autism have a delay in these neurons. They can be activated normally by familiar faces.

Hope you found this article interesting. Please leave a comment below!

References

Molnar-Szakacs, I., Wu, A. D., Robles, F. J., & Iacoboni, M. (2007). Do you see what I mean? Corticospinal excitability during observation of culture-specific gestures. PLoS One, 2(7), e626.

Meffert, H., Gazzola, V., den Boer, J. A., Bartels, A. A., & Keysers, C. (2013). Reduced spontaneous but relatively normal deliberate vicarious representations in psychopathy. Brain, 136(8), 2550-2562.

This article is originally in Spanish written by Andrea García Cerdán, translated by Alejandra Salazar.

11 Tips For Developing Emotional Intelligence In Your Kids

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and control our emotions. It allows us to interpret our own feelings, as well as the feelings of those around us. It’s important to learn how to use emotional intelligence from a young age, so we can interact with others with confidence, and be comfortable with ourselves. To help your kids develop and improve emotional intelligence, we’re going to give you a list of 11 tips to help your child develop their emotional intelligence.

Tips for developing emotional intelligence in your kids

Tips for developing emotional intelligence

1. Help them express their emotions

Many times, children don’t know how to control their emotions and they end up lashing out and yelling. It’s important that we teach them other ways to express their emotions, and that it is better to talk things through than to throw a tantrum.

Help them learn how to better express themselves. Maybe have them write in a journal, sing a song, hit a pillow, or draw. If they’re able to express their emotions, they’ll have a better possibility of understanding other people’s emotions.

2. Show them how to set goals

Help your children make their own goals and teach them to be responsible to be able to reach them.

3. Cultivate empathy

Doing this requires lots of questions on your part. Make them think about other people’s feelings. Ask them things like “why do you think your sister is sad?” or, “Do you think this would make mom happy?”

4. Develop good communication

It’s important to teach children to express themselves and ask when they don’t understand something. Learning to talk about things is a basic pillar in childhood education.

5. Control their anger

Children need love and affection until they reach 18 months. This will give them a sense of safety and help them adapt to their environment, control themselves and their fears. You should know, however, that after 6 months they will start developing emotions like rage, which is why it is so important to teach them to control their actions and correct their bad behavior. It is important to establish limits and talk to your child about how to control their anger.

6. Teach them how to recognize their emotions

Children start to interact more openly when they’re about 2 years old. This is when it becomes really important that they are able to recognize basic emotions, like happiness and anger. To do this, you can show them pictures or drawings of faces, and ask them to identify what emotions each face is showing. This will improve their empathy and help them relate to others.

7. Teach them how to listen

Make your children learn to listen without interrupting when others are talking. Teach them active listening, talking to them calmly and asking them if they understood what you said.

8. Show them secondary actions

Once a child reaches 10, they start to experience secondary emotions, like embarrassment and love. You need to be open and talk about these things to keep an open relationship between parents and children.

9. Try to keep the dialogue democratic

You have to teach your children to suck it up and admit when someone else was right. Learning how to get along with others is very important for both family and adult lives.

10. Try to get them interested in other people

Get them to think about other people and what they may be feeling. Try to make them interested in their family members so that they will learn how to be empathetic.

11. Make sure they are comfortable expressing their emotions

You have to make sure that the children know they can talk about their feelings and what’s bothering them. This will help them do better in school and excel in their adult life.

Viewing different bodies helps brain understand disabilities

Viewing different bodies helps brain understand disabilities.

A new USC study finds evidence that watching television, of all things, can improve compassion and empathy.

Researchers discovered that seeing people with different bodies, such as amputees or those born with residual limbs, causes the brain’s motor network to work hard to process physical differences.

The thing that surprised the researchers was that same part of the motor network was activated to a greater degree when watching residual limbs doing the same activity. Participants’ brains worked overtime to process the use of a type of limb that they did not have.