Empathy Psychology

Are some people born with a brain that is wired to be more empathetic? Can compassion be learned? What daily habits or life experiences reinforce selfishness, narcissism, and at a far extreme psychopathy?

Last night, I listened to an interview with Madonna and Anderson Cooper talking about the importance of teaching our children to be able to empathize and to not be complacent about fighting against oppression and inequality. Two studies in the past month have identified specific brain regions linked to empathy and compassion.

This morning, a new study was released by the Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences that revealed the neurobiological roots of how our own feelings and experiences can distort someone’s capacity for empathy. Last month, another study from the University of Chicago found the neurobiological roots of psychopathic behavior. Together, these studies offer valuable clues for ways we can fortify empathy at a neural level. Luckily, researchers have found that compassion can be trained.

In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience on October 9, 2013, Max Planck researchers identified that the tendency to be egocentric is innate for human beings – but that a part of your brain recognizes a lack of empathy and autocorrects. This specific part of your brain is called the the right supramarginal gyrus. When this brain region doesn't function properly—or when we have to make particularly quick decisions—the researchers found one’s ability for empathy is dramatically reduced. This area of the brain helps us to distinguish our own emotional state from that of other people and is responsible for empathy and compassion.

The supramarginal gyrus is a part of the cerebral cortex and is approximately located at the junction of the parietal, temporal and frontal lobe. "This was unexpected, as we had the temporo-parietal junction in our sights. This is located more towards the front of the brain, " explains Claus Lamm, one of the paper's authors.

The research team headed by Tania Singer said, “When assessing the world around us and our fellow humans, we use ourselves as a yardstick and tend to project our own emotional state onto others. While cognition research has already studied this phenomenon in detail, nothing is known about how it works on an emotional level. It was assumed that our own emotional state can distort our understanding of other people's emotions, in particular if these are completely different to our own. But this emotional egocentricity had not been measured before now.”

The right supramarginal gyrus ensures that we can decouple our perception of ourselves from that of others. When the neurons in this part of the brain were disrupted in the course of a research task, the participants found it difficult to stop from projecting their own feelings and circumstances onto others. The participants' assessments were also less accurate when they were forced to make particularly quick decisions.

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