What does it take to become empathic? Is there a part of the brain that needs to be switched on? Some way of living that is different to a non-empathic way? According to Krznaric in his book "A handbook for revolution.Empathy", the first habit of being an empathic person is in fact to switch on our empathic brain. We do this by embracing a more sophisticated understanding of human nature.
He argues that the capacity to empathise is part of our genetic inheritance, part of our evolutionary roots. He also suggests that empathy can be expanded throughout our lives. In other words, developing empathy is an ongoing process, something we keep working on throughout our lives. It's never too late to learn it.
Krznaric encourages us to think about some of our existing understandings of human nature. We might think, for example, that most people aren't trustworthy or that typically people only think about themselves. Over time we start to notice those behaviors which fit with these ideas, missing those opportunities to see behaviors that would suggest otherwise. He cites a number of influential scientists and others who have reinforced these ideas over the last few centuries. Charles Darwin's survival of the fittest theory certainly reinforced this idea that we are each inherently interested in our own survival, competing with each other rather than cooperating. Then in more recent times Richard Dawkin's "selfish gene" theory provided further reinforcement of self interest ideas.
So now it's time to start to challenge those ideas. To question the messages we've been receiving since childhood. The focus on ourselves can start to extend to a focus on others. Krznaric reports that a search of literature dating back several hundred years does find reports of empathy, although often reported as sympathy at that time. Even Charles Darwin recognised a social awareness in human beings, noting that humans would put themselves at risk sometimes for their fellow human's wellbeing. It's just that the focus of his work focused on the selfish nature of humans. The industrial revolution needed people to focus on work not on caring for others, for example.
Krznaric credits the psychology field as the field that appreciated empathy and started to use the language. The word empathy comes from the German term Einfuhlung, translated as feeling into. Early references to empathy by psychologists used the term as either perspective taking (cognitive or thinking empathy, most recently known as theory of mind) or as a shared emotional response (affective or feeling empathy). The work of Swiss child psychologist, Jean Piaget, really made an impact on understandings of cognitive empathy as his experiments with children highlighted that older children had the capacity to see the perspective of another while younger children only could see the world through their own concrete experience. Affective empathy is evident when we see people affected by the experience of another. For example being moved to tears or responding with comfort when they see another person in distress. Even quite young children have been observed to do this.
By combining cognitive and affective empathy we are able to explain empathy in total, an ability to step into the shoes of another and feel some aspect of their experience in order to drive our own actions.
In more recent decades theories such as Bowlby's attachment theory have highlighted the importance of caregivers being empathetic to babies and children in order for them to feel attached to them but also so they can in turn develop empathy for others. The discovery of mirror neurons in the brain which are impacted when we witness someone else experiencing something such as pain provide further evidence of the human being who is primed for empathy.
So returning to the question of whether we can develop empathy, we can look to examples of research conducted where people have become more aware of their capacity to empathise and shown improvement. Training programs which help people notice facial expressions, tone of voice and body language can make a difference to people's ability to show empathy. Programs such as Roots of Empathy for children have been found to enhance pro-social behavior and reduce bullying and aggression.
Even if we did not grow up with programs or modelling of empathy, the above examples highlight our human capacity to learn new skills, new capacities and tap into undeveloped areas. Our brains are malleable and our ability to learn means we can keep working on becoming more empathic. By becoming an empathy 'detective' we can start to notice those times when people act with empathy, when they show care for others, when they show care to us. We can also become more aware of our own reactions, our own capacity to reach out to others, when this happens and what circumstances surround it. This awareness will be the start of our journey to enhanced empathy.