Empathy: Is it Teachable?

July 10th, 2014

empathy

Empathy: the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings. Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Everyday we wake up to news of shootings in schools, children and teens bullied by their peers, gang violence, violent attacks against women, homosexuals, immigrant-bashing, brutalities inflicted on humans by other humans. We go to sleep to more news of violence around the world and the cycle continues. And, we wonder, who could do such heinous acts? What kind of a human being is capable of inflicting such pain and suffering on the innocent? Clearly, these are individuals unable to feel empathy.

In a recent post on the blog Mindshift the question is raised as to “Why its important to teach empathy to boys.” Why only boys? I believe it is just as important to teach empathy to girls as it is to boys. Here’s why. In a May 26, 2014 article in the Wall Street Journal, it was reported that girls show more aggression than boys in schools because they are “generally more socially developed and verbal than boys.”

Psychologists and educators are increasingly noticing children as early as kindergarten or even younger forming cliques and intentionally excluding others and displaying acts of aggression toward those excluded. Steps are being taken to curb this behavior by teaching empathy in elementary schools in order to diminish “relational aggression” which is a psychological term to describe “using the threat of removing friendship as a tactical weapon.” In addition, children are also receiving guidance on how to stand up for themselves against bullies and helping others subjected to social exclusion.

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Which leads me to ask the next set of questions: is it up to schools to teach empathy? Are we to assign teachers and schools the responsibility to teach our children to develop the positive character traits such as kindness, compassion, helpfulness, generosity, and consideration? Does empathy start at the school or at the home? What about the parents? Who teaches them empathy? Who teaches the teachers?

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Is empathy something we’re hardwired with at birth or can it really be taught? In that same note, if some humans are hardwired with the ability to be empathic are some, such as psychopaths, hardwired to be void of empathy? Psychopaths are defined as individuals who suffer from a personality disorder characterized by a lack of empathy and remorse.

As a non-scientist but a layperson interested in neuroscience and involved in education, I’ve always been fascinated with the question as to why some people are able to experience empathy while others are not. I look at our politicians some of whom display some elements of altruism while others proudly demonstrate their lack of empathy with their matter-of-fact slashing of social programs intended to help the needy and underprivileged, or the bankers who glibly make fortunes through the cleverly plodded loopholes and lets not forget those who brought the country to an almost economic collapse during the recent mortgage crisis, I still remember a banker interviewed on the radio as to whether he felt any remorse for what the banking industry had done to which he replied an emphatic NO! His rationale was simple, he saw himself as the smart one, the one who was able to figure a way to make boat loads of money. I’m paraphrasing here, but he basically said something to the effect of “suck it up people, we’re just smarter than you, that’s all.”

In his book, The Psychopath’s Test, Jon Ronson, explores the characteristics of psychopathy and how a psychopath is not necessarily the cold hearted serial murderer, but it is also the cold-hearted CEO or political leader who is capable of inflicting psychological harm on his/her employees or constituents.

Up until now, I was under the impression that you’re either capable of experiencing empathy or you are not. That is, you’re either born with it or you’re not. In a study published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, reports that “when individuals with psychopathy imagine others in pain, brain areas necessary for feeling empathy and concern for others fail to become active and be connected to other important regions involved in affective processing and decision-making.” Yet, new research by the Netherlands Institute of Neuroscience shows psychopaths in fact have the ability to switch on and off the ability to feel empathy ‘at will’. Given the discovery of this “on” and “off” switch has led the researchers to conclude that therapists can in fact teach psychopaths to be more empathic.

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According to the scientists involved in this research study, “the human capacity for empathy is rooted in the operation of ‘mirror neurons’ which are parts of the brain that activate when we do something but also when we observe someone else doing the same thing.” In other words, if we see someone getting hurt it triggers in us the vicarious sensation of pain which causes us to refrain from inflicting pain on another and prevents us from engaging in antisocial behavior.

Children need guidance from an early age to help them develop empathy otherwise they can become callous adults who are oblivious to the hurt and pain they cause others. Empathy, according to researchers is something that must be learned and an important role for parents is to guide their children from infancy by setting an example of empathetic behavior. Parents are in fact, their children’s best emotional tutor.

Several years ago I attended a three-day workshop lead by Rabbi Michael Lerner who spoke about a “New Bottom Line.” According to Rabbi Lerner, we need a new bottom-line instead of the old paradigm where money and power represent success. In this new paradigm, money and power are not the sole barometers of efficiency, productivity and success at corporations, governments, public institutions, and schools “but to the extent they maximize love and caring, ethical and ecological sensitivity, and our capacities to respond with awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation.” This is empathy. One of his ideas for progress had to do with our school system. Much of our public schools resemble factories and even the process of educating our children looks like an assembly line. Rabbi Lerner suggests that we allow older children to serve as mentors or tutors for the younger ones. He mentioned a school in NYC that had adopted this technique and the results were phenomenal. The older children felt responsible for the younger ones and were there to help them with their homework and school-related projects. The cooperation and camaraderie between them encouraged a friendlier and more harmonious school environment. It helped build the character traits that bring about empathy.

Empathy is, therefore, a learned behavior that can be taught. As humans, we are, after all, social animals. We learn by observing. Parents, older siblings, peers, and teachers can teach the children from an early age the basic character traits of kindness, goodness, generosity, compassion, consideration, helpfulness and by setting an example through demonstrating how to feel empathy.

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Steve Taylor, a lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality says it best: “Just as the lack of empathy makes cruelty and oppression possible, the presence of empathy heals conflict. The ability to empathize makes us truly human, and the wider it stretches – from victims to offenders, from one ethnic group to another, from nation to nation and religion to religion – the less brutal and more harmonious a place the world will become.” Yes!

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Jasmin S. Kuehnert
President & CEO ACEI
www.acei-global.org

1 Comment

Filed under Creativity, Education, Gratitude, Human Interest

One response to “Empathy: Is it Teachable?

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