In our culture we're taught to think of ourselves as independent and self-actualizing. In reality, our brain is uniquely constructed for experiencing other people's thoughts, emotions and actions as if they were our own.
When we watch another person move, our observations of their movement activates in our own brain the same areas that are involved when we make that movement. This innate tendency for imitation was first observed in macaque monkeys where "mirror neurons" in the monkey's prefrontal cortex respond both when the monkey grasps a peanut and when it watches another monkey grasp it. Mirror neurons are also active in our brains.
If you observe my hand reaching for a cup of tea the motor cortex in your brain will become slightly active in the same areas you would use if you reached for the cup of tea yourself. Further, if you observe my lips as I savor the tea, the area of your brain corresponding to lip movements will fire as well. Of course that doesn't mean you can taste my tea but it does mean that I am directly affecting your brain as you watch me drinking it. And the process is reciprocal. If you pour yourself a cup of tea, a similar pattern occurs in my brain. In both situations the artificial distinction between you and me breaks down; we form a unit influencing each other's actions: I alter your brain as a result of your observations of me, and vice versa.
A similar process takes place in regard to emotions. We relate to other people's emotions by unconsciously simulating in our own brain the same activity that takes place when we experience those same emotions.
Edgar Allan Poe described this empathic process long before neuroscience established it. In "The Purloined Letter" Poe writes of a method for intuiting the thoughts of another:
I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.
Unfortunately the brain's empathic powers aren't evenly distributed. While some of us are highly empathic and experience empathy for everyone we encounter, others restrict their empathy to the people they can identify with. They have little empathy towards the stranger or the foreigner, the practitioners of other faiths, the holders of different political persuasions or sexual orientations. Fortunately such empathic limitations can be overcome by the steady application of ones own effort.
Brain imaging studies of meditation practitioners show an increase in activity during meditation in those areas associated with positive emotions. For those not attracted to meditation, one can increase one's empathic powers by recognizing that, in general, the emotions that we bring to an encounter with another person will be the same emotions that that person will reflect back to us. A similar rule holds in our inner world. If we try to think in a compassionate manner about the other person--no matter how difficult that may be-- we then become capable of empathizing with him or her. Via such freely chosen acts of empathy we become at once homo sapiens and homo empathicus.
Developing and maintaining our empathic powers is a lifetime task with a simple goal: experiencing what is happening to another person as if we were experiencing it ourselves. But learning to do this isn't easy especially in our current society where we are encouraged to look upon others as competitors for increasingly scarce resources, or even as enemies we have reason to hate.
Our challenge is to enhance, fine-tune, and act upon our capacity for empathy. It's especially important to include people with whom we seem to share more differences than commonalities. I'm referring here to the level of empathy spoken about by religious leaders and prophets throughout history ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.") If we can live up to this challenge of extending our empathy beyond our immediate circumstances and self-interest we have a chance of achieving the so far elusive goal of creating an "Empathic Civilization".
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