Recent research done at Case Western Reserve shows that empathy and analysis are discrete in the brain.  One represses the other.  A healthy individual can quickly alternate their thinking style as appropriate for the situation.  The see-saw of the alternate pathways can be noted in fMRI.  It also helps explain the varying lack of empathy in patients suffering anxiety, depression, ADHD, and schizophrenia.  Additionally, people that suffer autism may have strong analytic ability but weak empathy versus people with Williams syndrome that are very empathetic but have difficulty with analytic tasks.

Anthony I. Jack, Abigail Dawson, Katelyn Begany, Regina L. Leckie, Kevin Barry, Angela Ciccia, Abraham Snyder. fMRI reveals reciprocal inhibition between social and physical cognitive domains. NeuroImage, 2012

I read an article today that I find profoundly disturbing.  Racial prejudice against blacks is every bit as prevalent as it was four years ago.  If anything, it has increased.  How do we know?  Studies done by researchers at Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of Chicago on behalf of the Associated Press.  Perhaps the most shocking, naive as I may be, is that the anti black sentiment extends to greater than 50% of Americans.   The prejudice was both explicit and implicit. question....Is it true that we are hardwired to feel comfortable with others that we recognize as being "akin to me"? I believe it is.  I also believe that that wiring is put in place by experience and learning.  Can we retrain this social immune system to recognize humanity as kin rather than focus on false and inconsequential differences?  This is an unacceptable and unsustainable situation. 


the link below is the academic paper available from Stanford University

In the history of the concept of empathy, there has been ambiguity.   Let me point out that It is not sympathy.  Hojat  has clarified the meaning in his book, Empathy in Patient Care.  Empathy is intellectual.  Sympathy is emotional.  Empathy is one person's nonjudgemental effort to understand another person's experience.  Empathy leads to knowing another's concerns, sympathy aims to feel their emotions.  Effectively, empathy is about the other person and sympathy is about the observer.  When a healthcare provider becomes too emotionally engaged, overly sympathetic, they are within themselves.  This can muddle medical judgement and is certainly unhelpful.  In an effort to avoid being too sympathetic, they may become disengaged and cold.  This is also unhelpful.  Patients have a great need to be understood. 

For most of us there is some level of overlap between empathy and sympathy.  It is not wrong to feel sad or happy with another person, but realize that your experience is more about you than about them.  It is important to be appropriate to the situation and adjust by knowing ourselves, especially when the other person is vulnerable.  

Establishing empathy can lead to better communication and responsiveness. Neuro-Linguistic Programming teaches 'mirroring' or matching body language, posture, breathing, predicates and voice tonality.  This can be a 'harmonious dance', an extension of natural skills, but not mimicry.

Developing empathy allows us to resolve conflict effectively and develop tolerance for others differing views. It can be very stressful when we take positions over issues and refuse to see any other possibility.

It can help to explore the following viewpoints:

Witness consciousness – watching yourself and observing yourself and others in a detached or dissociated way.
Bystander  – observing as if you were an uninvolved person witnessing the situation.
Universal – going as big picture as possible and noticing all the other factors that may not have been obvious up close.

The above views allows us to dissociate from our own position enough to truly step into the other persons shoes and consider their perspective. By taking on the physiology of this person we can increase our connection to this.

Obviously, it takes practice.

Mindfulness and compassion are two habits and states of mind associated with meditation practice.  Mindfulness is the state of being present to others--to nature, animals, ourselves, and to the connection among all of these.  With compassion we are not only present to the situation in which others find themselves (empathy), we also care about others as we care about ourselves.

A story was just published about Timothy Kurek.  A straight man, he pretended
to be gay to gain insight into how it felt.  He is now publishing a book on his experience.  I am reminded of the book Black Like Me, published in 1961, in which a white journalist pretended to be black.  Regardless of how any of us feel about the issue of same sex attraction, I have to applaud his courage and the principle of actively gaining empathy with someone who is different from him.
Empathy is not about approving or disapproving, it is about understanding. 

Is it true that we make better decisions without emotions? Antonio Damasio, in Descartes’ Error, provides a startling answer. Damasio examined the rare people who have lost their prefrontal lobes and the capacity to have emotions. While usually capable of impeccable and intelligent reasoning, such people are unable to make any decisions. Without the capacity to feel, to be guided by their emotions, these individuals become entirely dependent on the kindness of their families for navigating even the simplest daily choices. We can reason our way to most decisions, but without our emotions we lose the moral and practical compass for making sound ones.

Understanding the emotions of others involves emotional intelligence.  It is critical for anyone that needs to deal with others effectively.  In hearings confirming Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) referred to empathy as “touchy-feely stuff.” Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) asked Sotomayor, “Have you always been able to have a legal basis for decisions you have rendered and not rely on extralegal concepts such as empathy?”  These two senators as well as others in power need to realize that
pure rationality can lead to disaster.

In Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman describes the Holocaust as a uniquely modern phenomenon rather than an eruption of irrational forces. He writes: “Mass destruction was accompanied not by the uproar of emotions, but the dead silence of unconcern.” “The Holocaust did not just, mysteriously, avoid clash with the social norms and institutions of modernity. It was these norms and institutions that made the Holocaust feasible.” Essentially, when people focus more on doing a good job and following orders than on the impact of their actions, their innate capacity for empathy ceases to function as a moral compass that guides moral action.

--excerpted from The Importance of Empathy by BayNVC Co-Founder Miki Kashtan

Roots of Empathy is an evidence-based classroom program that has shown significant effect in reducing levels of aggression among schoolchildren by raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. The program reaches elementary schoolchildren from Kindergarten to Grade 8. In Canada, the program is delivered in English and French and reaches rural, urban, and remote communities including Aboriginal communities. Roots of Empathy is also delivered in New Zealand, the United States, Isle of Man, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, describes life as a cave at the center of which is a fire that casts shadows on the wall of people chained there.  Reality is different to everyone because each person sees different shadows on the wall.  People don't see the fire or themselves, only everchanging shadows. 

Medical residents from the Virginia Commonwealth University were given 6 hours of training in theater skills.  It was shown that their clinical empathy skills were significantly increased over prior skills and when compared to a control group.  Although a small scale pilot study, it did suggest that this may be an effective modality to improve doctor interactions with patients. 

J Gen Intern Med. 2007 August; 22(8): 1114–1118.