28 Sep The Power of Empathy, Compassion, Mirror Neurons and the connection between Boundaries and Empathy
The word empathy comes from the Greek word einfullung meaning “feeling into.” Essentially, it means putting yourself in the position of another person. According to Tania Singer, the director of Social Neuroscience department at The Max Planck Institute, the lay definition of empathy refers to affect sharing and mental state attribution. It is important to stress that although empathizing can be defined as “affect sharing,” just experiencing another person’s emotions, which is also known as emotional contagion, is not sufficient to be considered empathy. It is important to differentiate empathy from theory of mind, which is the ability to understand other peoples’ mental states that is associated on structures in the temporal lobe and the prefrontal cortex. According to Singer, empathy refers to the ability to share feelings (emotions and sensation) and is associated on the sensorimotor cortex as well as the limbic and para-limbic structures (Singer, 2006). These concepts are very difficult to differentiate because, in a way, they all reflect an ability to put oneself in the “shoes of another person,” whether it is a person’s mental or emotional shoes.
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When we talk about ‘empathising’ with another person, usually we think about being a nice person, being a good friend – essentially a fluffy concept sitting within the elusive realm of feelings and emotions. Yet recent discoveries in neuroscience have not only made empathy more tangible – it has also brought us closer to tackling those seemingly unanswerable questions, such as whether or not humans are inherently born with the ability to empathise, how separate we really are from those around us, and if people can actually be taught to feel more empathy.
1. The Discovery Of Mirror Neurons
The number one scientific breakthrough would no doubt be the discovery of mirror neurons, a particular type of neurons that fire not only when you perform a certain action, but also when you see someone else doing the same thing, even if you’re not doing it yourself. The discovery has been made by researchers Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues in Italy, and it suggests that our brains work not only via logical interpretation but also by feeling. Humans physically express feelings through gestures, facial expressions etc. – and in Dr. Marco Lacoboni’s words:
“Mirror neurons are the only brain cells we know of that seem specialised to code the actions of other people and also our own actions… by providing some kind of inner imitation of the actions of other people, which in turn leads us to “simulate” the intentions and emotions associated with those actions. When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile. I don’t need to make any inference on what you are feeling, I experience immediately and effortlessly (in a milder form, of course) what you are experiencing.”
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“All that’s separating you from him, from the other person, is your skin [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][receptors]. Remove the skin, you experience that person’s touch in your mind. You’ve dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. And this, of course, is the basis of much of Eastern philosophy…You are, in fact, connected not just via Facebook and Internet, you’re actually quite literally connected by your neurons. And there is whole chains of neurons around this room, talking to each other. And there is no real distinctiveness of your consciousness from somebody else’s consciousness.” By VS Ramachandran
2. Psychopaths – evidence from neuroscience for lack of empathy?
It has long been said that psychopaths are unable to empathise – and there appears to be a neurological basis for this. Scientific evidence as recently as 2013 have shown that the brain regions which become active when a psychopath feels pain do not activate when observing or imagining pain in others. In fact,psychopaths experienced “an increased response in the ventral striatum, an area known to be involved in pleasure, when imagining others in pain.”
By that logic, it suggests that some people are inherently born with the capacity to enjoy observing someone else’s suffering – but is it really so simple? Children, irrespectively of culture, develop a sense of morality in their earliest years, and people who display psychopathic tendencies tend to be victims of a troubled childhood. Moreover, a study on psychopathic inmates, outlined in the TEDTalk below, revealed that such people had deficiencies in their amygdala, a small, almond shaped brain structure that is the key to one’s experience of memory and emotions. This suggests that not only is there a physical basis to their inability to empathise, but also that society’s system of simple incarceration in prison, which suppresses brain development, needs to change in favour of a rehabilitation progress that allows them to take active responsibility for their actions, thus stimulating growth of their amygdala.
3. Can empathy be taught?
In short – yes. Take narcissists, for example (those who firmly believe in their self importance over others while experiencing a need for attention and generally experience low empathy): an astonishing breakthrough revealed that their small capacity for empathy doesn’t have to be permanent. Physical symptoms of empathy, as well as self reports of feeling empathy, are significantly elevated when those who scored highly for narcissistic personality traits are given the simple instruction to imagine how the other person feels. Another recent experiment in Brazil has also shown that “humans can voluntarily enhance brain signatures of tenderness and affection, unlocking new possibilities for promoting prosocial emotions and countering antisocial behaviour.”
So what can we take from all this?
That empathy is literally a part of being human, that it is something which can be taught or trained, even for those who are predisposed to a low capacity for empathy, and that, perhaps more importantly, driving society to become more compassionate and empathetic towards others is not a fantasy but a very real possibility.
E – Eye Contact , M – Muscles of Facial Expression, P – Posture, A – Affest ( expressed emotion), T – Tone of Voice, H – Hearing the whole person, Y – Your Response.
Working with Empathic attunement at Trauma Recovery Institute
Trauma Recovery Institute offers unparalleled services and treatment approach through unique individual and group psychotherapy. We specialise in long-term relational trauma recovery, sexual trauma recovery and early childhood trauma recovery. We also offer specialized group psychotherapy for psychotherapists and psychotherapy students, People struggling with addictions and substance abuse, sexual abuse survivors and people looking to function in life at a higher level. Trauma recovery Institute offers a very safe supportive space for deep relational work with highly skilled and experienced psychotherapists accredited with Irish Group Psychotherapy Society (IGPS), which holds the highest accreditation standard in Europe. Trauma Recovery Institute uses a highly structured psychotherapeutic approach called Dynamic Psychosocialsomatic Psychotherapy (DPP).
Dynamic Psychosocialsomatic Psychotherapy (DPP) at Trauma Recovery Institute Dublin
Dynamic Psychosocialsomatic Psychotherapy (DPP) is a highly structured, once to twice weekly-modified psychodynamic treatment based on the psychoanalytic model of object relations. This approach is also informed by the latest in neuroscience, interpersonal neurobiology and attachment theory. As with traditional psychodynamic psychotherapy relationship takes a central role within the treatment and the exploration of internal relational dyads. Our approach differs in that also central to the treatment is the focus on the transference and countertransference, an awareness of shifting bodily states in the present moment and a focus on the client’s external relationships, emotional life and lifestyle.
Dynamic Psychosocialsomatic Psychotherapy (DPP) is an integrative treatment approach for working with complex trauma, borderline personality organization and dissociation. This treatment approach attempts to address the root causes of trauma-based presentations and fragmentation, seeking to help the client heal early experiences of abandonment, neglect, trauma, and attachment loss, that otherwise tend to play out repetitively and cyclically throughout the lifespan in relationship struggles, illness and addictions. Clients enter a highly structured treatment plan, which is created by client and therapist in the contract setting stage. The Treatment plan is contracted for a fixed period of time and at least one individual or group session weekly.
“Talk therapy alone is not enough to address deep rooted trauma that may be stuck in the body, we need also to engage the body in the therapeutic process and engage ourselves as clients and therapists to a complex interrelational therapeutic dyad, right brain to right brain, limbic system to limbic system in order to address and explore trauma that persists in our bodies as adults and influences our adult relationships, thinking and behaviour.”