empathy and healing


A look at global consciousness, empathic living, neuro linguistic programming and what modern science says.

Are humans by nature aggressive, materialistic, utilitarian and self-interested?   According to Jeremy P. Tarcher, author of The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness In a World In Crisis , recent discoveries in brain science and child development are forcing humanity to rethink this long-held belief,  the dawning realization is that we are fundamentally empathic  species and this has profound consequences for society.

What does it mean to be empathic?

Empathy is different from sympathy, compassion and pity because it is a mental or intellectual, imaginative participation or identification of the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of another, the ability to imagine oneself in their shoes.

To make the distinction clear:  Sympathy is about generic kinship with another’s feelings.  Compassion is sympathy for the troubles of another coupled with an urge to help or alleviate the distress.  Pity is kindly or condescending sorrow aroused by the suffering or others. Empathy most often refers to a form of intellectual, imaginative participation or identification in the emotions, ideas, or opinions of others, the ability to imagine oneself in the condition or predicament of another: for example: empathy with those striving to improve their lives.

Empathy noun 1.the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. 2.the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself, for example: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.  (Dictionary source: Dictionary.com)

According to Jeremy P. Tarcher, author of The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness In a World In Crisis, the term “empathy” became a party of the human vocabulary around 1909, about the same time that psychology began to explore the internal dynamics of unconsciousness and consciousness itself – therefore it wasn’t until we developed enough in “human selfhood”  that people started thinking about the nature of our innermost feelings and thoughts  – and so able to recognize the existence of empathy.

According to Wikipedia the English word is derived from the Greek word ἐμπάθεια (empatheia), “physical affection, passion, partiality” which comes from ἐν (en), “in, at” + πάθος (pathos), “passion” or “suffering”.[2] The term was adapted by Hermann Lotze and Robert Vischer to create the German word Einfühlung (“feeling into”), which was translated by Edward B. Titchener into the English term empathy.  Alexithymia from the Ancient Greek words λέξις (lexis) and θυμός (thumos) modified by an alpha-privative—literally “without words for emotions“—is a term to describe a state of deficiency in understanding, processing, or describing emotions in oneself.

For more information about the word, a long list of definitions and ideas, please visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empathy

How does Empathy work?

According to Jeremy P. Tarcher  history is written by those who seek power and so does not reflect the real history of mankind where daily lives are filled with hundreds of small acts of kindness and generosity.  He says that comfort and compassion between people creates goodwill and thus establishes the bonds in society and gives us joy – and is therefore at our core nature and the very means by which we create social life and advanced civilization.  P. Tarcher also believes that the slow evolution of empathic consciousness is the underlying story of human history, even if it doesn’t get attention from historians.

Psychology professor Martin L. Hoffman believes that the empathic observer doesn’t lose his sense of self and fuse into the other experience, nor does he coolly / objectively read the experience of the other as a way of gather information, but rather “the involvement of psychological processes that make a person have feelings that are more congruent with another’s situation than with his own situation.”

I will refer to this book again, for more information: www.empathiccivilization.com.  The central thesis of the book is that empathy in humans will allow them to deal with a world-wide crisis such as global warming.

Neuro Linguistic Programming

NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) offers some insight into the workings of empathy.  I completed a 9 month practitioners course in NLP and it has provided me with irreplaceable tools I have used and continue to use throughout the years.   NLP is the study of subjective human experience,  “how we use the basic language of our mind to consistently achieve the results we want in life”, and “the realization that our words don’t describe the world we live in, but determine it”.  I wish our traditional schooling systems will include self study as part of the curriculum, in my opinion it is vital for everyone to know themselves and to live life with the wonderful awareness that our experience is subjective.

In NLP training they have a category called perceptual positions.  The benefits are said to include a variety of things, but basically coming down to the following:

Improve your understanding of other people, Enables you to think more flexibly and creatively, Provides an opportunity to stand back and consider issues, Helps you appreciate the influence of your verbal and non-verbal behaviour on others, and the influence of their behaviour on you.

I would say this is where we can find out how Empathy can help in everyday ways.

Why is NLP so successful?  NLP techniques is based on a few “Presuppositions” that create the foundation to interact with others while remaining congruent with oneself:

1. Respect for the other person’s model of the world.
2. Behavior and change are to be evaluated in terms of context, and Ecology
3. People are not their behaviors. (Accept the person; change the behavior.)
4. Everyone is doing the best they can with the resources they have available. (Behavior is geared for adaptation, and present behavior is the best choice available. Every behavior is motivated by a positive intent.)
5. Calibrate on Behavior: The most important information about a person is that person’s behavior.
6. The map is not the Territory. (The words we use are NOT the event or the item they represent.)
7. You are in charge of your mind, and therefore your results (and I am also in charge of my mind and therefore my results).
8. People have all the Resources they need to succeed and to achieve their desired outcomes. (There are no unresourceful people, only unresourceful states.)
9. All procedures should increase Wholeness
10. There is ONLY feedback! (There is no failure, only feedback.)
11. The meaning of communication is the Response you get.
12. The Law of Requisite Variety: (The system/person with the most flexibility of behavior will control the system.)
13. All procedures should be Designed to increase choice.

(Presupposition source: http://www.transformdestiny.com/NLP-Guide/nlp-presuppositions.asp)

Perceptual Positions

Perceptual Positions is a NLP skill of adopting more points of view than your own in an experientially rich and organised way.  In everyday life you can change your “positions” to gain a better understanding of any situation.  The ability to see things from the point of view of another is a key skill in understanding people, and is important to communication processes in relationships, negotiation and interviewing, as well as to healthy boundaries and self-concept.

The experience of NLP in this context  allows one to look at the linguistic and semantic representations inherent in beliefs, interpreted feelings, values, thinking patterns and identity — important components of how we experience ourselves, the world, and the people around us.

Consider walking a mile in another man’s shoes.  Using NLP Perceptual Positions you could create a very rich sense of another person’s experience using only your own memory, imagination, physiology and very slight shifts in your spatial location.   In NLP this links with the assumption that ‘the map is not the territory’ and offers a way to enrich an individual’s map of the world.

Basic Perceptual Positions, one of which has three subtypes.  According to John David Hoag, a Professional NLP Trainer, Coach and Therapist located in Northern California,  all four positions are of equal importance and it is useful to consciously or unconsciously cycle through these positions as we go about our daily activities.

First Position: This is your own Perceptual Position as you, seeing, hearing and feeling the situation through your own eyes, ears and feelings. In NLP, it is called the a fully associated position. That is, you are fully in it and living it as if it is happening right now.

Second Position: This is the Perceptual Position of an ‘other’. It’s the walking, seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, believing, etc., in another man’s shoes. But it needn’t be a man or even a human. Second position can be that of a painting or any other object, an animal, a tree, a fictional character, an archetype, a mythical being, even a mathematical principle, an idea, a piece of music, or anything from an atom to the entire Universe, so long as it is represented as ‘other’ than the ‘you’ in first position. It can even be another part of your own mind or body. This position can be in direct communication with First Position. That is, if you adopted Second Position, and spoke to yourself in First Position, you would address yourself as ‘you’.

Third Position: This is the position with three subtypes. Each of them is a Perceptual Position outside the first two, and outside the communication loop going on between first and second positions. From third position, you are like an interested, but not directly involved observer of the other two. It’s a useful position for gathering information and noticing relationship dynamics going on between them. In third position, if you were to refer to yourself in first or second position, you’d use third person pronouns such as “he”, “she” or “they”. The variants of this position are:

Fourth Position: This is a Perceptual Position which is a synthesis of all the others, a sense of being the whole system. From this position you can see the genesis and effects of all the other positions and their interactions, and notice large patterns which transcend individual identities, parts and relationships.

Source:  http://www.nlpls.com/articles/perceptualPositions.php

Basically the way perceptual positions work in NLP is to setup spatial anchors for the different positions, for example put down 2 chairs and a table and some other marker –  because you use the metaphor of separate physical locations to create associations with them, each position is setup, and you test each of the positions by stepping into and out of it, physically, through physiology and mentally – it is important to note that NLP does not tell you how to do it, it provides a space for you to guide yourself in achieving an outcome.

The process itself is what I am curious about, and how we can teach ourselves to use these perceptual positions in relating to others in an everyday way.

How is Empathy related to self reflection?

I believe you need self reflection, or perhaps a better terms is introspection, in order to experience empathy.  Self introspection, according to Jeremy P. Tarcher, is the process by which a person examines his or her own inner feelings and drives, emotions and thoughts to gain a sense of personal understanding about the formation of his or her identity and selfhood.  In the book it also refers to child development where youngsters become increasingly adept at “reading” others in order to establish social relations.

The meaning of life

The meaning of life is just that, the meaning YOU give to it.  If you change the meaning you change the experience and I think this is what Empathy allows, it allows you to see different perspectives and so it enriches your understanding and thereby the meaning you give to the experiences.  Having a wide perspective and using self reflection can allow you to be flexible and provide you with more options in any given situation.  In fact, just knowing that you always have options in any given situation is already a big step in making more informed choices and problem solving.

NLP has another skill called Time line.  The time line technique allows you to change meanings and associations of past experiences usually by using empathy, and it can also be used to install empowering beliefs for your future.  If you are interested in NLP and their techniques please remember that before any work is done they use a method called a “well formed outcome” – this is basically a set of questions to make sure that what you want to do is ecological for you and anyone else it might affect:  You are clear about what you want, it is stated in the positive,  is it achievable and within your control, what will be evidence that you have achieved it, is it acceptable to you and anyone else affected by it?

What does science say?

More Than Good Vibes: Researchers Propose the Science Behind Mindfulness

From ScienceDaily Oct. 29, 2012 — “Achieving mindfulness through meditation has helped people maintain a healthy mind by quelling negative emotions and thoughts, such as desire, anger and anxiety, and encouraging more positive dispositions such as compassion, empathy and forgiveness. Those who have reaped the benefits of mindfulness know that it works. But how exactly does it work?”

“Rather than describing mindfulness as a single dimension of cognition, the researchers demonstrate that mindfulness actually involves a broad framework of complex mechanisms in the brain.”

“The researchers identified several cognitive functions that are active in the brain during mindfulness practice. These cognitive functions help a person develop self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART) which make up the transformative framework for the mindfulness process.”  “The researchers highlight six neuropsychological processes that are active mechanisms in the brain during mindfulness 1) intention and motivation, 2) attention regulation, 3) emotion regulation, 4) extinction and reconsolidation, 5) pro-social behavior, and 6) non-attachment and de-centering.”

Journal Reference: David R. Vago, David A. Silbersweig. Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): a framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2012; 6 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00296

Source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121029161452.htm

New Questions About Animal Empathy

ScienceDaily (Dec. 8, 2011) — The emotions of rats and mice and the mental infrastructure behind them promise to illuminate the nature of human emotions, including empathy and nurturance, a Washington State University neuroscientist writes in a recent issue of the journal Science.

Jaak Panksepp, Baily endowed chair of animal well-being science and professor of veterinary and comparative anatomy, pharmacy and physiology, makes his case in a Perspectives column responding to research in which rats helped other rats with no explicit rewards at stake. The research, Panksepp writes, “raises questions about the affective experiences of animals other than humans.”  Panksepp, who has pioneered work in how core emotions stem from deep, ancient parts of the brain, said there remains a good deal of resistance in the scientific community towards the notion that “nonhuman animals have affective experiences, and that these can and should be studied in empirical ways.”  But he argues that recent advances in neuroscience are letting researchers look at how animal affect, or emotions, control learning, memory and behavior.

“Simplified models of empathy, as in mice and rats, offer new inroads for understanding our own social-emotional nature and nurture,” he writes. “Such knowledge may eventually help us promote nurturant behaviors in humans.”

Source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111208142017.htm

Evolution of empathy

An increasing number of studies in animal behavior and neuroscience claim that empathy is not restricted to humans, and is in fact as old as the mammals, or perhaps older. Examples include dolphins saving humans from drowning or from shark attacks, and a multitude of behaviors observed in primates, both in captivity and in the wild, and in particular in bonobos, which are reported as the most empathetic of all the primates. A recent study has demonstrated prosocial behavior elicited by empathy in rodents.

Rodents have been shown to demonstrate empathy for cagemates (but not strangers) in pain.   One of the most widely read studies on the evolution of empathy, which discusses a neural perception-action mechanism (PAM), is the one by Stephanie Preston and de Waal. This review postulates a bottom-up model of empathy that ties together all levels, from state matching to perspective-taking. For University of Chicago neurobiologist Jean Decety, [empathy] is not specific to humans. He argues that there is strong evidence that empathy has deep evolutionary, biochemical, and neurological underpinnings, and that even the most advanced forms of empathy in humans are built on more basic forms and remain connected to core mechanisms associated with affective communication, social attachment, and parental care.  Core neural circuits that are involved in empathy and caring include the brainstem, theamygdala, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, insula and orbitofrontal cortex.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empathy

Neurological basis

Research in recent years has focused on possible brain processes underlying the experience of empathy. For instance, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been employed to investigate the functional anatomy of empathy.  These studies have shown that observing another person’s emotional state activates parts of the neuronal network involved in processing that same state in oneself, whether it is disgust, touch, or pain.  The study of the neural underpinnings of empathy has received increased interest following the target paper published by Preston and Frans de Waal, following the discovery of mirror neurons in monkeys that fire both when the creature watches another perform an action as well as when they themselves perform it. In their paper, they argued that attended perception of the object’s state automatically activates neural representations, and that this activation automatically primes or generates the associated autonomic and somatic responses, unless inhibited. This mechanism is similar to the common coding theory between perception and action.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empathy

Compassion Meditation May Boost Neural Basis of Empathy, Study Finds

ScienceDaily (Oct. 4, 2012) — A compassion-based meditation program can significantly improve a person’s ability to read the facial expressions of others, finds a study published by Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. This boost in empathic accuracy was detected through both behavioral testing of the study participants and through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of their brain activity.

“It’s an intriguing result, suggesting that a behavioral intervention could enhance a key aspect of empathy,” says lead author Jennifer Mascaro, a post-doctoral fellow in anthropology at Emory University. “Previous research has shown that both children and adults who are better at reading the emotional expressions of others have better relationships.”

When most people think of meditation, they think of a style known as “mindfulness,” in which practitioners seek to improve their ability to concentrate and to be non-judgmentally aware of their thoughts and feelings. While CBCT includes these mindfulness elements, the practice focuses more specifically on training people to analyze and reinterpret their relationships with others.

“The idea is that the feelings we have about people can be trained in optimal ways,” Negi explains. “CBCT aims to condition one’s mind to recognize how we are all inter-dependent, and that everybody desires to be happy and free from suffering at a deep level.”

“These findings raise the intriguing possibility that CBCT may have enhanced empathic abilities by increasing activity in parts of the brain that are of central importance for our ability to recognize the emotional states of others,” Raison says. “An important next step will be to evaluate the effects of CBCT on diverse populations that may particularly benefit from enhanced empathic accuracy, such as those suffering from high-functioning autism or severe depression.”

Findings from the current study add to a growing database indicating that the CBCT style of meditation may have physical and emotional effects relevant to health and well-being. For example, previous research at Emory found that practicing CBCT reduced emotional distress and enhanced physical resilience in response to stress in both healthy young adults and in high-risk adolescents in foster care.

Journal Reference: J. S. Mascaro, J. K. Rilling, L. Tenzin Negi, C. L. Raison.Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2012; DOI: 10.1093/scan/nss095

Source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121004093504.htm

Empathy and Autism spectrum disorders

It is interesting to note under Autism spectrum disorders, a note by Phoebe Caldwell: “What is clear is that, while people on the spectrum may not respond easily to external gestures/sounds, they do respond most readily if the initiative they witness is already part of their repertoire. This points to the selective use of incoming information rather than absence of recognition. It would appear that people with autism are actually rather good at recognition and imitation if the action they perceive is one that has meaning and significance for their brains. As regards the failure of empathic response, it would appear that at least some people with autism are oversensitive to the feelings of others rather than immune to them, but cannot handle the painful feed-back that this initiates in the body, and have therefore learnt to suppress this facility.” Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empathy

Could “modern societies” benefit from redefining the way they look at some “diseases” and the way we treat our “sick”?  If people who have these “disorders” or “diseases” operate differently in the world, experience reality differently, then I think they have something to teach us, and the way we see them (which is mostly defined by science and medicine) could influence our perception and opportunity to learn from them.

Modern Parenting May Hinder Brain Development, Research Suggests

From January 7, 2013, Social practices and cultural beliefs of modern life are preventing healthy brain and emotional development in children, according to an interdisciplinary body of research presented recently at a symposium at the University of Notre Dame.

The studies show that responding to a baby’s needs has been shown to influence the development of conscience; positive touch affects stress reactivity, impulse control and empathy; free play in nature influences social capacities and aggression; and a set of supportive caregivers (beyond the mother alone) predicts IQ and ego resilience as well as empathy.

“This new research links certain early, nurturing parenting practices — the kind common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies — to specific, healthy emotional outcomes in adulthood, and has many experts rethinking some of our modern, cultural child-rearing “norms.  Breast-feeding infants, responsiveness to crying, almost constant touch and having multiple adult caregivers are some of the nurturing ancestral parenting practices that are shown to positively impact the developing brain, which not only shapes personality, but also helps physical health and moral development,” says Narvaez.”

Source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130107110538.htm

Physician’s Empathy Directly Associated With Positive Clinical Outcomes

From September 2012, a large, empirical study concludes that patients of doctors who are more empathic have better outcomes and fewer complications.  The study was done by a team of Thomas Jefferson University and Italian researchers who evaluated relationships between physician empathy and clinical outcomes among 20,961 diabetic patients and 242 physicians in Italy.

“This study has confirmed that empathic physician-patient relationships is an important factor in positive outcomes,” said Mohammadreza Hojat, Ph.D., research professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior; and director, Jefferson Longitudinal Study of Medical Education in the Center for Research in Medical Education and Health Care at Jefferson Medical College. “It takes our hypothesis one step further. Compared to our initial study, it has a much larger number of patients and physicians, a different, tangible clinical outcome, hospital admission for acute metabolic complications, and a cross-cultural feature that will allow for generalization of the findings in different cultures, and different health care systems.”

Journal Reference: Stefano Del Canale, Daniel Z. Louis, Vittorio Maio, Xiaohong Wang, Giuseppina Rossi, Mohammadreza Hojat, Joseph S. Gonnella. The Relationship Between Physician Empathy and Disease Complications. Academic Medicine, 2012; 87 (9): 1243 DOI:10.1097/ACM.0b013e3182628fbf

Source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/09/120910111708.htm

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