This beautiful thing called empathy

Last Sunday, I watched a a fascinating conversation between His Holiness Dalai Lama and a group of scientists, titled “Neuroscience and the emerging mind,”. The dialogue revolved around the questions of “what triggers empathy?” and “can we be trained to be empathetic?”. I spent an hour watching the scientists and the monk in rapt attention. Here’s a gist.

Empathy is the ability to view the world from another’s perspective. Of all emotions, it’s empathy that makes us human. Some would even say it’s empathy that makes us divine. So how exactly does empathy work from a neurological perspective? Prof. V. Ramachandran at University of California, San Diego explains it nicely. Not a surprise since he’s been researching this topic for over two decades. Here’s my understanding of what he’s found.

The brain, at its core, is a mushy mass of gooey tissue filled with a massive number of neurons. The cerebral cortex is the largest part of the brain, and contains 10-13 billion neurons. What are neurons? They’re cells that excitable. When they’re excited, they transmit information through electric signals. When you lean forward to pick up a cup, there’s a neuron in your brain that fires and coordinates the motor movement of the arm stretching, fingers clasping the handle and the hand picking it up.

What made things more intriguing was the discovery of what Prof. Ramachandran calls “mirror neurons”, found in the cortex. Mirror neurons fire when *someone else* performs an action that you’re familiar with. In other words, a mirror neuron fires in my brain when *you* lean forward to pick up a cup. And soon after its firing, my hand signals back to the brain saying “It’s not you picking up the cup. It’s the other person”. All of this happens reflexively in the background. Amazing stuff.

Mirror neurons are the agents of empathy in the brain. When you see another person being pricked with a pin, you flinch reflexively because of them. Your finger quickly sends a message back saying “safe” and that’s how you realize that it’s not you being pricked. In experiments performed on folks with prosthetic arms, subjects actually experienced pain when watching another person being pricked. That’s because their arms lacked cells to transmit “safe” back to the brain! Suddenly, the question of – can we be “trained” to be empathetic? – doesn’t appear out of bounds!

All this talk did leave me a tad uncomfortable. It’s as though we’re trespassing noisily into a sanctum where one must tread with respect. The strength of science lies in its irreverence, which keeps it moving forward and from settling in a comfort zone. That just might be its Achilles heel as well. Science seeks to discover so it can manipulate and control. Any quest based on the notion of “how can I control what’s going on”, I believe, will fail ultimately. Action-without-agenda has far higher staying power, resilience and chances of achieving its goals than action-with-agenda. This is what eastern wisdom tells us. And that’s what His Holiness Dalai Lama subtly conveyed to the professors in the room.

Empathy is a beautiful thing. It holds the key to happiness. Forcing it upon another violates the idea of empathy itself.

ps: This was a great way to spend an hour on a Sunday morning. Check out the video when you get a chance. cheers.

7 Replies to “This beautiful thing called empathy”

  1. Interesting theory! I am not certain if anyone can be forced to feel empathy. As a matter of fact, emotional behavior can not be forced upon anyone. About science interfering, that is the purpose of discovering things. For eg. if a person is depressed, then drugs can help elevate his mood. In that sense, science is interfering with nature but for an illness. So, interference is good to prevent or cure illnesses not otherwise.

  2. Hi Rachna, fascinating isn’t it?

    Agree about science being (mostly) a positive effort. Then at times, lines blur and it’s not easy to tell what’s good and what’s bad. One person’s heaven is another one’s hell. Therein lies the uneasiness and the dilemma that comes with it.

  3. Empathy is indeed a beautiful thing. Wish we could understand this enough to make others and ourselves happy.

    But it can’t be either forced or learned. One needs to get sensitised to feel empathy. However, today we stop short of even making children see the sordid side of life to ‘protect’ them from the harsh realities. Then how can they grow to feel empathy?

  4. That’s a great point, Zephyr. About shielding children from the harsh realities which could make them less empathetic. Hadn’t quite thought of it along those lines. Something to ponder over. cheers

  5. Srini, “Science seeks to discover so it can manipulate and control. Any quest based on the notion of “how can I control what’s going on”, I believe, will fail ultimately.” this is a great observation! I find all these theories on competency and management also structured around this perspective. I have been searching for a way to re-understand our social workings which will not be “control-oriented” but more harmony oriented. Am planning on an article on the same just to get it out of my system.
    Your posts are lovely Srini. They made my day this sunday!

  6. Thanks Bhavana! Glad to find kindred spirits in the journey.

    Humans have become control freaks with advances in science. A “successful” person is one who controls and manipulates others or things around him – the way we have defined the rules. It comes as no surprise to me that our happiness levels decline with each advance science makes.

    Look forward to reading your thoughts in your post!

  7. Beautiful article. Question: “Action-without-agenda has far higher staying power, resilience and chances of achieving its goals than action-with-agenda” What would be the goals of action-without-agenda?

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