Empathy: from neuroscience to mindfulness
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.- Victor Frankl
I have often wondered about empathy, what is it, where does it come from, why do we have it, what does it serve and how come some people seem to have a lot and others very little. Is it an innate ability, a gift given to some, or is it learnable, a potential human skill? It has always seemed to me that if I had more empathy, I would hurt fewer people or at least hurt them less and by extension that would be true for others as well. Like all of our attributes, the brain has to be involved in empathy, although we use the metaphor of seeing with the heart to imply a more empathic kind of being in the world. We used to be told by the anthropologists that our big brain co-developed with tool use and our opposable thumb, but now it seems more likely that our big neo-cortex is needed to live in large social groups. And large social groups require the ability to see the world from many points of view, another way of talking about empathy.
Living in social groups is very complicated business and over the eons we have developed the built-in neurology to make it at least theoretically possible. One attribute is that we can read faces for the basic emotions. Paul Ekman has spent his professional life studying this ability to see what others are feeling in micro-seconds. We all do it, some better than others and the people who can’t do it (folks with Asperger’s syndrome and the autistic spectrum) are terribly handicapped in getting along in this world. Babies come hardwired to prefer looking at faces over other things and the loving gaze between mom and infant is one of the keys to bonding and healthy development. So we know that faces, face-to-face interactions, are important to human beings and I think have something to do with empathy.
Another is that there are only a handful of basic emotions and they are universal to all of us. Most of these basics represents a continuum (irritated to enraged, mild anxiety to terror, distress to anguish, curiosity to excitement, enjoyment to joy) and some stand alone (guilt, shame and startle) and each of us develops very personal cognitive associations to each . I get irritated and feel disrespected when you are late, while you feel irritated and crowded if I am always punctual. With our ability to read faces for emotional cues, I can take a pretty good guess about whether you are feeling OK or not OK and even what kind of OK or not OK. If I am sensitive to when you are feeling OK and not OK, then we are much more likely to become friends, or business partners, or even life partners. We need the connections generated by emotions in order to feel good and to participate in the world so this combination of face reading and knowing the emotional world is very important.
A third fascinating ability we have is the ability to read behavioral intentions. People who study early childhood development have known this for some time through some interesting experiments. You can watch very young kids- 6-7 months- follow their mother’s line of vision when she turns her head. After about 9 months, infants will first look at the object mom is looking at and then turn to her face for confirmation: am I looking at the right thing? They want validation: are we looking at the same thing? Infants at this age can also point and check to see if the other is looking in the desired direction. They can watch an experimenter throw a ball or put something in a box and they ‘know’ where the ball has gone and where the object is hidden. Furthermore, these non-verbal kids can point to what they want, implying that they already assume that the other can comprehend their desires and will even want to satisfy those desires.
Underlying all three of these abilities are the structures called mirror neurons. A little over 12 years ago a group Italian researchers working with monkeys discovered a type of motor neuron called mirror neurons. They found that the same neuron fired if the monkey was eating the peanut or watching another monkey eating the peanut. Quickly, these same neurons were discovered in humans and by 2000, the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran called the discovery of these specialized motor neurons as important to neuroscience as DNA is to biology. This system is activated when the behavior is goal directed, that is intentional. It is not activated while watching random actions. Through these mirror neurons, your brain creates an inner idea about my brain. You see not only what I do, but you can read what I intend to do. Our mirror neurons are so sophisticated that we can watch a scene and discern whether the other is going to drink the cup of coffee on the table or clear the coffee cup from the table. We know, even if your hand is out of sight, that you are reaching for a book if you are near a bookshelf or going to throw a ball if we see you arm in a circular motion. It is activated when watching a sport you don’t play, but even more activated when watching a sport you do play. Mirror neurons are what make the movies and TV so powerful as we enter the action and the emotions, anticipate the behaviors and emotionally participate in the story.
These neurons in our very social brain are the basic mechanisms of emotional resonance and the foundation for empathy. This is the neural level that encodes not only what I see you doing but also what I imagine is going on in you. My limbic brain and my body change to match yours. This is not a thought; rather it is a neurological response, a feeling. Mirror neurons are the biological substrate of our in-born capacity to learn through imitation and to connect through affect attunement. When I see the upset face of my child or friend, I immediately feel what that important other is feeling. I don’t know the details, but I know the basics: something is wrong and I feel it. We are wired to resonate this way with total strangers when emotions are strong and clear. This ability is instantaneous and occurs without awareness. This is affect attunement, not empathy. This is biological, not elaborated by our wonderful frontal cortex. To develop genuine empathy, I must use my capacity to take on the role of the other; I must step into his shoes, use my imagination to see the world through his eyes. This is a more complicated process, still dependent on mirror neurons, but also more cognitive.
When I am in the presence of someone else, I am always affected by that person. In that sense my boundaries are permeable. My body-brain is both taking in and giving out information all the time. My limbic system is taking in the information from my mirror neurons and adjusting my inner state to those around me. For most of us this is an automatic process, pre-conscious, pre-awareness. We step into a party or a subway car or a class room and immediately we ‘feel’ something about being in that context even if it is as vague as comfortable/uncomfortable. If we choose, we can deliberately gather more information and read the faces around us and decide who to move towards and who to move away from – this action too, is more often taken without conscious awareness. Rather we ‘find ourselves’ gravitating towards one person or another, one part of the room or another.
And so I come to mindfulness, the consciousness journey. Since we each are profoundly affected by the feeling states of other, it become very necessary to look inward and know what I am feeling as distinct from what you are feeling. Is the feeling in my body generated by my inner world or by my being in contact with you? When I write these words it seems it should be very easy to know which of these is true, but in reality it is not so easy, particularly when we are upset in some way and emotions are intense or in family or other intimate situations where attachment and dependency exist. When the broadcast is strong, I pick it up and resonate with it and can easily react, without reflection. This reacting without reflection is a BIG PROBLEM. But it is also a normal state of affairs for children and a possibility for each of us throughout life. Ideally we each learn how to become self-reflective and to find out what w are feeling from the inside. But it is a developmental achievement, not a biological given and an achievement that is easily lost, particularly in intimate situations. So it seems that my mirror neurons are a two edged sword: I can resonate to you and react to you or I can resonate to you and become empathic to you and your feeling state. More accurately, my mirror neurons provide the possibility of empathy but not the guarantee. Empathy is a choice, and while some people certainly find it easier than others, it is certainly a possibility for all of us.
True empathy requires practice, introspection, self-reflection and/or mindfulness. The more mindful I can become to my inner states, aware of my bodily sensations as well as my thoughts, the more empathic I can become and the more I can sort what is mine and what is not mine. So I start with me and my capacity for empathy with the people who come my way. It is amazing to me how quickly I can become reactive to certain people. Let me give you an example. It is from a first meeting with a couple, but I am interested in my reaction to her.
Barbara and Bob have been married a long time and come to couples work because of chronic fighting. Each of them can become enraged at the other and she reports being very frightened of him. The first time I meet with them, I notice that she talks to me about him as if he were not in the room. I suggest she talk directly to him or directly to me if she wishes to talk to me about herself. But she disagrees. She reports that he doesn’t really understand emotions or what he does to her and that it is her and my job to educate him, to teach him how to be a better husband. She continues that he really is emotionally insensitive, and practically incompetent, unable to do the simplest task without her constant supervision. She clearly believes this to be the full and only truth, even though he is a working professional, supporting them both in a comfortable lifestyle. She completely ignores his, obvious to me, growing frustration as she talks to me as if she had tunnel vision and only the two of us were sitting in the room. She has absolutely no attunement to his face and feelings, no interest in his point of view. I feel extremely uncomfortable participating in this arrangement while she remains oblivious to the upset she is generating.
What might have happened to Barbara’s innate attunement system and what might I do in the therapy to re-enliven it? This is what I am thinking as I scramble for what to say, what to do. Can I get her to look at him, not me? Not without a fight! Can I be empathic to her, when from my point of view she is mistreating this man in my presence? My first reaction is irritation (part of the anger family). My mirror neurons are working and my anger/upset is a mirror of her anger/upset. Just as she wants to control him and me and the session, I want to control her, tell her to stop it, and look at him and see him as the human being he is. I want to do to her, what she is doing to me, control the interaction and make it go in a different direction. The more we talk, the more frustrated I become.
Then I take a big breath and internally take a few steps back. I reflect on my internal sensations and awareness and find a sense of either despair or desperation running through my body. Since I didn’t have it two minutes ago when we first sat down together, I guess that these feelings are hers. She is desperate, desperate to get him to change and to take care of her. She doesn’t appear desperate, she appears authoritative and in charge, reporting on this bad boy to the school principal. Yet, through my capacity for a deeper kind of limbic resonance, I know she is desperate and even hopeless that she can’t get her needs met. As I deliberately micro-mirror her I can feel it in my body. I can focus on my body and know what is happening in hers. Instead of seeing only the bossy, demanding school teacher she is presenting, I suddenly feel some hollowness in my chest and some sadness around my eyes. Instead of talking to the bossy school teacher, I want to talk to the woman who can’t get her needs met and is starving in this marriage. Instead of focusing on her intention to control the session, to control me, I can now focus on her deep desire to get her needs met.
So I turn the conversation away from her litany of complaints and instead focus on her needs in this moment. I have given myself several degrees of freedom here; I don’t know what will happen, but I feel more optimistic that something can happen that will modify the stuck grove between them. At first, she would rather talk about him, but she relaxes a little into talking about her unmet needs – still HIS fault – but at least we are talking about her needs.
In his wonderful book Anger, Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches over and over that anger is not usually a helpful or wise response to a situation. Yet for many of us, it is the first response, our first reaction. Sometimes our mirror neurons are responding to someone else’s anger and sometimes we are reacting to a perceived attack as if you intend to hurt me. Our limbic brain does not discern the difference between a physical attack and an attack on my sense of self. When you humiliate me, my sense of self is diminished, even destroyed so I must protect myself. Partly this is very healthy, for it is the legitimate protest: Hey things aren’t OK here. But more completely, it is very reactive and not reflective and expresses only part of the emotional story. I am in my biology, my limbic system and my mirror neurons, but not in my ‘wise self’. To become a full human being, I have to honor that biological part of me, befriend it, and then incorporate it my best response to each situation. And my best response usually involved real empathy: that other human being got here through a series of life events and perhaps I would be exactly the same, if I had had the same experiences.
Carl Rogers wrote that the curious paradox is that when I truly accept myself as I am, then I can change. I have found another paradox as I write this: when I accept others as they are, I am somehow able to better accept myself as I am, and we both have a little more space to grow and find new parts of ourselves. In my reactivity, I found it very difficult to accept Barbara, to see her as a person in a struggle, on a path. In reading her face, I found anger and contempt, triggering my anger and contempt. I was not wrong in this assessment; rather it is an inadequate response to the situation. So first I internally accepted her anger and contempt at him and then my personal anger and contempt at her. I noticed both from an internal step back. I did not speak from that angry place but I did speak for that angry place: needs are not getting met here, something is wrong, something needs attending to. I wondered out loud what those needs might be and what the history was of those unmet needs.
To return to Barbara: I was not able to get her to focus on herself for more than a sentence at a time, but I was able to suggest that they both had such powerful unmet needs that perhaps some individual work might be more beneficial. She agreed and is now working with another therapist, as is he, until such time as they feel more able to work together. I believe that my empathy for her made that transition possible. Perhaps, her attunement system can get re-awakened through being with an attuned other, who knows? Perhaps she will discover that her intensity is as much internal as co-created in her marriage. I know she is suffering, and hope that she finds some relief, enough relief that couples work could become a possibility. I do know I did the best I could in a situation that historically would have brought out the reactive side of me, not the empathic. For that, I feel grateful.