Empathy can be learned, says a recent study that brings renewed hope in a world where feeling for others is getting more and more rare. The paper, entitled ‘How Learning Shapes The Empathic Brain’, is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the US.
Societies dominated by apathy (specially towards people from ‘stranger’ groups) can be cured by triggering the brain to learn empathy. A team from the University of Zürich shows how engaging in positive activities with people from other backgrounds can unite us in our differences. Our brain can thus be stimulated to engage in a learning process that increases empathy. The scientists explain that even a few of such learning encounters are enough to make a person more empathic.
The aim of the researchers was to find out whether learning can bring about empathy with strangers, and to decipher the way in which positive experiences can affect empathic brain responses. They measured brain activation in the volunteers having had such experiences with either a member of their group or one from another.
The experiments entailed painful shocks that are to be given at the back of the hand. This could, however, be avoided if a member would pay money for other members to be spared. Also, the team recorded the brain activation occurring when witnessing another member (from one’s group or another’s) feeling pain.
The results show that a weaker brain activation would be stimulated when the participants would watch a stranger feeling pain – that was at the start of the study, though. This changed after having experienced few positive interactions with the ‘stranger’: empathic brain responses were found to increase significantly.
Additionally, if the positive experience shared with the stranger was stronger, the increase in neuronal empathy was greater – this enhanced response pertaining to members of other groups is triggered by a neuronal learning signal that develops from positive experiences with strangers.
One of the authors, psychologist and neuroscientist Grit Hein, explains that these experiences with a stranger are “transferred” to other group members, and enhance the feeling of empathy in regard to them.
These findings could constitute a solution to mankind for the unification of people of different groups. As a matter of fact, clashes among people of differing countries and cultures are often caused by a general lack of empathy. We cannot, as if, relate to the unknown. This can be countered by encouraging the learning of empathy.