Are we all empathic?
I was sitting at a table in the cafeteria, on a ferry travelling from the Greek island of Agistri to Athens, writing some notes in preparation for an on-line session about the power of empathy, when one of my travelling companions asked:
“What is the session that you are planning about?”
“It’s about the power of empathy.”
“What type of people will attend a group about empathy?”
“Anyone who is interested in communicating more compassionately with themselves and others.”
“I don’t understand aren’t we all empathic?”
“Yes, my understanding is that we human beings are born with this capacity, whether it develops in all of us is questionable!.”
This is the conversation that inspired me to write about one of my most favourite subjects.
When I light up you do too!
It seems it was quite by accident that some Italian researchers discovered that we have the capacity to light each there up! This happened when they were researching the actions and brain activity of monkeys.
What they discovered was that, the region of the brain that lights up (the neuron that fires!) when one monkey moves, is the same region of the brain that lights up in the monkey who is simply observing. The second monkey’s neuron mirrors that of the first monkey. And, this happens in human beings too!
We all possess mirror neurones. To explain this more precisely, what this means is that when you smile at a baby, the mirror neuron for this action, fires off a sensation in the baby that causes the baby to smile back at you in response.
The discovery of mirror neurons explains that we have a capacity for empathic interaction with each other.
Do you know that the word empathy in modern Greek has a negative meaning?
It is used to describe a negative action and the emotion caught by the other person. In English the meaning is completely the opposite – it means meeting the other with care, “walking in their shoes” sensing another’s plight, connecting in a way that transmits a positive energy. This is also the way that empathy was defined in Ancient Greek.
You may wonder why I’m making reference to the meaning of this word in both modern and Ancient Greek, it’s because I think it’s important to consider both the positive and negative implications of the power of our passionate energies (compassionate and anti-compassionate).
Young children are particularly susceptible to the emotional impact of an environment. They don’t have well-developed filters!
In the last two weeks the headlines in national UK news have included evidence that depression and stress in adults is caused before a child reaches 15 years old.
Our foundational years are so very important for evolving empathic capacities and for building a resilience to stress and early onset depression.
Young children are not able to regulate their own emotions. Under the age of two they don’t even have the necessary architecture in the brain to do this. Our capacity for regulation grows in response to the quality of care-giving we experience during our earliest years.
When children’s needs are not met, it could well be that their physical needs are not adequately attended to, or their homes are emotionally stressful. In any of these situations, where children’s psychological systems for coping with emergencies are activated on a regular basis, it means that the steroid hormone cortisol will flood their system. If cortisol levels remain high over time, eventually even minor challenges these children experience will trigger this flooding and they will become highly susceptible to stress.
High cortisol levels compromise the body’s immune system and during the foundation years can literally prevent certain centres of the brain developing in ways that will enable the child to evolve a stable sense of wellbeing.
This also affects their ability to evolve in a way that makes it easy for them to communicate their feelings and needs and to step into the shoes of others, in later years.
Responsive, empathic caregiving during the early years and beyond is essential.
Evolving empathy is fundamentally one of the most important capacities we need in the world today!
Can empathy change the world?
Why do we need to evolve an empathic civilisation?
How to start an empathy revolution
I regularly lead on online webinar series to explore how empathy is showing up in our lives and support the practice of giving empathy.
Would like to know more? If so, take a look at the events featured on my website www.tracyseed.com, or register your interest in attending a series here.