Sculpting Your Empathetic Core

Written by NY Press on . Posted in News Our Town Downtown, Our Town Downtown.


Kristine Keller

She found me in a muddled mess on my floor, panic rolling over me like a suitcase with a broken wheel on cobblestone. Pretty soon I was gasping for breath like someone who’s just climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, unprepared for the rarefied air and devoid of an oxygen mask. “What is it, what’s happened?” my roommate shouted. “Those Sarah McLachlan animal cruelty commercials get me every time!” I wailed.

Though it’s tempting to mock me for my mawkish tears, there is a (somewhat) logical explanation for the hysteria: empathy. The ability to put oneself in another’s shoes is considered one of the most fundamental components of moral emotion. In fact, empathetic responses have been observed in those as young as two days of age. Infants have responded to other infants’ distress signals by crying, responding the only way their minuscule selves can to another’s discomfort. With this and other experiments, evolutionary and neuroscience perspectives have supported the notion that a biological predisposition exists for empathetic responses. These reactions begin in infancy and continue into childhood, whereby at 2 or 3 years of age, children routinely respond with genuine concern at the sign of another’s agitation.

These empathetic signals develop into full-blown responses as our cognitive capacity burgeons with age. Eventually, adults form two types of empathy: affective and cognitive. Affective empathy is the ability to directly feel what another is feeling; when you cry, I cry. On the other side of the coin is cognitive empathy, the ability to describe the emotions of another in words. While a normal functioning adult develops a cohesive combination of both, interestingly, those who commit highly aggressive acts and are subject to psychopathic tendencies have a strong deficit in affective empathy, while their cognitive empathy remains intact. These perpetrators have been described as someone who knows the “words” of emotions but fails to learn the “music.” This ability for cognitive empathy also supports why those who rank high on psychopathic clinical checklists are able to speak with confident glibness when detailing the reasons that you’re upset, but are unable to endure this emotion themselves.

Other evidence for empathetic responses has been supported by findings from mirror neuron systems. First observed in rhesus macaque monkeys, mirror neuron findings have been extended and studied in humans. While conclusive explanations are in nascent stages, investigators like Dr. Cecilia Heyes maintain that a special network of neurons exists that fire not only when you yourself grasp an object, like when you pick up a glass of orange juice, but also when you observe another person pick up a glass. In short, our neurons match the observed and executed behaviors of others. This finding has spilled into studies of empathy where our mirror neurons fire when we observe another person scared or crying. Mirror neurons help elucidate why you viscerally share the stress and agony of a player taking a foul shot during a tied basketball game in the fourth quarter. Different theories have been put forth, but proponents of natural selection assert that we inherit mirror neurons because they enable us to understand the intentions of others, an integral ingredient for a steaming hot pot of survival and happiness.

Sometimes a collective chorus of critics share their ideas of what New York is like. They say New Yorkers are cold, unforgiving or quarrelsome. Or that we just don’t have the time and avert eye contact in fear that it might slow us down on the way to our daily hunt of shooting dreams and catching opportunities when they fall prey. But, I’ve observed a lion’s share of empathetic interactions, and I believe the empathetic muscle is one that can be honed and toned. I’ve witnessed many give up their seats on crowded subways to impending mothers with bulbous bellies and elderly New Yorkers whose feet are tired from having pounded the pavement from Washington Square Park to Times Square for so long. I’ve exchanged smiles and tears and knowing glances with those next to me in coffee shops and street corners. And, in a place teeming with strangers who lack a genetic motive to help others through altruistic acts, an explanation is that empathy exists in some form. Empathy is circling us, and if we can exercise and flex it, we’ll all be in better shape.

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