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Opinion: The science of empathy and how we learn by observing


We can all agree that it is a skill of great importance. Oprah Winfrey once said: “Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”

Yet, empathy is more complex than we generally think.

Daniel Goleman, a renowned author, psychologist and science journalist from the New York Times, explains in one of his Crucial Competence video series that the ability to understand and acknowledge opinions apart from ours is one type of empathy called cognitive empathy.

Emotional empathy is another distinct type of empathy.

According to ORBITER Magazine, emotional/affective empathy is when the person carries the cognitive empathy (the understanding of others’ feelings) a little too far and actually feels how the other person is feeling — which is the reason why we cringe when someone else stubs their toe as if we really felt it.

But how can we feel something by just observing it being done?

Scientists establish that our ability to understand and feel others’ feelings after just observing their actions comes from the mirror neurons found in our brains.

Scientific evidence from the NCBI found that mirror neurons fire both when you do something and when you watch someone do something, even if you don’t move a muscle. It was proved from fMRI scans that with these neurons, the same regions of the brain get activated in the observer of activity and the one who’s doing the activity.

In addition, Madeleine L. Werhane — the winner of the 2012 APSSC Student Research Award — proved in her research that mirror neurons similarly fire when we observe emotions too, not just actions. This may clearly explain why we feel emotional empathy.

The comprehensive research conducted on the science of empathy consequently proves that mirror neurons allow humans to learn through observation.

Think about it, when you see someone biting in a sandwich and immediately spitting it out after tasting a spoiled turkey, you know not to buy a turkey sandwich from the same store for a little while. That is cognitive empathy.

Yet, won’t you also helplessly make a sour face and show even a little reluctance and distaste the next time you see turkey, no matter if it’s spoiled or not? And that would be emotional empathy; even though the behavior it leads to isn’t always logical.

As you can see, we learn by observing because we can live through something in our minds without actually physically doing it, thanks to our mirror neurons.

Nevertheless, studying this research, I wondered to what extent can we directly feel the emotions of people we observe related to actions we didn’t take? Especially if it’s an emotion we’ve never felt before or an action we’ve never taken before?

Jean Decety from the University of Chicago justified that the neural process our mirror neurons perform that motivates empathic response is in fact to a limited extent. He states that differences in these neural processes may account for different individual capacities for empathy. Meaning, our empathetic capabilities differ according to our neural connections where the mirror neurons fire through.

This scientific finding would make sense because As Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child describes the brain’s architecture, our neural connections in our brains differ and get formed depending on our experiences over our lifetimes.

The more we experience wide ranges of emotions, the stronger our mirror neurons will fire, which will aid us with the ability to better empathize with people of various backgrounds.