When I was a baby grief counselor just starting out, if you had asked me if I was an empathic person, I would have promised you I was. And you probably would have believed me (the agency apparently did, since they kept me involved on and off for 20 years). With the benefit of hindsight, however, what I actually was, was someone who had a strong cognitive understanding of empathy. I had bold and lofty thoughts about empathy, but not actual feelings. That’s a big energetic and neurobiological difference, one it turns out that involves a variety of structures in differing hemispheres of the brain. You can probably guess which hemisphere is predominantly associated with feelings actually felt.
Balancing the Thinking-Doing Bias
As a male raised in mid-20th century America, it would have taken a massive paradigm shift or monstrous wake-up call to prevent my brain from developing and becoming acculturated without that strong cortical bias. Males during my growing-up-years were expected to think and do, most often at the expense of feeling and being. Feeling and being were for sissies- there’s no crying in baseball or anything else where men dominate.
Think AND Practice
Whatever we pay ongoing attention to … tends to increase. This is where the notion of “competitive plasticity” comes in – one aspect of my brain’s ability to rewire itself by taking over and placing little used networks into alternative service. In his recent book, How the Brain Heals Itself, neuropsychiatrist Norman Doidge recounts in case after case how competitive plasticity ends up transforming people’s lives. It can actually expand, combine and integrate empathic thoughts into genuine, authentic empathic feelings. Blessed be.
In the brain, neurons that fire together, wire together – this is the well-know Hebb’s Law, named after the Canadian neuroscientist, Donald Hebb who first observed and wrote about it in 1949. To brain researchers it’s more formally known as spike-timing-dependent plasticity. But the opposite is also true: neurons that fire apart, wire apart. This feature of the brain means that we can deliberately take learned paired associations, for example the experience, “While I’m concerned, I don’t actually feel soft, kind and loving in response to you, who’s wife just died of breast cancer.” Every time such a thought or awareness arises, by repeatedly taking a few breaths, relaxing and replacing that awareness while attending to my body with thoughts like, “I love the experience in my mind and body when I feel and act in kind and loving ways.” Over time, that new pairing in the brain will begin to make integrative, cross-hemispheric connections that will eventually integrate both body and brain. The ensuing result – genuine, authentic “heart-felt” empathy. We eventually end up changing our brain by repeatedly generating and maintaining “spike-timing-dependent” changes in our neural networks that end up expanding and integrating the thinking-feeling-being-doing capacity of both our hemispheres. We become more humanly whole. With practice.
von Economo to Go
We know from research like this and this that when people actually feel genuine empathy, their brains work differently than when people only think empathic thoughts. The primary difference seems to be in something called von Economo or spindle neurons. Von Economo neurons are primarily found in the Fronto-Insular Cortex and in our old friend, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). Because they’re longer and can cover greater distances than most other cells in the brain, von Economo neurons are the perfect cells to make up the nerve bundles running between the cognitive structures of the brain and the deeper limbic, or emotional structures. And as we generally suspect, the more energy and information our brain can process, the greater the integrated, coherent and authentic responses we are able to genuinely express. In the research literature it’s called response flexibility.
The point here is that empathy (and most every other human emotion) can be cultivated (sadly, so can its opposite, as this video tragically depicts: Brainwashing Children). It can be learned and acquired. We can practice feeling soft feelings like love, appreciation, gratitude and affection much as we practice a musical instrument or an athletic skill. And if other adult humans are too difficult to practice on directly, we can begin our practice with baby steps – with birds, with puppies, with kittens. Every time we do, the cells in our brain and body grow and make new connections such that over time we begin to feel increasingly comfortable with kindness, compassion, love and empathy. Which is our plastic brain’s and our healthy body’s basic, organic, default preference.