A cool post from the Psychology Today blogs. Proof that the capacity for empathy is hard-wired into the brain, but how we respond to it is learned. The author looks at this research in terms of therapy, which is something I totally agree with him on, but the implications for the rest of us are just as important.
Empathy and the Sacred Space in Healing
You know when you watch a movie and you get to the part where a character is about to get hurt—where something bad is going to happen—and you can't help but wince and turn your head away? Although we know it's a movie, and we know that it's fake, somehow it still gets to us. There's something visceral that acts on a deeper level than conscious thought.
A team of psychoneurological researchers wanted to get to the bottom of this. They invited volunteers to step into a functional MRI machine and look at some pictures. Half the volunteers were shown photos of arms and legs. Nothing out of the ordinary. And, as expected, their brain images, which were recorded by the fMRI, didn't reveal anything unusual. The other half of the group, though, saw pictures that were similar in nature but which indicated pain. In other words, these volunteers were exposed to images of arms and legs situated in such a position that would indicate discomfort and physical pain.
When the researchers looked at the fMRI brain scans of the volunteers who saw the "painful" pictures, the part of the brain that is associated with the experience of pain lighted up. Although the volunteers themselves did not experience physical pain, the mere act of witnessing an image of someone else's painful experience elicits a neurophysiological pain reaction. When we see others in situation of pain--even when we know that pain is just an image and real--we still physiologically experience a reaction.
Empathy is wired into us. And it also plays a very important part in the process of psychotherapy. Psychologist Carl Rogers (who played a pivotal part in starting the humanistic school of psychotherapy) was a pioneer in emphasizing the importance of empathy on the therapist's part. In other words, Rogers claimed that a good therapist is one who's able to share--at least on a certain emotional level--the emotional experience with a client.
It's what psychologist James Bugental referred to as "presence." It's the ability to relate to a client not only on an intellectual level but also to really be there experientially. To allow yourself to empathize and relate on a deeper level.
There's a subtle but very powerful difference between remaining scientifically theoretical and allowing yourself to relate on a more genuine level. I know that when a client comes in and shares something that comes from their core, the entire energy of the room shifts. It's the difference between an academic understanding of what goes on in therapy and seeing it take place in front of you. Academically and theoretically, you can point out, "Oh this person is experiencing this and that because of these different factors in their lives." But when you're there in person with the client and you hear the story, there's something very sacred about it. The client is sharing with you some of the most precious aspect of who they are as a person. And as a therapist if I can stay on that level, if I can hold the space and be there, that's where the real healing takes place.
I call it a sacred space not because of any religious reason. It's sacred because it's real. And it can very easily dissipate if I don't honor that space. This is how it relates back to empathy, the ability to partake in the experience that your client is having, to really be there. It doesn't mean that I experience the full range of emotions that my client is feeling, but I'm aware of them and they become precious.