Empathy: An Essential Life Skill

Emotion has an enormous impact on imprinting memory in our brains. I had an experience when I was 6 years old that included emotion and have the memory of it all of these many years later. 

It was a 6 year old birthday sleep over party. There were 7 girls invited that lived near each other and played together most days. A girl new to the neighborhood was invited only due to the requirement of the birthday girl’s mother. I was also invited.I lived a block away but did play with these girls fairly often. Being an extremely shy girl I really liked being accepted by this group and was excited to be included in the party.

The party progressed and it was now time to begin preparing for sleep. The new girl found a spot and laid out her sleeping bag on the family room floor. As she did this, one girl ran into the other room exclaiming how she was not going to put her sleeping bag anywhere near this new girl. The other girls followed running into the other room expressing the same plan. Even though I was silent, I also followed the group into the other room. As I stated it was very important to me to feel a part of this group.

Once in the other room, I turned around and saw the girl sitting all alone on her sleeping bag looking very dejected. At that moment an intense feeling of empathy overcame me. With this strong feeling, I picked up my sleeping bag, went into the other room and laid it out right next to the girl who was being excluded. To my surprise, the other girls followed and the party resumed.

The ability I had to see things from her perspective and the resulting empathy I had for this girl in this situation strongly overcame my need to be accepted by the group.

Brain research demonstrates that even very young babies have a capacity for empathy. This is an extremely essential life skill and is at the heart of social skills and success in life. It is a skill like any other, it needs to be developed.

As Dr. Bruce Perry, an expert on the development of and need for empathy, states:

 "One of the most important aspects of being a human being, is being able to be in a relationship. Being able to successfully form and maintain a relationship. And at the heart of that capability is the capacity to put yourself in somebody else's shoes, to see the world how they see it. That capacity is empathy."

As my career unfolded, I became extremely interested in early brain development research and now have the goal of making it commonly understood…. and that goal is only to have it understood by EVERY adult in this world! The impact of early relationships is an area of major focus in this work. 

The brain is experience dependent, meaning development doesn’t just magically happen. A brain develops based on the combination of the genes a child is born with and the experiences that a child has after birth. The pre-school years are like the fourth trimester in rapidly connecting the 100 billion brain cells we are born with. Experiences create a direct and physical impact on the way a brain is wired. And the repetition of experiences strengthens these essential neural connections.

The brain is designed to adapt to whatever type of experiences are repeated most frequently…. whether positive or negative. Even though it takes many years for the brain to fully mature, these early months are the time for the most rapid amount of growth and development of the brain… with 85% of growth by age three.

We are biologically designed for relationships. We are born with a primary need to get someone to care for us. We are completely dependent on at least one relationship with another person. Through the ideal situation of having someone lovingly and consistently respond to meet our needs in a nurturing way brain pathways for empathy are being created.

If an infant is responded to repeatedly and predictably in a caring way, this is going to create the feelings of safety and pleasure that her brain craves. This will begin the wiring in her brain for relationships with others in her life. So when infants consistently experience the give and take of a responsive relationship the basis for developing the skill of empathy occurs. Interestingly research findings demonstrate that the brain areas for both empathy and violence are partially similar. These findings lead the researchers to state:

"We all know that encouraging empathy has an inhibiting effect on violence, but this may not only be a social question but also a biological one -- stimulation of these neuronal circuits in one direction reduces their activity in the other."

As a result a more empathetic brain will have more difficulty behaving in a violent way. While attending the sleep over party, my brain pathways likely fired in a way that found it too difficult to be mean to the new girl.

Various versions of interesting studies reveal that babies as young as 5 months old can demonstrate empathy skills. However, due to a variety of situations and circumstances some children do not experience the ideal serve and return relationships early in life. A child that does not experience the give and take of a nurturing relationship will have a more difficult challenge in developing the brain connections for seeing things from another person’s point of view.

However the wonderful news is, the brain is always learning, re-organizing and making new connections throughout life. This is called, plasticity. This provides us with the extraordinary opportunity to make changes later. Of course it is best to develop a brain as optimally as possible in the first place, but it is significant to realize changes can be made through learning and repetition at other times in life. One remarkable program that is making an incredible difference in this way is a program called, Roots of Empathy.
This project is based simply on a mother visiting a classroom with her baby on a monthly basis. The children are taught perspective taking through their interactions with the baby. The results have been dramatic. Humans are contagious beings. So, part of the effectiveness of this program is likely due to our contagious make up and these kids are “catching empathy experiences”. This contagious aspect seemed to be the case in the slumber party experience where the other girls joined me after I showed caring to the new girl. The repeated experiences of feeling empathy for a baby in the Roots of Empathy program are actually changing the brains of the children and this essential life skill is being learned.

Indicators are revealing that empathetic behaviors are in decline in many societies. There are numerous factors contributing to this occurring. So, since we are neuro-biologically meant to be connected to others, this needs to be realized and an emphasis of time spent on the development of relationships is critical.

In summary, valuing the time parents have to spend with their infants and young children and supporting parents in establishing a nurturing relationship is essential. Additionally, for daycares and schools to have an effective way to help children for success in life, is to have low teacher child ratios to increase the opportunity to foster relationships with every child. And then use the understanding that the brain is experience dependent. Children in schools can be engaged collectively in a caring climate and create activities that benefit other human beings.
Children have the capacity to learn to read, write and do math … children also have the capacity to empathize. If we truly want to help children thrive in life ….and want to have an incredibly positive impact on our world, it is VITAL that we place an emphasis on development of relationships with other human beings … This is where it all begins! After all it IS the primary need of the brain!
This was a presentation given at Parenting 2.0 Talks 2014 Dublin, Ireland. September 2014

For a FREE Printable on using empathy with children click here

To book a presentation toward making a difference for your school, organization, agency or company visit www.deborahmcnelis.com OR send an email to: deb@braininsightsonline.com


Be the first to comment

All comments are moderated before being published