The Empathy Mirror

Recent discoveries in neurofeedback can teach you to be less of a dick.

In 2004, a Jewish woman living in Tel Aviv wrote a letter to a Palestinian woman she had never met. “This, for me is one of the most difficult letters I will ever have to write,” she began. “My name is Robi Damelin. I am the mother of David who was killed by your son.” Over the course of the letter, Damelin explained the unbearable anguish of losing her son, a soldier who was hit by sniper fire at a military roadblock. She acknowledged the pain of the Palestinian woman, whose own son was now condemned to a long jail sentence, and expressed her fragile trust in dialogue and reconciliation. Concluding, she wrote, “I hope that you will show the letter to your son, and that maybe in the future we can meet. Let us put an end to the killing and look for a way through mutual understanding and empathy to live a normal life, free of violence.”

Though in overwhelming personal pain, Damelin was still able to find emotional common ground, and use it to create a connection with another parent, spanning one of the world’s most acrimonious political divides. Damelin now works with The Parents Circle, a support group of Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost family members to the ongoing conflict, but are still intent on working towards reconciliation and peace. The Parents Circle brings these families together in the hope that, united by grief, their similarities will outweigh their differences. Both Damelin’s letter and the efforts of The Parents Circle are examples of the potential of empathy.

Even though we’ve learned a lot about how the brain works in recent years, empathy has largely remained a great white whale. Recent experiments by Brazilian neuroscientist Jorge Moll, however, are making headway in the field. Moll and his team have developed a system that lets people observe their own brains at work, on a screen in real time, while they imagine situations that, in most healthy people, evoke feelings of tenderness and warmth. This process, called neurofeedback, allows people participating in the experiment to practice activating the parts of the brain that correspond with empathy.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Subjects that got this neurofeedback consistently generated more of the kind of brain activity connected with feelings of empathy.[/quote]

Most scientists describe empathy as the process of recognizing what someone else is feeling, then experiencing that same feeling and producing the appropriate emotional response. For example, if we see someone trip and fall, we recognize that they feel pain and embarrassment, and we help them up. Damelin’s letter is a model of heroic empathy, but cultivating everyday empathy can improve your love life, make you a more effective leader at work, and help you develop more rewarding relationships.

Empathy has been difficult for neuroscientists to analyze because it’s the product of many parts of the brain acting with one another in mysterious ways. Simon Baron-Cohen, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Oxford, has identified ten separate regions of the brain, each with its own special function, that comprise the “empathy circuit.” One critical part of this circuit is called the medial prefrontal cortex, or MPFC, which plays a role in comparing one’s own perspective to that of others. Other parts of the empathy circuit correlate with social judgments (the orbitofrontal cortex), awareness of the intentions and goals of others (the frontal operculum), recognizing emotion (the inferior frontal gyrus), and processing sensory stimuli (the somatosensory cortex). But knowing which brain areas are associated with which individual functions still doesn’t present a clear picture of how these areas work, much less interact with one another.

Moll and his colleagues came up with a clever workaround. They asked 25 volunteers to think about episodes from their past that evoked feelings of tenderness and affection—the so-called “affiliative emotions” that are critical to empathy. They also asked each to recall an episode that evoked feelings of pride, and then one that was emotionally neutral.

The researchers took detailed, 3D images of the participants’ brains while they recalled each episode, and then fed those images into an algorithm called a support vector machine, or SVM. SVMs are powerful learning models designed to find patterns in large, complex data sets such as automatic face recognition and forecasting stock market movement. By utilizing images of brains focused on a range of tender, prideful, and neutral thoughts, the SVM was able to identify patterns of brain activity that corresponded to more empathetic states—patterns that would be impossible to spot without this technology.

Once the SVM had recognized what an empathetic state usually looks like, the researchers could then show people in real time exactly how their own brains compared to the identified ideal. To achieve this, the scientists devised a simple visual code. If an individual’s brain matched the archetype of empathy, they saw a perfectly smooth outline of a circle on the screen. If an individual’s brain activity deviated from this archetype, the circle’s circumference would take on a distinctly wavy outline.

Representation of neurofeedback monitor display variation.

As subjects recalled events that should elicit feelings of tenderness, they could look at the circle on the screen, and by focusing on their affiliative emotions, try to maintain a smooth outline. But what exactly the participants were doing with their minds while trying to keep the circle smooth remains unclear. Participants had to, without knowing how, simply try, like flexing a muscle they didn’t know they had. It worked: Subjects that got this neurofeedback (as opposed to those of a control group) consistently generated more of the kind of brain activity connected with feelings of empathy. In other words, they could voluntarily exercise the brain patterns that underlie empathy.

This kind of research is expensive. So, while we won’t be seeing retail neurofeedback machines any time soon, these experiments do give us new insight into the neuroscience of empathy and possible future therapies. They also provide an exciting example of the way high-tech algorithms and neuroscience might collaborate in the future to study and support the best of our human qualities. If we make that our goal, we might be able to better help each other through everyday struggles, and possibly even find ways of fostering connection in the most challenging of global conflicts.

Illustration by David Schwen