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

Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

This new generation of activists' most pernicious enemy is denial. The people in charge — complacent politicians and corporation heads who grossly benefit from maintaining the status quo — are buffered from real-life consequences of climate change. But millions of people don't share that privilege. For them, climate change isn't an abstract concept, but a daily state of emergency, whether it comes in the form of "prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa…devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific…[or] heatwaves and wildfires," as Amnesty International reportsare all too real problems people are facing on a regular basis.

RELATED: Greta Thunberg urges people to turn to nature to combat climate change

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet

Millions of people in over 150 countries across the globe marched for lawmakers and corporations to take action to help stop climate change on Friday, September 20.

The Climate Strikes were organized by children around the world as an extension of the of the "Fridays for Future" campaign. Students have been walking out of classrooms on Fridays to speak out about political inaction surrounding the climate crisis.

"We need to act right now to stop burning fossil fuels and ensure a rapid energy revolution with equity, reparations and climate justice at its heart," organizers say.

There's no doubt the visual images from the marches send a powerful message to those on the ground but especially those watching from around the world. GOOD's own Gabriel Reilich was on the scene for the largest of the Climate Strikes. Here are 18 of the best signs from the Climate Strike march in New York City.

Keep Reading Show less

September 20th marks the beginning of a pivotal push for the future of our planet. The Global Climate Strike will set the stage for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, where more than 60 nations are expected to build upon their commitment to 2015's Paris Agreement for combating climate change.

Millions of people are expected to take part in an estimated 4,000 events across 130 countries.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Apple

When the iPhone 11 debuted on September 10, it was met with less enthusiasm than the usual iPhone release. A lot of techies are holding off purchasing the latest gadget until Apple releases a phone with 5G technology.

Major US phone carriers have yet to build out the infrastructure necessary to provide a consistent 5G experience, so Apple didn't feel it necessary to integrate the technology into its latest iPhone.

A dramatic new feature on the iPhone 11 Pro is its three camera lenses. The three lenses give users the the original wide, plus ultrawide and telephoto options.

Keep Reading Show less
via I love butter / Flickr

We often dismiss our dreams as nonsensical dispatches from the mind while we're deep asleep. But recent research proves that our dreams can definitely affect our waking lives.

People often dream about their significant others and studies show it actually affects how we behave towads them the next day.

"A lot of people don't pay attention to their dreams and are unaware of the impact they have on their state of mind," said Dylan Selterman, psychology lecturer at the University of Maryland, says according to The Huffington Post. "Now we have evidence that there is this association."

Keep Reading Show less