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Empathy Can Be Taught

A team of neuroscientists at Brazil’s Instituto D’Or de Pesquisa e Ensino (IDOR) has functionally proven, using fMRI evidence, that “it is possible to train brain patterns associated with empathic feelings” by using neurofeedback. The study focuses on tenderness and affection, but it would be strange—not impossible, but strange—if other neurological empathy responses couldn’t be strengthened in much the same way.

The idea that empathy can be taught isn’t a huge surprise in and of itself—we’ve known for years that we can teach empathy skills using deduction, simulation, and habit, as CogSai explains: 

But those are essentially behavioral techniques you can use to get at empathy; there was little direct evidence, until now, that they could actually be processed in the brain as empathy in the same way one might process empathy that occurs, or seems to occur, more naturally. Judging empathy based on behavior and self-reporting is not completely pointless, but it’s not very direct evidence; it can indicate nothing more than peer pressure, or fakery, or any number of other things. Physically scanning the brain gives us better—and, for that reason, more encouraging—clues as to what empathy is, and how it can be developed.

The practical value of this study, assuming other forms of empathy work in much the same way that affection and tenderness work, rests in the possibility of actually using neurofeedback to change the way we see other people. A stronger sense of empathy can resolve an untold number of problems—individual, relational, and societal—and people who demonstrate a weak sense of empathy may benefit more from this sort of training than they would from incarceration, fines, or other traditional methods of rehabilitation. Come to think of it, maybe the rest of us could stand to be a little kinder, too.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.

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