Empathy–I Feel You! (A Learning Cybersift)

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The word gets thrown about often, but what exactly is empathy?  How is it different from sympathy?  Let’s ask the internet!

The Miriam-Webster online dictionary offers these definitions: Empathy – the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings. Sympathy – the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.

Grammarist offers this comparison:

Empathy vs. sympathy

When you understand and feel another’s feelings for yourself, you have empathy. It’s often spoken of as a character attribute that people have to varying degrees. For example, if hearing a tragic news story makes you feel almost as if the story concerns you personally, you have the ability to empathize.

When you sympathize with someone, you have compassion for that person, but you don’t necessarily feel her feelings. For instance, if your feelings toward someone who is experiencing hardship are limited to sympathy, then you might have a sense of regret for that person’s difficulty but are not feeling her feelings as if they’re your own. Meanwhile, sympathy has broader applications that don’t necessarily have to do with one person’s feelings for another. You can sympathize with a cause, for instance, or with a point of view that resonates with you.

The United Kingdom’s RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufacture and Commerce!) offers this video illustration of the contrast:

So empathy seems to be about connecting deeply and personally with someone else’s feelings. Sympathy, in contrast, is caring about and feeling sorry that someone else is having a hard time, but not truly connecting with them on a deeper emotional level.  When I have empathy for someone, I am experiencing them as an extension of myself.

We might imagine, then, that empathy is a higher-level brain function reserved for creatures with fancy pre-frontal cortices–we human beings.  After all, having empathy for others sounds like a big part of morality and justice, and humans are the only animals able to process these complex concepts, right?  Not so!  Various studies have shown that apes, monkeys, elephants, and dogs, among other animals, have showed persuasive evidence of empathetic behavior.

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even chickens!

Recently, an interesting study showed that a rat would work hard to free a trapped roommate, even if there were distracting and delicious chocolate chips to be had in another part of the test area!  In fact, even if the free rat sampled a chocolate chip or two before releasing the trapped rat, she would save some chocolate for her buddy.  How’s that for non-human empathy!

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The fact that other animals of different species seem to display empathetic behaviors suggests that there is a deep, ancient biological basis to empathy.  For some reason or another, empathetic behavior contributed to the survival of our species and others. Considering how social we are, this makes some amount of intuitive sense–indeed, all the animals mentioned in this post live in social groups and/or close physical proximity to one another.

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There are many more studies and resources around the internet regarding empathy, and the sheer amount of information available speaks to the important role empathy plays in daily human life.  Austin ISD social and emotional learning involves explicit instruction designed to help students develop their natural empathy, and supports the integration and reinforcement of empathetic behavior throughout the daily routine at school and at home.  We would love to know your favorite empathy resources, from parenting to neuroscience (to the neuroscience of parenting)!  Leave us a comment!

Thanks for reading, SEL fans, and have a spectacular weekend.

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Pareido-WHAT? Or…You are an Emotion-Reading Facial Recognition Machine!

Hello once again, SEL fans!  And a very happy Halloween to everyone!   Let’s start with a little experiment this week.  Does this group of shapes do anything for ya?

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Not really? How about this?

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That one looks like a slightly bemused squareface guy, right?  Same shapes, different arrangement, and all of a sudden we’ve got a new little buddy on the screen.  Well guess what, dear reader: you have just participated in our neurological word of the week…

Pareidolia! (pear-uh-DOL-ee-uh)—The illusory perception of non-existent faces .[i]

Humans are hardwired from the moment we are born to recognize faces.  Newborn babies have underdeveloped distance vision, but they are capable of seeing clearly up to about 12 inches—just about the distance at which nurturing caregivers hover to feed, smile and coo at the new little human.   From this early foundation we continue to focus on faces…after all, we don’t usually show off pictures of our family and friends’ ears or knees!  Studies have shown that we have a special area of our brain that contains neurons dedicated only to recognizing faces.[ii]

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Further, as you may have done with this rather enthusiastic cup of coffee, we don’t just recognize facial features; we also are so good at reading emotion that we almost always assign a feeling or personality to faces we see.  After all, humans have over 40 different facial muscles, allowing us to perform thousands of distinct and complex facial expressions that we use for nonverbal communication with each other. [iii]

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Our expertise in both recognizing faces and facial expressions could come from an advantageous evolutionary adaptation.  For tiny baby humans, being able to interpret and respond to parental faces early on could help kickstart bonding, leading to more positive attention from caregivers and therefore more opportunity to thrive.   Also, being able to quickly recognize friendly faces vs. hostile faces may have promoted the early survival of our species. [iv]

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You were a little worried about that mop, right?  You emotion-interpretation expert, you!  How about this one?

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Did you empathize with that twig a bit?  A ha!  There’s the distinct social and emotional aspect of pareidolia.  Even though our ability to identify faces and facial expressions may have been an early adaptation for safety and survival, our frontal cortex—the part of our brain responsible for higher thinking—gives us the ability to imagine how we would feel undergoing the emotion or experience that we recognize in others.  Pareidolia, this innate tendency to search for and see faces, could be an ancient sign of our profound human capacity for empathy.

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So the next time you are startled by a creepy countenance emerging from a wooden door:

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Or feel cheery with a cheese grater:

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Feel connected to your ancient roots, and your wondrous frontal cortex.  You are a finely-tuned human expert!

[i]  (Jiangang Liua, 2014)

[ii]  (Vincent, 2014)

[iii]  (Ekman, 2008)

[iv]  (Vincent, 2014)

Works Cited

Ekman, D. M. (2008). Facial expression analysis. Retrieved October 31, 2014, from ScholarPedia: http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Facial_expression_analysis

Jiangang Liua, J. L. (2014, January 13). Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia. Retrieved October 31, 2014, from Science Direct: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010945214000288

Vincent, J. (2014, May 9). The Independent. Retrieved October 31, 2014, from Pareidolia: Scientists say ‘don’t worry, it’s normal to see Jesus on a slice of toast’: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/pareidolia-scientists-say-dont-worry-its-normal-to-see-jesus-on-a-slice-of-toast-9345350.html