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Can empathy be taught?

Homepage Forums Brain-Based Learning Q&A Can empathy be taught?

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    • #47282
      Ernest Izard

      Here’s an interesting article published by BBC News asking the question and answering with a researched YES!

    • #47284
      Ernest Izard

      By the way, there are several interesting ways author suggests empathy can be taught.

    • #47840
      Eric Jensen


      I know it can be taught- I have LEARNED to become EMPATHIC and I was not that
      way for the first 40 years of my life.

      One tool I use is to assume the physiological and verbal characteristics of those whom I knew were empathic and I began to feel that way.

      Just an idea. Act until you feel it.

    • #62831
      Rinnah Esprit

      Empathy,( compassion) is one of the many emotions that needs to be taught early in life, as also humility, perseverance, loyalty and many more. Besides the 6 to 8 emotions that we have from birth, all the rest must be taught. John P. Miller’s book entitled “Educating for Wisdom and Compassion, creating conditions for timeless learning”, (chapter 5) emphasizes the importance of empathy and how to cultivate this in the hearts. It is a matter of the heart. During class I asked my teachers in training how they would teach empathy to their students. Most suggested story telling: using situations and characters that resemble what actually happened with the emotions to be taught. Storytelling is a great strategy that draws the attention of both young and old and when done well, will reach the hearts of the recipients. Worth trying.

    • #62952

      Here in our district, we have an administrator that wrote a book about empathy as he worked through a year as a middle school principal. It is written as a daily journal in a biblical perspective. He’s published it this last year as a Kindle read. Our teachers have found some encouragement out of reading it.

      I think Jamieson would say that empathy is taught through modeling – a classroom of empathy. The conversations that you have in your daily classrooms lead to empathetic thinking.

    • #63001

      Thank you Craig. I immediately went for the book, precious! I totally agree that empathy is a spiritual thing related to God. Very helpful for teacher training sessions. And teaching is about touching the heart before reaching the head.

    • #63169
      Dr. Margo Turner

      I have found that processing the difference between sympathy and empathy an important discussion for pre-service teachers. Bandura’s work on self-efficacy can be helpful here…that the vicarious experience of others (an aspect of modeling) can result in internal change in the learner…in this case by seeing someone else be empathetic, a learner can become more empathetic.

    • #63193

      I want to say that if something can be learned, it can also be taught. In the days that lie ahead here in North Texas, I believe we will learn more about attunement and empathy as the healdlines carry the story of Ethan Couch, the teenager who killed four people while driving intoxicated. He was given probation for 10 years apparently because of the “affluenza” defense that his parents raised him in a way with their wealth that he behaved the way he did. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz in their book, Born for Love, describe a young man similar to Couch in wealth who had 18 nannies in his first three years of life–quite a recipe for sociopathy! Learned, taught, caught, mirror neurons don’t appear to disappear in life and the need for touch, eye to eye, heart to heart conversations are always needed and yearned for. The challenge for us as caregivers/educators is that we have capacity. We have to have the capacity to enter into the pain of a person lacking empathy or we will do one of three things: 1. tell our own story; 2. change the subject; or 3. walk away, tuning the person out. I have struggled for years with how do I teach capacity building and develop workshop strategies to practice capacity building. In my journey this year, that is beginning to be fleshed out with teaching teachers and caregivers resiliency skills just like we would our students who need the same. Brene Brown’s researched work on shame, vulnerability, courage, and wholeheartedness begins to provide a template to work from. For most of our lives we have grown up being told not to let anyone know we sweat. I am learning the more vulnerable I allow myself to be, the more return on relationship and learning I receive. Do I dare say that I have noticed over recent years that the more our distinguished leader, Eric Jensen, has shared of his life, the more brain-based learning has come to life for me. Earlier, as good as it is, it felt at times like climbing a sheer cliff of clinical research that I could never master. As flesh and pain, suffering and joy became a part of the mix, the clinical learning began to fall in place in a way that mattered. I remain grateful for that vulnerability shared and the joy that comes with the dawn!

    • #63233

      You might want to explore two videos: The Power of Collective Empathy: Janice Toben @ TEDxYouth@SanRamon, TEDx Youth at , and Teaching Empathy and Preventing Bullying Askwith Forum at

    • #63252

      Thanks everyone for the information. You’ve given me plenty to read and think about. The wave in SWMO is really about helping teachers use empathy / modeling / in the classroom AND combine that with purposefully teaching secondary students how to think empathetically. The largest school district in our area (24,000 kids) is providing inservices targeted toward empathy in secondary classrooms. The professional learning consortium in SWMO will also be giving some sessions for many of the smaller districts on the same. I will probably help facilitate some of those. This is very helpful.

    • #63265
      Yen Kai, Lye

      There is youtube video on differences between Empathy and Sympathy. Good as a resource to distinct between the two.

    • #63303
      Alicia Alvarez-Calderón

      This is what one of the topics I clearly remember from Eric Jensen’s trainings… this is something parents actually teach children without even knowing they’re doing it. As educators, we can influence the development of empathy by modeling for children and talking about it when situations arise. A simple question like “how would you feel if this happens to you?” will help children start feeling empathy.

    • #72465

      When I was working with teens this past summer, I shared this RSA animated video, “Brene Brown on Empathy.”

      The description of the video is: “What is the best way to ease someone’s pain and suffering? In this beautifully animated RSA Short, Dr Brené Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities.”

    • #81005

      I´ve been interested for some time now about the nature or nurture of caring for others, in other words, being empathic. I´ve asked this question in workshops to teenagers. Some have remorse about their behavior toward others. It´s a relief to know that in a way we are all a little ¨bad¨ (About 23% of prison inmates are thought to be psychopathic while the average population is around 1%.) but even better to know that researchers have found that compassion can be trained.

      I found interesting information published in Journal of Neuroscience on October 9, 2013.
      Max Planck researchers identified that the tendency to be egocentric is innate for human beings – not far from my other readings even in religious material. They found that the right supramarginal gyrus is a part of the brain related to being empathic . This area of the brain helps us to distinguish our own emotional state from that of other people and is responsible for empathy and compassion. Some interesting findings were that we use ourselves as a yardstick and tend to project our own emotional state onto others. Without a properly functioning supramarginal gyrus – your brain has a tough time putting itself in someone else’s shoes.
      A good example of this lack of functioning would be when individuals with psychopathy imagine others in pain. What has been found in psychopats is that brain areas necessary for feeling empathy and concern for others fail to become active and connected to other important regions involved in affective processing and compassionate decision-making. What´s important is that all this has been leading towards more understanding of how to increase emphaty. There are now models of therapy used to target psychopatic behavior and thus lower crime.

      Some suggested ways to teach emphaty are:

      1.Imagining oneself in pain or in distress. This may trigger a stronger affective reaction than imagining what another person would feel,
      2. Practicing mindfullness
      3. LKM (loving-kindness meditation) can rewire your brain. This is what´s suggestes to do: take a few minutes everyday to sit quietly and systematically send loving and compassionate thoughts to: 1) Family and friends. 2) Someone with whom you have tension or a conflict. 3) Strangers around the world who are suffering. 4) Self-compassion, forgiveness and self-love to yourself.

      4. Consciously seeking and experiencing something that is ‘disagreeable’. This may help to become physically and mentally tough, an makes you sensitive to what pain feels like by leaving the comfort zone.
      5. Volunteerism. It is good for your health. Dedicating some time to some type of charity work, creates a win-win by reinforcing the empathetic wiring of your brain while helping to reduce the suffering of someone less fortunate.

      It is good to know that our brain’s neural circuitry is malleable and can be rewired through neuroplasticity one’s tendency for empathy and compassion is never fixed.

    • #82376
      Ricky Chan

      Refer to Patricia’s sharing “They found that the right supramarginal gyrus is a part of the brain related to being empathic”, while as a neurofeedback trainer, we diagnose kids with Special Education Need (SEN) by using EEG brainwave scan (the term Brain Quotient test is used by the Korean system developer) and provide neurofeedback training. We also find that many kids diagnosed as Autistic Spectrum Disorder, whose Alpha brainwave’s frequency of the right brain hemisphere when closing eyes were lower than the normal kids of the same age group. On the other hand, if the kids have higher right brain hemisphere Alpha brainwave’s frequency, they would have more empathy than others in same age group. For example, they would feel angry or sad when their classmates were scolded or punished by teachers.

      For those above cases we encountered, kids with lower alpha brainwave frequency passed through a period of neurofeedback and tailor-made brainwave music training, most of their parents would find that their kids could gradually feel how others feel and perform empathy easily than in the past if their Alpha brainwave frequency of the right hemisphere reached the age standard level (E.g. for most age 7-10 Asian kids, their Alpha frequency should be 8Hz). The trainings included:

      – Breathing during Meditation
      – Neurofeedback Training on rewarding “Left & Right Brain” balance
      – Neurofeedback Training on rewarding “SMR” or “Alpha” rhythm
      – Listening to Binaural Beats Music (The frequency of music difference between left and right earphone input should be the normal alpha brainwave frequency)

      We also found that “Abdominal Breathing” leading the kids to a more “mindful” state was the foundation for tuning the alpha brainwave, therefore I strongly agree with Patricia’s suggestions on teaching empathy, especially “Practicing Mindfulness” and “Loving-Kindness Meditation”.

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