Turns Out Empathy is Contagious

By Liza Finlay, The Huffington Post, HuffPost Impact

Is empathy contagious? Turns out it is.

That may be hard to believe. Especially at this time of year, when frantic shoppers cut lines to snag deals and even the good folk at the Salvation Army fall prey to thieving employees.

But, in fact, empathy is part of our anatomy. It's just that, like a muscle, it needs to be flexed. Scientists have already identified "mirror neurons" -- soft-wiring that compels us to feel what others are feeling. When someone else yawns, we yawn. When another suffers, we suffer, too.

But now, neuro-researchers have discovered a second empathy highway. Working with the mirror neuron system, the temporal parietal junction (TPJ) system analyzes what we are feeling (rage at the driver who steals the last spot in the overcrowded parking lot) and asks: how can I fix this? (I'm thinking serene smile, not one-fingered salute.) The TPJ is sort of like a motor fueling the mirror system. (Not surprisingly, women rely more on the mirror neuron system while men frequent the TPJ corridor.)

Long before technology allowed scientists a close look at the inner workings of the brain, though, Austrian psychological theorist Alfred Adler wrote about gemeinschaftsgefuhl, or, social interest. In the early 19th century, Adler blew the lid off Freud's egocentric model of human nature by suggesting that we all have the innate ability to feel for others. Furthermore, he argued, contributing to the common good is an imperative that differentiates the healthy from the unhealthy, the functional from the dysfunctional. But (and this is a crucial "but") this ability, he said, must be nurtured.

What this means is that we are wired for compassion, for caring, for connection.

What this doesn't mean is that this connection comes easily. Sure, the circuitry is in place, but we need to be trained how to use it. And there's no better time than the present.

As children scratch out long holiday wish lists, parents have an unparalleled opportunity for empathy training. This time of year provides tremendous teaching moments. Here are a few...

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Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.



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