Why do we feel empathy?

Have you ever wondered why we care about other people? 

I mean, empathy is a precious resource. It's part of our moral compass.

And it seems to be awfully scarce these days. Which is a darn shame.

Because it's a social glue that ties groups of us together. To learn how to make friends, or care for the needy.

And don't be cruel. (Is it just me humming Elvis here?)

But have you ever wondered if there's just good or bad people, or if there's an actual part of our brain that makes it possible to care about others?

One famous case more than 150 years ago sheds some light.

A railroad worker named Phineas Gage was – ahem – working on the railroad. (All the livelong days perhaps?)

And there was a terrible explosion.

Gage found himself lying on the ground with a railroad spike having shot through his head!

Amazingly, he lived another 12 years. But the accident turned him into a rude and inconsiderate, profane loudmouth. He lost all signs of empathy.

So much so, his friends considered him not even to be Phineas Gage anymore.

A hundred years after the accident, researchers used MRI machines to determine that the iron bar had penetrated a part of Gage's brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. 

This section of the brain acts as a storehouse for emotion.

Other sections of the brain enable us to put ourselves in another person's shoes. And model their pain in our own head.

Ok, it's a little more complicated than I'm making out here. But our brains and the related hormones allow us to feel something for someone else, even when we ourselves are happy.

That's interesting, but not particularly practical. But this is: you can actually improve your ability to care for others. Which is so important. 

Because empathy is one of our most treasured resources for resolving conflicts.

Even just a few interactions with others in different circumstances or from different backgrounds than your own can trigger a learning effect in the brain.

And so can reading novels. Yes, a recent study showed that simply reading fiction can excite our imagination, and help us score higher on tests of empathy.

So the next time your grandkid starts complaining about "required reading," maybe remind them that not only will it make you smarter, if everyone is reading, there's less bullying and more understanding of each other.

Pretty interesting if you ask me.

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Jenine Treskey - August 30, 2021

Jeff, I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy reading your commentaries. You are always interesting, entertaining and educational. You pick great topics! Thank you for that!

Mike Johnson - August 29, 2021

I agree Jeff, empathy can be learned. When I was younger my Mom worked 3 jobs to support me and my Grandmother. I have worked for everything in my life and have not asked for anything for nothing. There fore I couldn’t understand why people begged for money. As I have gotten older I tell my daughter and Grandson you can not control what a person does with your gift only the reason why you gave it.

Sharon k Foster - August 29, 2021

Thank you. I believe that as well
Have a great day.
Sharon Foster

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