How do we make it through the day without feeling completely overwhelmed by life’s miseries? Are we wired to feel empathy and suffer with every sickness, every drama, every suffering that we witness every day? In the 2009 article “From dehumanization and objectification to rehumanization: Neuroimaging studies on the building blocks of empathy” Susan Fiske answers those questions by arguing that in order to feel with someone else, we first need to believe that this someone else has a mind — a mind similar to our own. If we look at someone else as our equal, a human person with intentions, thoughts, and feelings, then we are likely to recognize their suffering. But when we put others in rigid categories and view people as objects, we deprive them of their humanity and we are not likely to feel empathy towards them. This kind of behavior explains how genocides and torturing happened in history. People become just objects being killed or tortured in others’ mind and empathy does not arise.
According to Fiske, how much we empathize depends on what kind of social attributes we give people. Are they warm, friendly, trustworthy and sincere? Are they competent and capable? Neuroimaging studies showed that the higher the combination of warmth and competence, the more activation of the mPFC region of the brain that is associated with perception. When the perception is low on warmth and competence (outcasts, poor people, addicted people, or homeless,) then the mPFC region of the brain failed to activate. In other words, we view homeless and criminals as objects rather than humans, and we don’t connect to their suffering. Competent but not warm people (rich people or a seductress) can also result in a de-activation or lowering of the mPFC levels. According to Fiske, warm but incompetent people (elderly) can be viewed through a lense of pity: we feel with them, but not as much as people whom we perceive as both warm and competent.
This study warns us of the danger of stereotyping. How we look at people predicts how much feeling and what kind of feeling we can have towards that person. That same predicament shines a light on the potential benefit that mindfulness can have in opening our hearts to less stereotyping and more compassionate perceiving of the world. According to Shapiro’s model of mindfulness, intention and attention, when done in a non-judgmental way will lead to reperceiving of a situation. A non-judmental perception of others, characterized by friendliness, kindness and an open curiosity is the key to true empathy.