How do we make it through the day without feeling overwhelmed by life? Are we wired to feel empathy and suffer with every drama 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, Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at the Princeton University Department of Psychology, answers these questions by arguing that in order to feel empathy or feel with someone else, we must first believe that this someone else is our equal — a human being with intentions, thoughts, and feelings. Then we are likely to recognize and envision them relieved of their suffering. If we view people based on stereotypes, by applying our cultural bias, prejudice and conditioning, we deprive people of their humanity and are not likely to feel empathy towards them.
According to Fiske, how much we empathize depends on what kind of social attributes we give people. Neuroimaging studies showed that when research participants looked at photographs of people similar to them, social attributes such as warmth and competence were high and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) region of their brain associated with perception was activated. When participants looked at pictures of people unlike them, such as homeless people, their perception was low on warmth and competence, and the mPFC region of their brain failed to activate, indicating a lack of empathy. When Fiske shifted the question and asked research participants to imagine what vegetables the homeless guy might be eating, the emotions of the participants also shifted, and the mPFC regions of their brain activated. This softening of perceptions, from not acknowledging the person at all, to they are us, under different circumstances, is good news.
Fiske’s research shines a light on the potential benefits that regular mindfulness practices can have in opening our hearts to less stereotyping and more compassionate perceiving of the world. A non-judgmental perception of others, characterized by friendliness, kindness and an open curiosity is key. Feeling another person’s pain and suffering is often a prerequisite to feeling compassion. As Richard J. Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and founder and chair of the Center for Healthy Minds has shown, we can learn to regulate our empathy by focusing and envisioning the person being relieved of their suffering. Regular mindfulness practices such as focusing and repeating a phrase silently in our mind such as, “may you be happy, may you be free of suffering,” shifts the pathways in our brains from experiencing painful empathy to more rewarding areas of compassion.