Understanding Empathy

Human beings and other living creatures may have felt empathy for millennia, however a word for it has only existed in the English language for just over 100 years. Around 1900, the English psychologist Edward B. Titchener first coined the term ‘empathy’, taken from the emerging new German words ‘Einfühlung’ or ‘Einfühlungsvermögen’.

So, what exactly is empathy? OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com gives a brief summary as “the ability to understand another person’s feelings, experience, etc”. In a nutshell, this is it. Yet anyone trying to explain empathy – or an apparent lack of it – will tell you it doesn’t seem that simple!

According to ‘Parenting Science’, different researchers adopt their own definitions, but most “include the idea of ‘tuning in’ to the feelings of another creature. You watch someone else. You observe his situation. You recognize what he must be feeling and experience similar feelings yourself.” This is not the same as feeling identically the same way but does show you are “opening up a pathway to sympathy, kindness, compassion, altruism and offering a helping hand”.

This highlights that there is a difference between empathy and sympathy. “Empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another [whereas] sympathy is largely used to convey commiseration, pity, or feelings of sorrow for someone else who is experiencing misfortune […] but you don’t know what it is like to be in their shoes”, according to Dictionary.com.

High Learning Potential, Autism, Alexithymia and Empathy

There is a strong suggestion that Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), affects children with High Learning Potential (HLP) more often than ‘neuro-typical’ children. Leading charity Potential Plus UK has supported the needs of gifted children and their families for over 50 years. It offers many helpful resources including fact sheets about HLP and Asperger Syndrome (https://potentialplusuk.org/index.php/product/aspergers-hlp/ ) and this thought-provoking article about building friendships and modelling social skills, https://potentialplusuk.org/index.php/2018/11/20/friendships-why-dont-i-fit-in/ .

HLP or not, all too often it is assumed that someone with ASD will inevitably have difficulties feeling empathy. However, High Functioning Autism expert The Aspie Coach believes that at least two of three aspects of empathy (cognitive, affective and compassionate empathy) may cause no trouble at all. She explains that ASD frequently has no effect on someone’s ability to share in another’s feelings (affective) or desire to help others (compassionate). The most problematic area is likely to be cognitive empathy; “the ability to predict others’ thoughts and intentions including the ability to ‘read between the lines’ during communication”.

Similarly, leading neuroscientist team Jean Decety and Jason Cowell caution how ‘empathy’ is often used as a blanket term to describe the three distinct processes of emotional sharing/emotional contagion, (feeling distress as a result of observing stress in another); empathic concern, (the motivation to care for the vulnerable or distressed); and perspective-taking, (consciously putting yourself in another’s mind and imagining their thoughts and feelings). A study at the University of Birmingham found that managers who were skilled in perspective-taking made good negotiators and were adept at motivating others.

A fascinating piece of research by London Lecturer Rebecca Brewer and graduate Jennifer Murphy asserts; We found that individuals with autism but not alexithymia show typical levels of empathy, whereas people with alexithymia (regardless of whether they have autism) are less empathic. So autism is not associated with a lack of empathy, but alexithymia is.” (https://www.spectrumnews.org/opinion/viewpoint/people-with-autism-can-read-emotions-feel-empathy/ )

Taking all this on board, it seems that a careful investigation of HLP, autism, and alexithymia alongside empathy in all its forms would be key to understanding strengths and developing weaknesses in yourself and others, including your children or students.

Can You Build Empathy?

Excitingly, evidence suggests that empathy is shaped by a child’s experience and culture – and therefore yes it can be ‘taught’. As part of Life Skills, Citizenship or Religious Education, the acquisition of empathy skills and an ability to notice commonalities underpins a young learner’s positive, caring mindset towards ‘other’ sections of society.

The US-based Ashoka network goes so far as to claim “empathy is emerging alongside reading and math[s] as a new literacy”; a healthy sign that empathy is a crucial skill – and one that can be learned.

By the same token, hours spent in a negative home or social environment, playing violent computer games or using damaging social media can also influence the growing brain and desensitise a child to second-hand pain.

This article explores some of these issues further; https://www.parentingscience.com/teaching-empathy.html

How to Teach Empathy

Reading and New Media

Activities, information and worksheets


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