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Episode 225: Empathy


And hello to you, and welcome to the Richard Nicholls podcast. The personal development podcast series that's here to help inspire, educate, and motivate you to be the best you can be. I'm Psychotherapist Richard Nicholls, and this episode is titled Empathy. And if you are ready, we'll start the show.

Happy New Month everyone. How have things been for you? There's a lot of anxiety around at the minute, and if you need to steer clear of the news for a bit, I wouldn't blame you. It can make us quite pessimistic about the future, the news. When I think about the future, I do try to focus on the things I'd rather see happen than the worst case scenario. And avoiding the news and filtering social media really can help. If someone wants your attention, there's a fair chance they're gonna do that with at best exaggeration and at worst, blatant lies. And I dunno about you, but I, I want my brain filled with that sort of stuff as little as possible.

Avoiding it helps me to be the optimistic realist and keeps anxiety at bay because if we constantly create a fictional world in our mind, it easily becomes the real world to us. Like I so often say, the brain can't separate fact from fiction Now. Our intelligence can, our conscious, rational thinking can, but our brain will still react to the input it gets.

Now, that input can be from thoughts or it can be from experiences, and it's the experiences I want to talk about today. The example I sometimes use when teaching people about how stupid our brains are is watching things like You've Been Framed. When someone falls over and it makes you go, Ooh, ow. I felt that. Neurologists call it a response in the mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are strings of brain connections in the prefrontal cortex that sends signals to other areas of our brain. Based on what other people are doing. We have motor mirror neurons and sensory mirror neurons. So there are neurons that fire off when we watch someone kick a ball, and there are neurons that fire off when we watch somebody get kicked in the face.

It's as if one brain is performing a virtual reality simulation of somebody else's brain, and it's probably the basis of empathy. There are quite a few studies actually that suggest that mirror neuron development plays a big part in autism, either by having them constantly firing off and mimicking what other people are doing, or hardly firing at all.

But the jury's still out there on that one cuz although more studies do show all this to be the case than not, there is still plenty of other studies that don't show it for us to really know for sure. I guess in 50 years time, neurologists and clinical psychologists are gonna look back about how we talk nowadays and think that we were completely wrong to group maybe five different divergents all together and call them autism.

They'll probably say the same thing about ADHD as well, and many more atypical neurological processes. We just don't know. And that's the thing we don't know, but mirror neurons are important. We do know that cuz if our brain can learn to mimic others, then we can learn a lot quicker. We don't have to make as many mistakes when learning to walk or talk or pull fruit from a tree cuz we've already been practicing. Just in our minds.

There's one great little experiment that tests mirror neurons. What you do is you ask people to perform an action like putting their palm on tabletop and then lifting their middle finger, but at the same time, they're watching someone else doing a different but similar action like lifting their index finger instead of their middle finger.

And we find it really hard cuz we are firing off mirror neurons for lifting one finger. And the motor neurons for another. And the signals leak over. It's even the same when watching someone smile, it makes it harder to frown. That's a funny experiment. What you do is you get a load of images, of faces with varying expressions, and all the images have a coloured dot maybe on the nose. And the dot will change colour. And every time it changes to a particular colour you have to either frown or smile to yourself, and the participants are all timed to see how long it takes for them to make the expressions themselves. And it's true. When we see people smiling, it takes longer for the brain to send the signals to our face to frown compared to if the dots were on images of anything else.

More reasons to smile folks. It doesn't just make ourselves a bit happier, but helps prevent others from frowning even if they're trying to. That's empathy for you. And some people struggle with empathy. Either they don't feel enough of it or they feel too much. There's even this weird condition called mirror touch synesthesia where the mirror neurons will fire off so strongly when you see something that it genuinely feels as if it's happening to you. If you see somebody tapping the back of their hand, it actually feels as if you are being touched. And even just the thought of being touched can trigger off sensations too. So it can be really odd to experience. But people who have it, they've had it all of their life and they don't realise that it's unusual, but it's rare.

It's like 2% of people. But hey, if you know 50 people, chances are there's one of them with that to some degree. And in fact, It could be you. I have way more than 50 listeners. There are thousands of you. So statistically, a lot of you are likely to have this condition, and, and maybe don't even know that it's unusual.

I know of a counsellor that has it, and because this can happen when people are just talking about things, it makes her job really hard because their empathy is turned up to the max, and that's not helpful. It's hard. Empathy is useful though. It helps us to navigate the world and be able to look at things from other people's perspectives.

It helps us to understand people's behaviours and not take things personally when someone's angry at us over something trivial. When you know they're also struggling with a million other things at the same time. So empathy can help us become less judgmental, which is obviously gonna be good for everybody, especially ourselves, because we're gonna be less upset.

We're gonna be less angry ourselves because we understand. So there are two types of empathy really. We have effective empathy and cognitive empathy. Effective empathy is the feelings of other people's emotions. That's the one we talk about a lot. And cognitive empathy is as close to mind reading as you're going to get.

It's knowing what other people are thinking. Sometimes it's called theory of mind and is our ability to assign beliefs, desires, and knowledge to others rather than just to ourselves. To know that just because you know something, it doesn't mean everybody does. Just cuz I like psychology doesn't mean everybody does.

That's theory of mind. And as cognitive empathy, it means we can talk to others in their language, which helps us to do everything from performing well in a job interview to not ruining your relationships with people. Fundamentally, empathy is our connection to other people. Although it might feel like a burden to feel other people's pain, the rewards far outweigh the costs if you ask me, so how do we get more empathy if it's not something we've ever really practiced for one reason or another, let me tell you and then I'll talk about how to handle it, if you are a bit too good at empathy. First off, to improve on the skill of theory of mind look at what you read and the sorts of TV shows that you watch.

There was a famous study from 2013, 10 years old now, that showed that reading high quality literary fiction boosts our emotional intelligence, the theory of mind. I know it sounds a bit snobby to say don't read predictable pulp fiction, but maybe we can find a balance if we read a lot. A balance between too much Danielle Steele and Ian Rankin and not enough Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood.

I'm certainly not saying, never read easy books. Please do. Life is too short, easy, cheesy books that you don't need to think about can be great. I vouch from experience there. Ian Rankin has gotten me through a lot of boring airplane flights over the years that George Eliot probably could not. But the complicated characters of literary fiction help us to strengthen those empathic muscles.

In that study from 2013, the participants were assigned to read literary fiction, genre fiction, or nonfiction for, I think, an hour with a control group that did nothing. And then there were a series of tests to measure empathy. One of them was to look at images of people's eyes and match them to either jealous, panicked, arrogant or hateful. Something that women were way, way better at than men, by the way, no matter which short story they'd read. But those that had read the story that required you to work a little bit harder at understanding those characters motivations and so on. They scored way better after just reading for an hour, and they did four other experiments as well, all showing the same thing.

The organiser suggested it could only be temporary because they didn't follow up on the subjects. But we know from so many different studies that anything that you repeat, you get better at. So if you strengthen your empathy muscle enough times, it is going to get stronger. And in a follow up study, about 12 months after, somebody else did a similar experiment. Well it was kind of the same one really, but they did it with TV shows comparing things like The West Wing and Mad Men with Shark documentaries and How the Universe Works, that sort of thing.

And they've got almost identical results as with the books. Giving us at least preliminary evidence that engaging with some sort of quality fiction has the same positive impact, whether you are reading or watching it, which is an excellent excuse if you spent your entire weekend in front of the TV binge watching something.

Turns out I wasn't being lazy after all. I was just enhancing my emotional intelligence by putting myself in somebody else's shoes. So it was to understand how I would feel, if that were me. And that's a good thing to do with everyone in your life, especially if thinking about them makes you frustrated because they live their life so differently to you.

Even the simplest of things can make us uncomfortable in those situations because our brain has expectations. If you've ever stood behind someone who's learning to use some software that you are really familiar with, or you've tried to show your grandparents how to play a video game, then you'll know what I mean.

If you're familiar with what to do, familiar with where to click, what to press, then your brain is expecting it to happen in the ways it normally does, and at the same speed. And then when it doesn't, because watching my mother-in-law trying to play Minecraft would be like watching me try to land a plane,

our brain gets frustrated. We get frustrated. So by putting yourself in somebody else's shoes, going out of your way to deliberately look at things from other people's perspectives, hopefully that's gonna give me patience with my mother-in-law the next time she's trying to help me and my wife decorate or something. And clients will sit in front of me sometimes with stories about their frustrations with other people, and it might be the only time they get to look at an argument with their partner and see it from their perspective. To see if maybe it's not a surprise that they were snappy and argumentative. And, surprise surprise. What do you know? It wasn't about you after all. And there was no need to take it personally and then make things worse.

So do look at things from other people's perspectives. Use effective listening techniques more. Not only does showing that you're listening help other people to feel understood. But it helps you to understand them and their situation, honing your empathy skills. Effective listening or active listening as it's sometimes called, is quite simply just feeding back, maybe paraphrasing what somebody has said to you, but appropriately, and it might sound simple. And it is simple, really, but it's really very, very useful if you are a manager and one of your team is complaining about someone being rude to them, listen. Actually listen and mean it when you say, I understand how you feel, or I see what you mean. And then paraphrase what they've said, you know, things like.

Yes, Jeff. I can see that Joan talking over you in that meeting felt belittling to you. I get that. It happens to me a lot in meetings too. It's frustrating. When you actively involve yourself in the listening and not just sit there. You are growing your empathy skills. It's one of the first things that you practice as a therapist and everything else that we do as a counsellor or a psychotherapist is based somewhat on the foundations of our empathy, feeling things with our clients. Even C B T. A lot of people knock C B T, cognitive behavioural, the therapy cuz it's so formulaic and less personal. But even C B T therapists will have to get inside the mind of their client, otherwise they can't identify and help challenge those unhelpful beliefs that feed the emotions.

So, empathy's really important for us all. It's gonna help us to see different perspectives as to why people do what they do, think how they think, and say what they say. It helps us all to be a more tolerant and cooperative society, but for a lot of visit takes practice. So you go do that and I'll be off for now.

Have a super week pod fans. I'll speak to you next time. Take care.