Brain Science – Episode #9

One small act of kindness

examining the importance of empathy & the role of mirror neurons

All Episodes

Mireille and Adam dig deeper into empathy as a construct. What key brain structures are involved? How can we better understand empathy to be able to better navigate ourselves and our relationships with others both at home and in the workplace?


Notes & Links

đź“ť Edit Notes

Daniel Siegel, MD, in his book Aware notes 5 Aspects of Empathy:

  1. Emotional Resonance: Feeling another person’s feelings.
  2. Perspective Taking: Seeing through the eyes of another.
  3. Cognitive Understanding: Imagining the mental experiences of another and their meaning.
  4. Empathic Concern: Caring about the well-being of another. *This is the gateway for compassion.
  5. Empathic Joy: Feeling happy about another’s happiness or success.

​​Empathy: In face-to-face interactions, communication has a multi-modal nature involving the processing of visual facial cues (such as the speaker’s facial expression), the tone of the voice (i.e., affective prosody) and the choice of words (i.e., semantics).

**Empathy involves a working model of another person in the mind’s eye.

Brain structures involved:

  1. Pre-frontal cortex: Involved in perspective taking. Executive function.
  2. Anterior Cingulate Cortex: The anterior cingulate cortex is sometimes divided into four regions, each of which seem to underpin a separate function (see Bush, Luu, & Posner, 2000).
  3. Mirror neurons: a brain cell that reacts both when a particular action is performed and when it is only observed. These are activated in the process of empathy.

In particular, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex includes:

  • The anterior region, which is involved in executive function
  • The dorsal region, which is involved in cognitive processes
  • The ventral region, which is involved in emotional regulation
  • The posterior region, which is involved in evaluative processes (e.g., Bush, Vogt, Holmes, Dale, Greve, Jenike et al., 2002)

​​Claus Lamm, PhD, University of Vienna, investigates the processes that regulate firsthand pain and those that cause empathy for pain through numerous studies on the influence of painkillers. ​​According to Lamm, research “suggests that empathy for pain is grounded in representing others’ pain within one’s own pain systems.”

The Role of Facial Expression in Empathy: The value of “looking at” the face of another to provide another data point to understand where they are emotionally.

How might you build your empathy skills? Consider EMPATHY as an acronym: (adapted from Harvard psychiatrist, Helen Riess, MD)

E: Eye contact
M: Muscles of facial expression
P: Posture. What is the person’s body language?
A: Affect/Emotion.
T: Tone of voice. Affective prosody.
H: Hearing the whole person.
Y: Your response. Emotions are contagious.

Getting practical - What can I do differently in order to cultivate empathy?

  1. Mindfulness as training for increased compassion and empathy.
  2. Practice responding with empathy outside of the live event: after an actual incident, reflect on what or how you could’ve responded differently that would’ve helped you “see” the other person more effectively or changed the interaction between you?
  3. Build your internal file of empathy from a conceptual level so that you have a bigger, broader frame of reference for others.
  4. Give back. Volunteering as practicing loving-kindness; giving to others’ without expectation of return.


đź“ť Edit Transcript


Play the audio to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧

It’s interesting, because the more that we have these conversations, the more it makes me reflect on how these things show up in day-to-day life. And just like we’ve talked about with the neuroscience of it all, that “Where attention goes, energy flows”, so in our conversations around people I couldn’t help but think about how important it is to talk about empathy and aspects of compassion… Because it is just an issue with all people; I really think it’s another way in which we talk about the fundamentals of being human.

So I wanted to just take another episode to dig a little deeper into what is involved in empathy from more of a neuroscience perspective. As well as everything, we want it to be able to apply to ourselves, so how we can learn to be more empathetic and compassionate, both with ourselves and others.

I have to agree. I think where energy goes, neurons flow, or whatever the phrase is… But I feel that, because as we’ve studied and reflected on empathy and compassion, I’ve seen the role of empathy and compassion, its importance in everyday society… Not just in a face-to-face conversation, but in communities, in society at large. And how important it is because the aspect of empathy and compassion is collaboration, it’s people coming together through something… And that’s something I see really missing a lot.

There’s a lot - which we’ll cover more deeply - where you miss the nuance of things; if you’re in a face-to-face conversation and you see somebody’s visible body language, you see their facial reaction, you see a lot of this data that helps you to make choices and to better understand your scenario… But empathy and compassion is just such a key participant in what I would consider a healthy community and a healthy society, that I want to personally learn more about, and as a reflection of that learning, I want to help others to pick up what we’re learning as well, because it’s just so important.

Yeah. As you say, that concept of seeing… Not literally, with our eyes, but with our brains. And one of the things that I think I can’t attest enough to is when we talk about these things, and the way in which the brain works and what we know, everything is systemic. There’s systems involved. When I get a new piece of data, I have to then reallocate that system and how I thought about it… So there’s multiple aspects involved with empathy.

Before we get started, I wanna talk about the definitions again, and sort of expand upon it… The perception of suffering in another usually requires this process called empathy. This is taken from Dan Siegel’s book “Aware”. Dan Siegel, if you’re not familiar with him, he is a psychiatrist who’s done a lot of research around neuroscience and created a field called interpersonal neurobiology. But from this book - he says empathy can be viewed as having at least five aspects, including emotional resonance, which involves feeling another person’s feelings, perspective-taking, which is seeing through the eyes of another person, a cognitive understanding, like imagining the mental experiences of another and their meaning, as well as empathetic concern, caring about the well-being of others, and then sympathetic/empathic joy - feeling happy about another’s happiness and success.

That’s a lot, right? [laughs]

That is a lot.

Well, if I can sort of reduce it to what we wanna talk about today - in face-to-face interactions, communication usually has this sort of multi-modal nature to it… And it involves the processing of visual facial cues, which is what we’re talking about in terms of having the actual data of a face; that contributes to our ability to empathize… As well as the tone of voice, which I’ll talk about in terms of affective prosody. So when I talk about affect, I’m usually referencing emotions. So affect…

Not effect.

Right, right. And then the choice of words that we use, or semantics. So in this way, I could say the same sentence and it could have two very different meanings. For example, I could say “Yeah, we’d love for you to come”, or like “Yeah, it’s okay if you come join us”, or it could be like “Yeah… You could join us…” and they don’t necessarily mean the same thing.

Yeah, they don’t… And you can layer that on with a face, too. So if you just don’t hear that and you see somebody say that, not only is it clear by their language and tone, and the semantics, as you’re saying, the choice of words, and the way they say them, but it’s also the face they make, and the body language… Or maybe the way they roll their eyes, or they turn their face away from you. All these things are just other data points for you to interpret somebody’s meaning.

Right. So looking for consistencies, as well as discrepancies in that. In working with people over the years, really part of what I do is “That’s interesting!” I’ll make reflective comments, and say “Well, you said this, but yet the way in which you’re acting or the tone of your voice tells me a different message…” Because oftentimes people aren’t necessarily aware or considerate of the way in which they convey that to another person.

So ironically, what I’m actually doing is helping somebody build this mental model of themselves, in their mind’s eye. Think of it like empathy and that perspective-taking - I hold this sort of clay working model of another person, but also myself… And when I can’t do that, I’m going to struggle more in terms of being able to empathize with another individual.

Yeah. Well, a lot of how we act with others is a reflection of how we feel and what our perspective is. If we can’t see it through somebody else’s – we tend to reflect on the world based upon our own experiences… And if you’re not able to do what you’ve just said there, it’s gonna come off as like you can’t see from somebody else’s perspective.

Right. And I would offer that one of the challenges really in this is that without necessarily conscious awareness, people might presume that if they are empathetic or hold somebody else’s feelings in mind, that it actually then feels more submissive, or like they are taking a posture of a lower stance… And that really isn’t true. But it can be very much – because social relationships are incredibly complicated; like all things in life, I wish it was just like, you know, unidimensional… [laughs] But then we’d lose so much of the beauty and the flavor of life.

It’s important that we can recognize the way in which other people affect us, and use that as a data point… But that isn’t the entirety of the story. I might interface with somebody and they might come across as incredibly cold, or sterile, or just sort of flat… But I might not have any reason why, or I might infer that it’s something that I said, when it may have had nothing to do with…

…at all to do with you, yeah.

Yeah, that’s an interesting perspective, because that happens often, where you think the interaction went poorly, or what you’re saying there… But meanwhile, there’s a back-story; rewind four hours and something happened in their life. They got terrible news. Or even five minutes prior to that moment they got a text from somebody, that just floored them. Or maybe you’re feeling empathy for somebody that they really care about, and they’re really wanting to express compassion and help them through their pain, and they’re preoccupied with something else mentally and they’re not at all in the moment with you, to give you what you need to have, an interaction that is necessary but is just not possible in that moment for them.

Yeah, so let me sort of talk about the brain structures involved in this. There is the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. Say those five times fast…

I can’t do it.

[laughs] The prefrontal cortex is part of our frontal lobe, and then this anterior cingulate cortex - that is typically associated with decision-making and impulse control… But the self-monitoring, what we call perspective-taking and empathy, are all linked to both of these key brain structures.

I’m not sure how much we’ve talked about it - maybe a little bit in Habits - but our frontal love does a lot of what we call higher-order cognitive functions… Often what I refer to as executive functioning. People in the field talk about executive function. If you can associate that with everything an executive assistant does, and that it’s speed of information processing, set-shifting, attention, concentration, moving from one position to another… So that would make a lot of sense that in this concept of empathy I have to be able to shift my lens and move it in different places.

In the same way I can stand in one location, with my eyes, my gaze fixed on an object in front of me… However, if I move 30 degrees to the right or move 30 degrees to the left, that’s going to change my perspective on the object. And the same thing is true in relationships. But I have to be willing to look at all of these data points if I’m going to try to put together a more comprehensive picture of the puzzle.

Yeah. Perspective is key.

It really is.

Your perspective and your judgment of a scenario can totally change based upon just a slight shift in perspective. And what I mean by that is this aspect of empathy. If I could view something from your perspective, Mireille, with your scenario instead of my own, well then I can begin to have compassion for what you’re going through and be able to really consider what you’re struggling with, versus how I would view it from my position, which – it’s all about perspective, and that’s what’s really interesting to me as we study this further… Perspective is key.

Yeah. And it’s really what you focus on… Because even in a room, or where you are right now, if you’re in your office or in your home, or driving in your car, there’s multiple options available to you to focus on.

But if I’m only focused on one thing, I’m going to lose other peripheral data, that might be actually pretty salient.

How do you mean by that? Give me an example.

Well, I just think about it in terms of relationships. Like, you don’t ever know what somebody is going through, unless they tell you. And especially in the workplace, you don’t know everybody’s back-story, you don’t know things that have contributed to the way they respond and the way in which they do, and you don’t know why they hold fast to certain beliefs, or take firm stances on one thing or another… Because everybody’s experiences have impacted them.

So you might be in a new workplace, and you’re working on a team, and you may not know that one of your team members is maybe in the middle of a divorce, maybe they’re in the middle of trying to manage the birth of a child, or moving, or buying a home, or a major medical concern… Pick anything. But they responded harshly to you in a meeting, and then you get lit or you get so frustrated, like “I can’t believe they would ever respond like that”, and so respond with criticism… Instead of going like “Huh… I wonder why.” Because I really believe, just like kids, all behavior is a form of communication. Maybe they just didn’t sleep the night before… Who knows?

It could be intentional or not intentional. It could just be habitual, it could be autopilot.

Right. Or it could be like “Hey, from my childhood I had to stand up and I had to be really brash. I had to be overbearing, to say “This is what I want, and you will give it to me!” Because maybe that’s the family and how they sort of worked it out. That’s not good or bad, right or wrong, but recognizing that everybody has a different back-story and factors which have impacted who they are and how they behave.

While you’re saying this, I’m thinking sometimes for me it’s easy to understand something if I can understand the opposite. So if we’re talking about empathy and compassion, do they have opposites? What are the opposites of those two things? Is there anything?

That’s an excellent question.

I was thinking maybe entitlement might come into that? I’m not sure if it’s a one-to-one, but whenever – and maybe I’m wrong here, but in the scenario you’ve just described, if someone isn’t giving you the reaction that you want because they have a back-story that disallows them, or they’re just preoccupied, and you’re frustrated because they didn’t give you what you wanted, that’s a variation of entitlement. You feel entitled to a reaction that you didn’t receive, and so therefore you place judgment upon then, or potentially even lash out at them, shame them, get angry and walk away, quit the job completely and go to another team, move to a different team for reasons that are not true, or not as true as they really are.

Yeah, so I might even zoom out a little bit… Yeah, entitlement would be a part of a bigger whole, that I would say rigidity. Cognitive rigidity. I can’t move or maneuver into a different place. This is very present in couples. The hardest thing about managing a romantic relationship over time is being able to advocate for yourself while you still let that person in to affect you.

It’s challenging to go “Okay, I need to really hear this person’s expression of how I affected them, but I really just wanna be right and I want you to hear me. My feelings count, too!” [laughs]

Right, right, right… This requirement of being right is really crippling, as well. All too often it’s about being right versus collaboration, or just coming to behavior change, or just expressing how you feel… Because there’s ways you can reframe things; rather than lashing out with somebody, you can say “When you do this, it makes me feel like that.”

It’s a way to criticize more in an empathetic way… Because I can describe how I feel, and what they’ve done maybe that made me feel they’ve wronged me, or whatever it might be… But I can describe it as “When you call me these names, or when you say things to me in this tone, it makes me feel like this.” It gives them a chance to understand what they’ve done, how that made you feel, and how you can both reflect and collaborate through that negative or positive exchange.

Yeah, exactly. You gave them feedback, and you asked for clarification to get that extra data point.

Right. “Is that true? Is that what you meant by that?”

Right. “Here’s where my brain went. When you did X, my brain went to Y, and C, and Q, and L.”

So do you think in the workplace then this scenario of the back-story of a co-worker, and you said you don’t know what’s going on in somebody’s life unless they tell you - now, in the workplace in particular maybe it’s not always… I don’t know what word you use for it… It’s not always okay to know what’s going on in somebody’s personal life, but you can show that you have concern for them by saying “Hey, I noticed that you were a little off in the meeting today” or “I noticed that you didn’t respond like you did a week ago. I hope everything’s okay.” Or just “If there’s something going on, you don’t have to tell me what it is, but I’d love to be there for you however I can be.” Is that what you would respond with or suggest there?

Well, I’m so glad you brought that up, Adam, because I wouldn’t say that then you have to know, or that people have to tell you what’s going on…

Right. But just know that there’s something going on, that’s what’s important. “Something is happening you don’t need to know about, but it’s affecting me in these ways, and I need you to give me some slack.”

Yeah. But I would say that I always work to hold space for other people in that way. And even if it is fundamentally – like, they’re human too, and I don’t have to know what else might be going on with them, but I could say to them “Hey, I didn’t understand why you did X, Y or Z.” So then you’re not even making it about them, but rather going “I’m curious, because - here’s my data file for you. And I know that this is typically the way in which you respond, or how we interact, and it was an outlier to that. So I was confused. I wanna work together well, I wanna get this project done… Do you have an issue with the deadline? Do you have an issue with the way in which I’m talking about completing it? Let’s collaborate.”

Right. So it sounds like pliability and flexibility has a pretty crucial role too in relationships, because if you’re not flexible, bendable, pliable, however you wanna phrase that - if you’re rigid, that’s only gonna come out negative… Not necessarily negative, but it’s gonna be difficult for you to flex, to enable change, or to (what you’ve said before) recalculate…

…accept new data, analyze that data, make a new plan and iterate towards a new action.

Yeah. And so one of the other things involved with this flexibility would be what researchers have discovered as mirror neurons.


Mirror neurons are these neurons within the brain that help us get access to another person’s emotional experience. There is an action component in it that was first discovered actually with monkeys and this sort of mimicry that occurred, by watching somebody else do an action.

Well, in the same way, I can sort of watch somebody else walk through something in terms of an emotional experience, and if I’m holding space for them in my mind, my body physiologically, these mirror neurons come to play.

Is that why people cry when they watch certain movies, because their mirror neurons are firing, because they’re watching somebody go through a situation and they’re empathizing with them, and can’t help but encapsulate themselves into their scenario and feel what they’re feeling? Is that why?

Okay. So is that why anybody cries at anything when it’s movie-related, because that’s what’s happening?

Yeah, think about it sort of like this emotional contagion.

That’s interesting to put it that way. We’ve said mirror neurons several times, but this emotional contagion I believe is actually a better subtitle for mirror neurons.

Yeah. Some of this emotional contagion or mirror neurons - the research has been rooted in aspects of pain, because if I can recognize the suffering of another, I’m likely to respond in a different way, because I have an awareness of what it feels like to hurt, and what painful stimuli evokes within me.

I wanna share this research, because I just think it’s super-fascinating and it will be helpful to people… But what researchers looked at was the way in which – they used rats, and so they worked to look at rats in the sense of how animals were more likely to freeze after watching another rat receive an electrical shock if they had been shocked themselves in the past.

So the shock freezes the rat, and they’re taking on the effect of the shock because they have been shocked before?

Ain’t that interesting?

That’s really interesting.

However, when researchers inhibited this region, which is similar to that anterior cingulate cortex in the brain, it reduced the responses to another rat’s distress, but not their fear of being shocked themselves. So there is this sense of socially-triggered fear, according to Kaiser’s work, the researcher.

So this is in rats though. Where has the study gone to say that this is true for humans? We don’t know yet?

Well, we can’t shock humans, right…? [laughs]

Well, okay… But we don’t have to shock them, Mireille; maybe we can just prick them with a needle, like you might be doing for a blood test, a glucose test, or something like that. You can do something smaller that is okay to do to a human, but is a similar type of thing. So has any variation of this test been applied to humans, to justify it in our behaviors?

Well, Claus Lamm, who’s out of the University of Vienna, looked at the processes that regulate the first-hand pain, and those that cause empathy for pain, through a number of different studies, as it relates to the influence of painkillers. So you take a drug that helps reduce, so an opiate of sorts.

In these experiments, participants who took this placebo painkiller reported lower pain ratings after receiving a shock, than those who did in the control group. So the control group is the one who didn’t get any sort of buffering experience to the pain. But when those same participants watched a confederate get shocked, they reported a similar drop in their perception of the actor’s pain.

What I’m saying is the ones who got the painkiller - they still perceived that similar drop by watching somebody else’s. So if you reduce people’s self-experienced pain, if you induce this analgesic effect, that not only helps people to deal with their own pain, but vicariously [unintelligible 00:24:13.24] also reduces empathy for the pain of another person.

So what you’re saying is painkillers help to reduce pain, but it also disables my ability to recognize somebody else’s pain, because my pain is reduced.

Right. “I don’t give it as much credence or validity, because I don’t feel it.”

Right… Which is happening a lot in society, I would say. There’s a lot of pain being expressed that is hard for somebody - or, dare I say it, not possible, because they haven’t experienced the pain themselves.

So to expect or desire or feel entitled even (since I said that earlier) to empathy and compassion - it’s a learned behavior for one, but it’s also difficult to give because the pain hasn’t been experienced themselves. The perspective is in their way.

Right. So Lamm, this researcher for the University of Vienna, says that empathy for pain is grounded in representing other’s pain within one’s own pain systems. So if I am very aware of my own pain, like I’ve got a big, robust file, I know pain, “Hi, you’re my friend”, I also will use that data file to make sense of another person’s pain. And if I’m very low, like “What pain? Nothing hurts. We just buck up and deal with it. What’s your problem?”, we’re apt to also do that for others.

That’s pretty interesting.

Yeah, so this is why I think there’s so much more we can look at and talk about with this… And while we could make inferences about what this means, to this or to that, we just – this is what we know for now.

It’s always in flux.

Yeah. So if I know that – I think about it even in my own life; if I’m more stressed with what’s going on, I also wouldn’t necessarily have space for somebody else’s pain in this same sort of way… Not because I can’t be empathetic - here’s that multiple systems - but rather, I’m full, and I just can’t take on more. So this is why it’s also helpful to have other pieces of information, or like we’ve talked about before, that “Name it to tame it.”

Right. I’m glad you said that, because that’s what really helped me… A light bulb came up when I was reading Aware from Dr. Daniel Siegel, which we’ve mentioned earlier… And this definition of compassion really blew me away; the definition based on his book says “Compassion can be defined as the way we sense the suffering of another, imagine ways of decreasing that suffering, and then make attempts to help another reduce their suffering. Perception, imagination and action are each a part of what compassion entails.”

When I unraveled that to me, this whole “Name it to tame it”, this “Define it” kind of scenario… I think all too often, at least from my perspective, since that’s my data file, so to speak, is that I wasn’t that aware of what compassion truly was, or what it was to deliver it, what was involved in being compassionate. I knew the word, I knew what it was, but I didn’t know quite the way that Daniel Siegel described it in Aware. And once I got that, things just started to happen. I started to see it more often, I started to become more understanding of and desiring of delivering compassion… And that’s what’s really, really interesting, this “Name it to tame it” - once you can sort of encapsulate a large amount of context into a single word/phrase, gif, for a lack of better terms maybe even a meme of sorts, it’s much easier to act it out and see it in life.

Right, and I think you touched on something, which is why we have these conversations… It’s that our brain’s neurocircuitry is always malleable, and can be rewired through this concept of neuroplasticity, this neuroflexibility. One’s tendency for empathy and compassion is never fixed. It’s not a fixed thing, which means we can practice putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes to reinforce these neural networks. And I wanna talk about some strategies that we can do to help with that, but before we do, the one last thing I really wanna talk about - and we’ve sort of embedded it in our discussion, but… The role of facial expression is super-important. Because when I’m looking at faces, it really helps me understand what potential feeling somebody is having.

There’s some conflict, because researchers all have different data points in what they discover, about whether or not these are universal… But there are some that, generally speaking – like, facial expressions are similar across cultures. So if someone is sad – it’s interesting, when I first started graduate school, that is our most fundamental therapeutic course… Like, how you do therapy was really just this concept of what we called active listening. So could you look at a person, sit with a person, hear what they were talking about and accurately identify their emotional experience?

That’s tough…

Well, I would think that it’s pretty easy, and that you just could do this, but maybe that’s not being empathetic to the variations of people, and that that isn’t a skill that everybody has.

But people didn’t pass the class, sometimes repeatedly, because they would see someone’s face and be like “Wow, I bet you that made you happy.” And it’s like “No, no.” That was tragic for them. And they just totally missed the boat.

So when we’re trying to work with people, it’s so much more helpful when we look in their face. And I even tell my kids, my family, I’m like “I need your face. I need to see your face.”

Right. “Look at me. Even look at my eyes. Let’s connect eyes to eyes.” There’s a lot that happens when that happens… Can we give people some tools then? What came to mind to me was if I’m having an interaction - pick a scenario; even a format or a medium - what data is missing from this conversation, this collaboration, this communication process, that is not enabling me to have empathy and compassion for this person? …if the scenario is going south, let’s say… What tools can be put in people’s belts to say “What data is missing? What data is crucial?” You mentioned faces, but what other data in communication processes are important to provide context?

Well, thankfully, there’s some people who do this work and help my job, make it easier for me… [laughs]

Okay, good…

So there’s a Harvard psychiatrist who actually utilized the acronym of EMPATHY, the word itself, to help people remember the things that are helpful in it. And so E stands for eye contact.

In Western societies we say that the eyes are the window to the soul. So when I see people’s eyes – I mean, I notice this all the time in working with patients. They might not be able to say something, but I can see the glistening in their eyes, which indicates to me that I touched something sensitive for them. Eye contact.

Then M stands for muscles for facial expression. This is the mirror neurons that I mimic the facial expression of the other person. If you watch sometime, maybe you pay attention this week when you’re having coffee with a friend, you might notice that your body posture, your face actually reflects the facial expression of the person with whom you’re engaging.

I’ll have to go back and find this research, but one research study I came across some years ago talked about how people who’ve been partners for long periods of time - people always comment how they end up looking similar… And the empathy research talked about how when you mimic the other person’s facial expression you tend to age in the same facial creases, that then you end up looking similar, because you’ve mimicked or empathized with their emotions over and over again.

You can tell a highly empathetic, mirror neuron firing couple if you see somebody in their sixties or eighties or whatever still together (of course) and looking similar.

Yeah. So P stands for Posture. How we sit… Again, there’s body language; if arms are crossed, that might come across as closed, but also, bear mind, it could just be that somebody is quite cold.

A stands for Affect. This is our scientific term for emotion.

T, Tone of voice. I talked about prosody, the manner in which I say things.

H, Hearing the whole person… So not just what they’re saying, but paying attention to the person in terms of not judging them, recognizing that they’re a human, they get to have their own challenges and struggles. Even if I don’t know what they are, it doesn’t mean they don’t have them.

And then finally, they Y, Your response. Emotions are contagious. Emotions, at the most fundamental level, our energy – which is interesting, because I think about anxiety, an incredibly contagious emotion, that’s hard to hold… So recognize that your response or your choice in responding can influence how that social interaction goes.

If I come across this cold, or condemning, or critical, or like we’ve talked about before, name-calling, that is not going to help foster more of that shared understanding. We all have these social groups, and I would think especially in the workplace, when people are working with teams, you have an idea of what that world is like, and the times, the deadlines, the expectations… So to recognize that they’re in it with you, so they kind of have a sense of what challenges you’re trying to navigate… And maybe even looking at empathy of like “Hold on… They’re human, so they’re still on my team.” I wanna start there, and recognizing everybody gets to hold that fundamental space.

What I’m seeing in this empathy acronym is a lot of this is missing in digital interactions. Let’s say comments on a blog post, interactions on Twitter, maybe even comments on a podcast, or comments on a scenario where you’re collaborating around software development and you’re expressing your concerns for – let’s say in a code review, where you’re expressing ideas or criticism around somebody’s code quality, or what they wrote, or how they solved the problem… Most of those interactions are digital, and so you don’t have facial expression, you don’t really have posture… Affect might be in there emotionally, maybe through the nuance of the “Hearing the whole person” (the H of EMPATHY) Tone of voice really isn’t there, unless you’re bringing in that prosody, as you’ve mentioned before… And this is where even first languages may come into play, where as we become more and more of a global community, we have more and more people from different languages, and a lot of documentation, a lot of software development is done in English… So that requires potentially even quite an understanding of the English language. Or the exact opposite - if it’s in Chinese, or Portuguese, and you’ve got to have the same prosody in a different language… And that’s difficult.

And your response is obviously there, but… You know, a lot of that is missing in digital interactions.

Yeah. So I would ask, because one of the things is that I always want to put into action that which I’m asking others to do as well… So you’ve made changes at Changelog based on some of the stuff we’ve been talking about right?

So what is one of the key things that you guys have changed with how you do podcasting, to incorporate this?

Yeah, for a long time we never did video calls with the parties at least on the podcast… And that was mainly a technological limitation, by the way we chose to record our podcasts. Then we learned, mainly through – I guess a little, tiny back-story here is that this podcast you’re listening to, Brain Science, actually has been in the making for way longer than it’s actually been in production. I think we began a year prior to actually even publishing anything, because we were really just riffing on the idea and sort of planning out what could we do together, how could it work out… And life experiences have changed to allow us to come together and do this podcast.

But it’s been quite a while, so through our relationship and the different conversations we’ve had, I’ve learned more about empathy and I realized how important it would be for us to have – in this case we’re using Zoom to do a video call. They’re not a sponsor, but thank you for this great software that makes it possible… And we’re able, you and I - while the world may not see us, at least you and I can have this conversation in a slightly more data-driven way, which is I can see your face. I can see you nod your head, even though the audience doesn’t get to hear you, because that’s not part of the conversation… I at least can be in an affective position with you, because I see your emotion. Even though you’re not saying it, you’re nodding your head, and I can interpret that.

So that’s one of the biggest things we’ve changed, which has been insanely impactful. I never thought that it would be that important until I learned how important it was to have a face-to-face interaction… Even though you’re in the Seattle area and I’m in the Houston area, we are many miles away from each other, and we can still have an empathetic position in our conversations, in this show and in other shows, because of just video… And how novel of an idea is that, right?

[laughs] Yeah, but it really gets at the way in which we’re designed, in that it makes a difference to be able to see a whole person. I think the tech field has been making efforts, as a whole, to incorporate these things, to recognize this, within remote workforces, like “This is a great thing, and it allows for some other amazing things for this work/life balance, and distributed workforces across the country/countries…”, but in what way can you get together with people? Because there’s a very different exchange when you can actually see someone, touch someone, hear their tone of voice, as opposed to just words on a page.

And I think about it even in learning different languages - it’s one thing to be able to understand the words, it’s another thing to say it, and it’s another thing to be able to write it.

I remember I was a young adolescent and I had a sibling who was an exchange student in another country, and I had some basic, fundamental knowledge of the language, but the people that we were with just thought it was so humorous to use all of these other nuanced languages, and sort of… What’s the word…?

Yeah! Thank you.

Well, I was actually thinking, “That sounds like slang.”

So I couldn’t understand it. And then it made it so much harder for me to engage with them. And once I understood what they were doing, then I could pick up little nuggets here and there, to put it together. But my level of comprehension of what they might have been trying to convey was far less, because I had far less data.

That’s why there’s the word - or the phrase, actually - “insider jokes”. You’re sitting there with (let’s say) two friends, and another friend comes along… Well, the two friends have hung out more recently, and there’s some sort of insider information they’re joking about and laughing about… And the other person is on the outside, like “What are you talking about?” Well, that’s a variation of slang, and that’s not an inclusive or an inviting action.

You can obviously invite a man; it doesn’t mean that’s a bad thing… It just means that they’re gonna be isolated, they’re gonna be differentiated outside of the scenario, because they don’t have the insider knowledge of this funny joke or thing that happened, and they feel ostracized, in a way, or just not included.

Right. And so how might it look different if people were 1) aware of that, and 2) even advocated for themselves around that, and to say “Hey, I missed that.”

“What are you talking about?”

Yeah, yeah. Like, “I wanna be part of that. What are you referencing when you say X, Y or Z?” And I think about even today how many words are used in multiple ways, in different contexts. If somebody uses a word, that might not be the other person’s understanding of that word, and so then they respond as based on their perception of said word…

And then you add to that how fast information flies… In the last week, a word I said on this show could have become politically incorrect. Or something could happen to a phrase I’ve said on this show - which I’m not even sure if that’s happened; I’m just hypothetically speaking, of course, hopefully - and I’m not aware. But because the world moves so fast, we expect everyone to be keeping up… And that’s impossible.

That’s impossible.

That’s why I think it’s so important to give people this tool belt of “If you’re having an interaction, think about what data is missing from this interaction, or this collaboration, or this conversation, that made it not go the way you expected it to go.” So if you’re in a conversation and it’s not going the way you expected, question “What data is missing?” and maybe use the EMPATHY acronym as a way to self-analyze what data is missing, and do your best to this gather that data to recalculate what is actually happening in that conversation and why it may have gone south.

Right. Other research also has noted that the way that compassion and empathy can be trained is through this mindfulness training, or what some people might say loving kindness. There’s different options in terms of meditation today, but I always think about “How could I replay –” even if I had an exchange that didn’t go well, or I felt offended, or somebody else was offended by me - that I might practice after the fact, identifying, either writing it out or having a conversation with another person, and saying “Here are two other alternative ways in which I could have responded. Here’s a way in which I could have responded more lovingly…” Because that way I’m actually practicing outside of the live event, so that over time I’m approximating the live event because I’m practicing like “Hey brain, when these things occur, here’s the alternative play to run.” And you reduce the threat, because it’s not the actual live event yet.

And then the other thing is really creating your own internal file of this from a conceptual perspective. This is where exercise or sort of sports is really good; physical activity that puts your body and mind in touch with disagreeable experience. Some might consider it masochistic, or suffering in that sense of hurting oneself for a greater good…

Self-inflicted, yeah. Purposeful suffering that you’re doing to yourself, yeah.

Not in a sort of injurious way, but rather functional… And going “I want to–” And I talk about this a lot with patients, about differentiating pain… Because if I put all of my pain into one [44:56] and say “All pain is created equal”, then any even sense of discomfort goes to that file, the file is retrieved, and then I utilize that to play out.

Right. And not all discomfort is negative.

Some of it is actually positive, and has positive effects.

Right. Even thinking about being winded, when I’m doing significant cardiovascular exercise. That’s uncomfortable for me, I don’t love that, but recognizing “This is moving me in a direction of greater health, and it will end.” So the more robust, the broader, the bigger that file is, the easier it is for me to then utilize that as a frame of reference in my responses to other people.

And then lastly, giving back. When I volunteer, when I engage in pro-social behavior, when I give without an expectation of receipt, I practice this sort of loving kindness life. The person didn’t do anything to earn, to have a sense of merit around why I’m treating them in this way, but I’m practicing giving to others, because I can’t help myself. That’s what we do as humans, and a social species - I help another person, and they help another person, and you never know the way in which you can change the world with one small act of kindness.


Our transcripts are open source on GitHub. Improvements are welcome. đź’š

Player art
  0:00 / 0:00