Can Empathy Be Learned?

Rev. Douglas Taylor


The short answer is ‘Yes.’

I’ve been thinking a lot about how important empathy is in our current social and political climate – how needed it is. I read the news and listen to the commentary; I seek out perspectives that differ from my own – often seeking oppositional perspectives so I can understand what is going on in the “us vs. them” split happening too often around us. I wonder at how we can dehumanize each other, how easy it is to turn people we disagree with into the ‘other,’ and then to turn the ‘other’ into something so foreign we can be cruel without it bothering out consciences.

And then I start thinking about empathy and how much we need it. I caution myself from slipping into the thinking that is something someone else needs – we all need it.

Empathy, as it says on the cover of the order of service today, is “the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions.” That definition comes from the “Greater Good Science Center” out of the University of Berkley, CA. They study and research resilience, compassion, and other important values for society.

So much could be accomplished if we could convince people to ‘walk a mile’ in someone else’s shoes. Walk a mile, lean into the experiences of other people. In his article, “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People,” social philosopher and author Roman Krznaric shares an anecdote about George Orwell, that famous author and social critic who gave us Animal Farm and 1984,

After several years as a colonial police officer in British Burma in the 1920s, Orwell returned to Britain determined to discover what life was like for those living on the social margins. “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed,” he wrote. So he dressed up as a tramp with shabby shoes and coat, and lived on the streets of East London with beggars and vagabonds. The result, recorded in his book Down and Out in Paris and London, was a radical change in his beliefs, priorities, and relationships. He not only realized that homeless people are not “drunken scoundrels”—Orwell developed new friendships, shifted his views on inequality, and gathered some superb literary material. It was the greatest travel experience of his life.

The experience was clearly very formative for Orwell. Often people think about empathy as a lesson learned during early childhood. I uncovered some perspectives that implied the primary way to gain the skill of empathy is through strong positive emotional attachments during the first two years of life. At least that is one version, granted an out-of-date version, of how empathy is formed.

The truth, as revealed in Orwell’s experience, is that we are always capable of learning empathy. Empathy is not a genetic trait we either have or do not have, it is a capacity we can exercise and strengthen by choice.   

Okay, I will slow down and admit there is an aspect of empathy that has a genetic component. Neuroscience was very excited to uncover what we call Mirror Neurons a couple decades back. Essentially, Mirror Neurons fire in our brains the same way if we do something or if we watch someone else do the same thing. These neurons don’t distinguish between our actions and our observation of someone else’s actions.

For example, if I go with you to get your blood drawn at the doctor’s, my Mirror Neurons will respond as if I have been stuck by the needle. I don’t mean that watching someone else stuck by a needle will hurt as if I were stuck by a needle, but there are other things that happen besides the hurting. There is our actual pain and the response we have to our pain, the agony, the desire to get away from the pain, the seeking of relief or comfort … our Mirror Neurons fire around those areas.

I’m not entirely clear on all of it; and I suspect the field of neuroscience is also relatively unclear about some of it still too. That’s part of the fun of science, it is always figuring out a little more. But it is an intriguing discovery, this genetic disposition toward sharing the experiences of others.

Of course, Mirror Neurons are not the whole picture. Being a good person is not reducible to genetics. Empathy is not locked in our neurology. There is a considerable element of learning that is possible for us as well.

As religious and spiritual people, we talk about the importance of ‘considering the needs of other people.’ Often when we say that we mean it in as part of a conversation about justice. Today, we also mean it in a conversation about compassion and pastoral concerns. Apostle Paul advised that we be joyful with those who are joyful and sad with those who are sad (Romans 12:15). He was encouraging us into empathy, to share the feelings of other people. He was encouraging us to notice what our Mirror Neurons are telling us, to have empathy.

In the articles from that Greater Good Science Center I mentioned earlier, they made a point to distinguishing two forms of empathy. I mention this because it leads us into an interesting conversation. The two types of empathy are Affective empathy which is about our feelings and emotions, and Cognitive empathy which is sometimes referred to as ‘perspective taking.’ Look at that definition on the front of the order of service again and notice the words “to understand their feelings and perspective.”  Perspective taking is what George Orwell did in the anecdote from earlier. We are able to identify and understand another person’s perspective. The ‘walking in another person’s shoes’ idea is about Cognitive empathy. The conversation about Mirror Neurons is about Affective empathy.

Interestingly, there has been a lot of research recently about empathy and autism. I know many people who are on the autism spectrum. So, this research caught my attention. Some people have characterized autism as an ‘empathy disorder,’ implying that people with autism are not and can not be empathic. More recently however, people are questioning the assumption. Some current research shows it is not empathy that is impaired, but social communication and knowing how to ‘read’ other people’s emotions.

Researchers Rebecca Brewer and Jennifer Murphy did an empathy study exploring the difference between people with Autism and people with Alexithymia. Alexithymia is a condition in which an individual has difficulty understanding and identifying their own emotions. This contrasts with the common feature in Autism of having difficulty understanding and identifying the emotions of other people. In Brewer and Murphy’s research they looked at four groups: people who had Autism but not Alexithymia, people who had both Autism and Alexithymia, People who had Alexithymia but not Autism, and people who had neither Autism or Alexithymia.  

They discovered the greatest hurdle to empathy was Alexithymia, not Autism. In other words – if you have difficulty understanding and identifying your own emotions, you will tend to be less empathic. If you have difficulty with other people’s emotions, that is not a road block to empathy.

I found this to a fascinating insight. The way to be more empathic toward others is to explore and understand yourself more deeply. Like the passage from Leviticus that Jesus quoted, “Loving your neighbor as yourself” It is the ‘as yourself’ part that is so elegant. It is the ‘as yourself’ part that enables empathy. You are the lens through which you connect to others. So, go deeper into who you are, into your own values and experiences. Then, listen to the differences to be found in friends and strangers, and wonder at how similar it all is to your own experiences. Remember that old truism: often the most personal is the also the most universal.

The trick is to be open to the fears of other people. To do that you need to be open to your own fears. It is about being vulnerable.

I’ll give you an example. When you go to the hospice unit to visit a friend, you could say: ‘oh this must be horrible for you. I feel bad for you.” That is recognizing the situation but not a sharing of it. What does it look like to share it? When you visit your friend on the hospice unit, you feel your own mortality and fear. Your Mirror Neurons respond to the suffering. And rather than distance yourself or hold it off, you step closer.

If you walk by a homeless person and think, ‘I am not different;’ you risk recognizing the loneliness and the struggle to keep despair at bay. You can get stuck in your own stuff. You do need to mindful of that. But when you can recognize the suffering through your own suffering, you can move through your own emotions and experiences to the place where you can give your attention to your friend or a stranger – that’s empathy.

Empathy can be learned. It can be strengthened and encouraged. We can do empathic exercises.  Behaviors you can practice that will strengthen your empathic skills include things like active listening, sharing in other people’s joy, being curious about strangers, looking for commonalities with others, reading fiction or watching plays.

It is all about getting out of yourself, but that’s not quite it – a better way to say it is to by going deeper into your own experiences, you can connect beyond yourself to others. And often we notice the differences, we see that someone is a different race, age, social class, physical ability or whatever. And it is worth noticing those differences, that’s part of being curious about others. But what will strengthen empathy is to then seek commonalities. So that list I mentioned about active listening and sharing other people’s joys and reading fiction – it is about strengthen your empathy by seeking commonalities across the differences.

Saint Maya’s poem from the opening words remind us of all this.

            We love and lose in China, we weep on England’s moors,

            We laugh and moan in Guinea, and thrive on Spanish shores.

            We seek success in Finland, are born and die in Main.

            In minor ways we differ, in major we’re the same.

            I note the obvious differences between each sort and type;

            But we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

Empathy, as Brene Brown shared in the video, is all about connection. It is noticing that we are more alike than unalike. It is about seeing ourselves in the hurts and hopes of others. Empathy is recognizing ourselves as kin, and behaving as beloved community.

Once upon a time, a thief snuck into the room of a sleeping Buddhist monk. As the burglar rummaged about, the monk awoke. The startled thief ran into the snowy streets with the monk racing after him, “Please stop!” the monk called, and the man finally did, realizing that his pursuer was no threat. “You’ll need this,” the monk gasped, handing the thief his own coat.

“What do you mean?” the man asked.

“I saw that you dashed from my room into the cold without so much as a winter wrap, and I realized that I had both a woolen blanket and a coat.”

“I don’t understand,” the man said.

“It is simple. You have nothing at all to keep you warm,” the monk answered.

“But you are a fool to give away your coat, leaving you with only a blanket,” the man replied, reaching for the garment.

“If I had two gloves on one hand and none on the other,” the monk asked, “would I be a fool to put one of them on my bare hand?”


In a world without end, may it be so.