Empathy and Compassion: History & Research [p. 1]

If you know about compassionate communication, you’re likely familiar with the ways that being mindful of each other, asking questions, and actively searching for ways to implement authentic connections can improve your life. Perhaps you celebrate the differences that using empathy and compassion has made in your experiences… so, what’s the difference between the two?

Empathy is a mental identification with the thoughts, feelings, or state of another person; it is the capacity to truly understand another person’s point of view. Compassion is a mental and somatic awareness of the suffering of another — coupled with the wish to relieve it. Empathy is understanding and compassion is a call to action – and both are the subject of increasing study and research. The terms are often seen together, though empathy receives much more research time.

The concepts and terms have separate origins: compassion’s etymology is traced to the Latin stem compati meaning “suffer with, feel pity,” and in English goes as far back as 14th C. middle English usage, appearing in translations of narratives, poems, and religious texts. Compassion had been more often found in texts which relate to spiritual practices or concepts, until recently.

Dr. Andrew Weil, founder, professor, and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona says that “Empathy and compassion favor communication and social bonding. They strengthen community and mitigate interpersonal strife and violence. To hurt or kill another human being, one must first define that person as “other” – different from you in some essential way. Empathy prevents that.”

Academics are in high gear sharing information about the close concept of empathy — on it’s effect on everything from humans’ relationship to animals, to the origins of the term, to the ability of compassion coupled with empathy to effect real change.  Empathy was coined in English by Psychologist Edward Titchener in 1909, to translate the German term Einfühlung (“in-feeling”), which itself had just been invented. Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research [CCARE] tells us, “The last 103 years has seen the concept of empathy develop into a science, a discipline, and a practice… with a major development in the early 1990s when Italian neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti found physical evidence of the operation of empathy in the brain.”

However, scientists and researchers on board with the power of compassion can be found at and around Stanford’s CCARE, a research center which has lead the way, hosting the inagural Science of Compassion conference July 19-22 in Colorado. “Recent scholarship at CCARE has established the positive effects of compassion at work,” says Huffington Post writer Daniel E. Martin, “and we are beginning to realize the impact it can have on organizational pain points.”

The findings of their work is being joined by work in the field of empathy. For example, researcher Paul Thagard describes “a new technique called cognitive-affective mapping [that] can help [people in developing] empathy—in getting a better emotional understanding of other people.”

There’s even now Empathy software to help understand and resolve conflicts – Empathica, designed in the Cognitive Science department at the University of Waterloo in Canada is one example.

But, how else might a sense of compassion or improved empathy affect our connections or interdependence? In a 2009 study, using brain imaging technology, Drs. Richie Davidson and Helen Weng found that participants in a group trained in compassion showed more activity in a particular area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens than in a group taught cognitive reappraisal. The brain imaging studies found that the higher the activation in this area of the brain, the more money was donated. So there is some neuroscientific connection between compassion and altruism.”

And recent research suggests that vegetarians and other non- and mindful-animal eating persons’ brains show increased empathic activity – and capacity — a psychological study reveals. [CITE:

All this research is suggesting two things: that as human beings we are wired to be empathic and compassionate, if we develop these natural capacities further, we can increase peace, harmony, community and understanding.

Part Two of this article: Empathy and Compassion in Education, will come out in the September issue of our newsletter. In the meantime, you can see more information about the current research on empathy here on our blog or facebook pages – and feel welcome to join the conversation by posting comments, links to more research, and your ideas.

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