Lichtenstein Creative Media Creating Media that Matters
One Broadway 14th Floor Cambridge, MA 02142 617-682-3700 Fax: 617-682-3710

Search this Site

Broadcast starting week of November 23, 2005

This week on The Infinite Mind we’re talking about Empathy. We explore the science of the complex system in our brain that allows us to tune in to each other’s emotions.

Dr. Peter Kramer begins with an essay tracing the historical origins of empathy in art appreciation, and how the concept later spread to all areas of our lives. We take on the perspective of our loved ones to better understand how they feel, he says, yet criminals use this same ability to manipulate us. He also describes empathy’s ability to soothe due to the fundamental connection of being understood by another.

Most of us think of the empathy as it relates to caring about another, or generosity of spirit. But it’s really an evolved form of knowledge that helps us navigate our social surroundings. If we know how someone else feels, we can imagine how they’ll react and plan accordingly.

To better understand the history of human empathy, Dr. Kramer interviews Frans De Waal, a biologist and worldwide expert on the social intelligence of primates. De Waal is a professor in the psychology department of Emory University and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta. His new book is Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains How We Are Who We Are.

De Waal explains that humans aren’t the only species that exhibit empathy – and it’s a core element of survival in many species. In fact, humans share the basic ability to tune into each others emotions with other mammals. Our closest evolutionary cousins, apes, demonstrate higher levels of empathy such as being able to take on the perspective of other animals and show great caring or deliberate cruelty. De Waal emphasizes that biologists have wrongly identified competition as the core of human and animal behavior, ignoring the role that cooperative behavior plays in survival of groups.

Although humans may be hard-wired to empathize, a Canadian educator believes it’s a trait that can be developed through nurturing. Mary Gordon founded Roots of Empathy, a non-profit program for schools in which children interact with babies that are just a few months old. More than 68,000 students in Canada have gone through the program since it was created a decade ago. The Infinite Mind’s Caroline Arbour visited one of the schools in Toronto that is going through the program and interviewed parents, teachers and children about how the program works.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia also assessed how well Roots of Empathy works. In a survey they conducted with a sample group, teachers reported seeing a significant decrease in aggressive behavior in 88% of children who had been exposed to Roots of Empathy.

Then, we delve into the exciting new neuroscience research that has revolutionized how empathy is perceived by cognitive scientists, biologists and psychiatrists. To understand the underlying neurology that drives empathy, The Infinite Mind’s Jennifer Ehrlich speaks with Read Montague, professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He’s working on mathematical models of trust as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.

Montague explains that new brain scanning techniques have enabled scientists to prove that our ability to empathize is an intrinsic part of our brain. The theory is that from an early age we learn to imitate, matching emotions to expressions and events. We use that information to predict each other’s emotions, and act altruistically or viciously, depending on the situation. The research has given scientists better insight into our fundamental human drives.

Next we explore the connection between empathy and laughter with Joe Wong, a Chinese comedian who performs live from Boston’s Comedy Studio. Joe Wong’s act revolves around making American audiences relate to the hazards of being an Asian immigrant – through laughter. He also joins The Infinite Mind’s Mary Carmichael in the studio to talk about whether humor translates cross culturally, and whether comedy needs to be rooted in empathy. For more information visit Joe Wong's website.

However, empathy isn’t a laughing matter for the medical profession. The pressures of managed care are constantly shortening the length of time doctors have to spend with patients. But a new movement to make doctors compassionate as well as competent involves empathy training. Studies have shown an improved bedside manner helps doctors reduce medical errors and reduces the cost of malpractice suits, since the majority of patients who sue, do so because of botched communication with doctors.

The Infinite Mind’s Jennifer Chu sat in on some empathy classes at Tufts University Medical School near Boston, where medical students are improving their bedside manner along with their knowledge of anatomy and cell biology. The students learn empathetic listening skills in the classroom and practice them, under supervision, at the hospital. For more information visit Tufts University Department of Psychiatry homepage.

Empathy is also at the heart of psychotherapy but it wasn’t always that way. Drs. Anna and Paul Ornstein were among the pioneers of self-psychology, one of the first psychotherapy movements to emphasize listening to patients and entering their inner world, as treatment. Anna and Paul Ornstein led separate careers as professors of psychiatry at The University of Cincinnati. They now co-direct the International Center for the Study of Psychoanalytic Self-Psychology, and remain lecturers at Harvard University. Their work has appeared in hundreds of publications. Anna Ornstein is the author of the recent book, “My Mother’s Eyes: Holocaust Memories of a Young Girl.

In their conversation with Dr. Kramer, Anna and Paul Ornstein also explored the role of empathy in helping them live through the Holocaust. They are originally from Hungary, where they knew each other before WW II, and reunited after the war. They both lost all of the rest of the members of their family in the Holocaust. Anna Ornstein survived her imprisonment in the concentration camp, Auschwitz, and Paul Ornstein survived after escaping a forced labor camp. They both feel that their formative experiences in their families, which were empathetic and caring households, were what enabled them to emerge from the horrors of those times and lead extraordinary academic lives – and have a family of their own. Their experiences in being treated as a group of ‘survivors’ rather than as individuals led them to emphasize the importance of empathy in therapy therapy. For more information visit Anna and Paul Ornstein's website.

Finally, we close the program with commentary from John Hockenberry who comments on the science of empathy, and why the thought of drowning a kitten could bring society to a halt.


Heard on this week's program:

Back to the LCMedia home page