Can Empathy be Learned? The neural substrate of caring

Published on September 5, 2012

I remember a science fiction show from television that featured a character which was said to have been an empath. For all I knew, the writers might have invented the word, but I thought it was an intriguing concept. The idea was that the empath, upon encountering someone who had suffered great physical injury, was able to assume their wounds, freeing the victim of pain and agony. Then, after several moments of regenerative effort the empath was able to heal their damaged body of its wounds.

Another iteration of this idea appeared in the news several years later when there was talk of neurosurgeons performing “psycho-surgery” to selectively eliminate human brain cells associated with memories that caused posttraumatic stress disorder. These events interested me because they seemed to achieve the same result via different methods. The empath, different from the surgeon, was inspired to help because of empathy. That is to say, the empath felt with the other person, instead of simply feeling bad for them.

Indeed this distinction is what American presidential candidates aspire to when they say things like "I feel your pain." The would-be leader is attempting relate to the audience by showing he is related to them in experience. Likewise, many of the world’s religions describe central figures as a God-man which, instead of ruling from on high as a sympathetic deity with a passing knowledge of mankind's pain and temptations, has lived a mortal life enabling an empathetic perspective.

Another role in which empathy would be appreciated is that of the physician. Like any other field, however, medicine has its collection of socially challenged workers. In an effort to discover if such professionals could be taught the quality of empathy, a group of researchers recently published their results in the Canadian Medical Association Journal1. In their paper titled “Empathic responses in clinical practice: Intuition or tuition? “- the researchers assert, "Clinical empathy is an essential element of quality care, and is associated with improved patient satisfaction and adherence to treatment, as well as fewer malpractice complaints."

The authors support their assertion of insufficient empathy in the medical profession by pointing the results of a convincing study. Oncologist physicians have the unfortunate responsibility to deliver a disproportionate amount of bad news as compared to colleagues in other specialties. During the minutes immediately following the receipt of bad news from an oncologist, there were often "moments when emotions were expressed by the patients (e.g., statements such as “I’ve got nothing to look forward to.”) were often overlooked by the physicians. Of approximately 200 such moments, termed empathic opportunities, the oncologists responded 22% of the time."

In addition to their claim that empathy is a skill that can be taught like any other, the authors offer evidence supporting the claim that empathy can be detected with brain imaging techniques. Specifically, they cite "evidence to suggest the involvement of a neurobiological substrate in this exchange. Functional magnetic resonance imaging data indicate that acts of kindness toward another person may activate important reward centres in one’s own brain, whereas unsympathetic communication can elicit negative emotions. These findings imply that explicit articulation of empathy and other altruistic behaviours may benefit both donor and recipient."

I find interesting the fact that empathy triggers a response in our brain's pleasure center is because it implies that if actions such as empathy increase our pleasure response, then even our altruistic behavior is for selfish reasons.

Maybe it's true what they say--it is better to give than receive.



1 Buckman, Robert; Tulsky, James A.; Rodin, Gary “Empathic responses in clinical practice: Intuition or tuition?” Canadian Medical Association Journal, Vol 183(5), Mar 22 , 2011, 569-571. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.090113



Written by:

Tony Brown

Tony Brown is a former U.S. Army (Reserve) Medical Officer, and currently completing his studies as an M.D./PhD/MBA candidate, with a research thesis titled, “Pharmacology and the Neurological Correlates of Consciousness.”