Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Title of course:  Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Unit 3: Seeing Others from the Self


Section 2:
Empathy and context

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How does empathy work?

Like a candle within a jack-o-lantern, emotions are the physiological light within us, shining outward through our eyes, body postures, and behaviors. And, of course, we are not single, independent agents. We are part of a society of jack-o-lanterns glowing in the darkness, inferring information about the candles illuminating those around us. As social beings intent on thriving in a culture, we care about what others think and feel, especially about us. We look for signs of displeasure or affection in our partners, bosses, children, and friends.

Gauge your emotional response
Gauge your emotional response
Take a moment to be aware of your emotional response as you look at this picture. How does this emotion manifest itself...  
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Gauge your emotional response

© Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

Gauge your emotional response

Take a moment to be aware of your emotional response as you look at this picture. How does this emotion manifest itself in your body—your heart rate, your breathing, your muscles? What thoughts does accompany these physical reactions?

If you take some time to dwell on the picture above, you might notice changes in your physiology—perhaps your respiration slowing or a relaxation of muscles you were unconsciously holding tight. The picture might elicit a sigh of contentment. These physiological changes are a natural response to the emotions manifested in these people and even in the dog: their proximity to each other, the touching and embracing, the hints of smiles, the physical relaxation, and the vulnerable and open position of the dog. The picture becomes a trigger for our emotions, stimulating physiological changes and thoughts and feelings.

Emotions are social in the sense that the behaviors that comprise them can be visible and public, but they also lead to the private experience of feelings. We can see the bodily manifestation of the emotions in this family, but not the private and subjective experience of their feelings. Empathy allows us to infer their feelings and their thoughts because we imagine ourselves as if we are they in these physical postures and relationships. We imagine that we know a lot about what they are thinking.

Notice here that the emotions that each of these people and the dog are experiencing—the physiological state of their bodies—are quite similar. However, the feeling of this emotional state is different for each, based on the developmental level and sociocultural knowledge that each brings to the moment. That is, the father experiences or feels his emotion in the context of his role in the family, as the man who is responsible for these children and who has certain memories of and hopes for them. He feels his emotion in a "fatherly" way. At the same time, the dog probably simply experiences the emotion that results from being bonded to these people, without any meaningful or socioculturally attuned reflection.

The people in the picture and our reaction to them provide a sense of the relationship between our biology and our experience: Our emotions are automatic biological reactions—packages of physical changes, behaviors, and thoughts. These reactions are shaped in part by our experiences, our culture, our socialization, and our learning. Although we do not purposely control the physiological package of behaviors that accompanies them, we can learn about what triggers our emotions, and we can learn to interpret them in more and more complex ways. The experiences of those in the picture give meaning to their emotions. They share the same physiological manifestations of their emotions—the rosy cheeks, the calmness, and the slow breathing. (top)

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However, the father may experience his physiological well-being as happiness because his children are thriving and as pride in his ability to provide a certain kind of life for his family. The younger boy may simply feel happy to be able to spend some time with a father who is often away at work. Although those of us looking at the picture cannot know for certain what any of them are feeling, our relaxed physiological response, our similar experiences, and our shared cultural understanding allow us to infer meaning that we assume is very close to the meaning felt by those in the picture. We look at them empathically, assuming that their feelings reflect experiences that we also have had. Our emotions, feelings, and thoughts seem aligned.

However, this alignment is more fragile than we often imagine, for it depends on shared experiences within a shared culture. This picture would likely elicit a very different reaction if shown in Korea, where people don't normally snuggle with dogs. Or try this experiment: Look back at the picture and pay attention to the changes in your body and mind as you interpret the interaction of these people in a new context—such as imagining that the man is recently divorced. Suddenly, the emotional context changes, and we might find ourselves feeling sad and thinking very different thoughts as we simultaneously empathize with and pity the different people in the picture. We are able to simulate or imagine this new situation in the sense of inferring a new goal for the man based on a new understanding of the context. We might imagine him enjoying a weekend visitation after two weeks of separation from his children. We might notice, too, a different interpretation of the look on the older boy's face, a hint of ambiguity that, in our original response to the picture, we overlooked.

The point is that context matters. The context in this picture and the experiences of these people determine the meaning each finds in this moment together. Context determines how we react to the picture. And context, both the classroom and the experiences students bring to it, affects the emotions of our students. (Note: This exercise is intended to demonstrate a point. This man is not divorced; he is the happily married friend of one of the authors.)

Like all emotions, empathy rides on the neurological platform of the body and the "self"—that sense of a "real me" (my needs, my desires, my beliefs) that is formed from our experiences.

The Brain, the Mind, the Self
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We see ourselves in others, and we understand others by simulating their actions and circumstances on the same neurological structures that keep us alive or maintain our sense of social well-being. Critical to this process is our ability to recognize the goals inherent in the actions we observe, which means that actions that appear random—actions seemingly unconnected to any goal—either go unnoticed or are misunderstood because we assign an incorrect goal to them. And randomness tends to be in the eye of the beholder. The behavior of most people, even of delusional paranoid schizophrenics, is goal directed; there is an internal logic (I stabbed her because she is an agent of the CIA, which is after me) even though it may appear random to others. Too often, what happens in classrooms can seem random because students and teachers fail to understand each other's goals.

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