Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Gift of Empathy

It's amazing to see how some children are powerfully endowed with empathy at a young age. Empathy can take on different forms, but although it can be learned, it also seems at times to be 'endowed.' In today's post, we are considering the perspective-taking aspect of empathy, or putting yourself into someone else's or something else's place.

We recently met a young girl who seemed extraordinarily empathetic for her age. When discussing others, she translated herself 'into the picture', conjecturing about motivations and feelings, and seeing things from others' points of view. It's a very different type of gift from standard 'learning or behavior' checklists, but a powerful one in terms of future problem solving in social as well as completely non-social situations. Even word problems, her mother told us, were made less difficult because she could put herself into the short scenarios - whether dividing up classroom resources or cooperating for some exchange of food.

The figure below shows the differences seen when people imagine themselves getting their finger pinched in a door vs. another person.

It's a little different.

Reminds us a little of Richard Feynmans "If I were an electron, what would I do?", or Chandrasekhar's imagining the universe from the point of view of the star. If you put yourself into the picture and become part of it, you may suddenly see different relationships and meaning.

Empathy: Imagining Self vs. Other fMRI
The Empathy Economy

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