Can Empathy Be Learned?

February 6, 2014 by  


By Karin Friedemann, TMO

ScreenShot028Nature versus Nurture has been a long-standing question regarding human growth: What traits are we born with and what traits develop because of our situation – what people (our parents, “the system,” religion etc.) do to us and what choices we ourselves make about everything from diet to employment to spiritual practice. 

Current psychological sciences seem to be focusing more and more on neurology rather than psychiatry to understand human behavior. Emotional trauma can have a huge effect on a person’s life, and we can’t deny that our genetic make-up plays a role in how we react to stress. Yet, how successfully we respond to stress or trauma also has a lot to do with our emotional reservoirs (how well we were treated as a child, happy memories of feeling successful, adults modeling good behavior), and with the timely appearance of appropriate guidance.

Appropriate guidance is advice that is given in a way that the person who needs the advice is able to comprehend and absorb it. Guidance is probably the number one factor in long term human survival.

John Gray, PhD, a best-selling self-help author, became interested in the concept of guidance to resolve problems, even as complicated as relationship problems, after his beloved father was found dead in the trunk of his car. He had been robbed by a hitchhiker. The trunk of the car was dented and bloody from his father’s desperate panicked attempts to escape. Gray climbed into the trunk to try and feel what his father would have felt in his final hours. Just then, Gray’s brother discovered that there was actually a hidden latch that would have opened the trunk from the inside. By speaking to Gray inside the car, his brother was able to explain to him, cramped in total darkness, where the latch was. Gray was able to calmly get out of the trunk within a few minutes instead of dying in a terrible way. Because meaningful and loving guidance was there.

Neurology is extremely important in order to know how to give appropriate guidance. Different personality types will respond differently to the same stimuli, and a good teacher learns to teach in different ways for different personalities.

According to Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types, human consciousness is characterized by its preference of the general attitude: Extraverted (E) vs. Introverted. It is also characterized by its preferences within the two pairs of its mental functions: Sensing (S) – Intuition (N) and Thinking (T) – Feeling (F). Isabel Briggs Myers proposed a fourth dichotomy: Judging (J) – Perceiving (P).
All possible variables result in 16 different combinations that define 16 scientifically different personality types. This author took the test and found out that my personality type occurs in 1 out of 10,000 people. And it’s true, I would have to talk to 40,000 people to find four people who agree with me on all things personal. Forget about politics! It was definitely healing to note that my personality type is the most commonly misunderstood because 9,999 out of 10,000 people think I’m “different.”

Kristie Karima Burns, MH, ND writes in “The Temperaments and the Adult-Child Relationship” that:

“There are four temperaments in the Waldorf system of education. These correspond with the four temperaments as studied by Greek healers as well as healers and scholars in the Middle East. The sanguine is restless like the butterfly and adaptive like the seasons. The choleric is vibrant like the fire. The melancholic is solid and steady like the earth. The phlegmatic is like a river, both peaceful and mysterious, and can look flowing and simple on the outside but have a rich inner world. If a person considers each of these natural phenomena it cannot be said that one is more important than the other or that one is better than the other.  A flowing river is just as beautiful and important as a colorful fluttering butterfly. The earth and the fire are equally important elements, each with their own beauty, power, and value. However, when people consider each other they often have difficulty feeling this way about their fellow man.”

However all these personality categories assume that a person is neurologically healthy.

In our modern times we are dealing with a combination of environmental pollution and pharmaceutical assault on brain function as well as a rise in computer sciences, which result in high paying jobs for people with low social functioning skills. So, people who in past centuries would be rejected for marriage or normal societal recognition, are now wealthy enough to buy themselves a family. The result being more and more people are being born with various neurological problems which are lumped together as “Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

The spectrum is understood as linear, with “Empathic” on one end and “Autistic” on the other end. Everyone is somewhere on the spectrum. A super empath might be so sensitive to the needs of others that she is clairvoyant whereas a super autistic would be so sensitive to his own internal experience that he doesn’t make eye contact or speak. High-functioning autism, often diagnosed as Asperger Syndrome, is a personality type that can succeed in certain areas of brain function such as math and science but neurologically lacks the ability to understand another person’s point of view especially on an emotional level. Grace Myhill, a therapist associated with the Aspergers Association of New England, believes that 50% of the population these days has some degree of autism and could be diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.

Autism spectrum disorders differ from personality types because they describe a profound and incurable inability to notice or care about the needs of others, especially in moments of stress. Statistically, there are certain people who would climb over their own children to get out of a burning airplane while there are other people who would enter a burning airplane to save others. On an individual level, the self-absorbed person has a higher chance of survival and thus procreating. Altruistic thinking and behavior works on a group level and enhances the survival of the group.

When intuition and empathy are lacking, only religion can fill the gap. Rules for what to do and what not to do go a long way in helping people to emulate caring behavior. However, the problem of people lacking empathy is not going away. In addition to the involvement of psychiatric drugs in many recent mass murders committed by young people, there seems to be increasing awareness about autism playing a role in school shootings.

When half of the population has autism, the other half of the population is trying to cope with the additional responsibilities of caring for them. It’s hard. Especially when that person with autism is you, or your spouse, or your child. Guidance is everything. Thankfully, there is so much information and help out there.

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