This May Be The Secret To Empathy

Hint: You don't have to be selfless to feel it.

Empathy has only existed as a word in the English language for a little over a century. But its power cannot be denied.

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and be sensitive to the "feelings, thoughts and experience of another," but that is not the whole picture. Researchers at the University of Missouri have found that empathy has as much to do with our sense of self as it does with our sense of others. 

Brick Johnstone, a neuropsychologist and professor of health psychology at the University of Missouri, and a team of researchers published the results of their empathy study on Wednesday. 

In the study, researchers gave neuropsychological evaluations and self-reported questionnaires to a group of 31 individuals with traumatic brain injuries. Twenty of the participants also received MRI brain scans. Johnstone and his colleagues found that individuals who were more empathetic appeared to have greater functioning in their right parietal lobe, the area of the brain associated with self-orientation. He also found that increased functioning of the areas of the brain focused on the self went hand in hand with increased empathy. 

"This is one instance when being more self-focused is related to virtuous behaviors,” he said in a release.

Johnstone said several psychological and spiritual "interventions" can help individuals develop their sense of self. Psychological counseling, for example, can focus on helping patients take the perspective of others and experience such perspectives as if they were one’s own, he told The Huffington Post.

Religious practices can benefit from stressing "that to truly care for one another we must understand their situation and incorporate it into a strong sense of the self," Johnstone said.

Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg emphasizes similar values when she teaches Lovingkindness meditation, a mindfulness practice that aims to enhance empathy and develop what Salzberg calls "a strong sense of self respect." The two are intimately related, she told HuffPost.

"Mindfulness of one's own pain (awareness without judgment)... is the basis for being able to tune into the pain of others without judgment," Salzberg said.

In many ways, empathy goes hand in hand with the golden rule, Johnstone said, "I ask that others treat me as they would themselves; and I will treat others as if they were my self."

Click here to for an introductory video on lovingkindness meditation.

Also on HuffPost:

Where We Experience Spirituality