Meditation and Empathy Building
Posted on November 17th, 2018

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge 

Empathy is a crucial component in healthy living. Empathy is a complex construct, thought to contain multiple components (Bonfils et al., 2017). Empathy is a basic prosocial behavior which is referred to as an ability to understand and share others’ emotional state and also a social-behavioral basis of altruism (Chen et al, 2015). It is the “capacity” to share and understand another’s “state of mind” or emotion. Empathy is considered an essential aspect of social cognition (Lockwood et al., 2017).

According to current models in social neuroscience, prosocial human qualities such as empathy and compassion are based on shared representations of self and other (Preston and Hofelich, 2012;   Trautwein  et al., 2016).

Empathy refers to the cognitive and emotional processes that bind people together in various kinds of relationships that permit sharing of experiences as well as understanding of others (Eslinger, 1998). George Herbert Mead   and Jean Piaget separately addressed the question of empathy, and both offered views that emphasized the cognitive over the emotional (Håkansson, 2003). Carl Rogers too studied the phenomenon of empathy and viewed empathy as a positive element of human nature. Recent evidence suggests that there are two possible systems for empathy: a basic emotional contagion system and a more advanced cognitive perspective-taking system (Shamay-Tsoory et al., 2009).

Dr. S. Nassir Ghaemi,  – Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, and Director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston states that empathy is not a vague concept but  a neuropsychological fact.  Biological basis of empathy is connected with mirror neurons. According to Papadourakis and Raos (2017) mirror neurons are sensori-motor neurons that fire both when an animal performs a goal-directed action and when the same animal observes another agent performing the same or a similar transitive action.

Chen and colleagues (2008) indicate that   mirror neuron system has been found to involve in empathy. Brain regions such as anterior insula, anterior and midcingulate cortex are important in empathy (Bernhardt & Singer, 2012). Shamay-Tsoory (2011) states that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal junction, and the medial temporal lobe are necessary for cognitive empathy. According to Shamay-Tsoory and colleagues prefrontal structures play an important part in a network mediating the empathic response and specifically that the right ventromedial cortex has a unique role in integrating cognition and affects to produce the empathic response.

Impairment of empathy development may be associated with autism, narcissism, alexithymia, personality disorder, schizophrenia and depression (Chen et al, 2015). In addition empathic changes are particularly evident after focal prefrontal cortex damage and closed head injury in adults (Eslinger, 1998). Empathy can be blocked by personal stress and aversion (Ekman &Krasner, 2016).

Studies concur that meditation help to build empathy also fight against empathy erosion. Loving-kindness meditation and compassion meditation enhance empathy.  Kindness-based meditation may enhance the neural systems related to faster and more basic perceptual or motor simulation processes (Mascaro et al., 2015).

Hoenders and colleagues (2016) of the view that interventions based on mindfulness training appear to reduce stress and increase empathy. Barbosa and colleagues (2013) state that mindfulness-based stress reduction training is associated with greater empathy. According to McConville, McAleer and Hahne (2017) mindfulness-based interventions decrease stress, anxiety, and depression and improve mindfulness, mood, self-efficacy, and empathy.

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