Citizen Brain: “The Empathy Circuit”


(upbeat music) – There’s a tiny circuit
that can save the world. It’s in your brain. It makes empathy. (bright music) Now, we desperately need
that circuit these days since we’re facing enormous challenges that require all of us to
work together to solve them. And empathy is what allows us
to get along with one another. But just now, when we need it the most, we’re actually losing empathy. There’s an empathy gap,
and people are noticing. – Empathy.
– Empathy. – Empathy. – The best companies
can quickly empathize. – That’s the essence of empathy. – We’ve always had that segment of society that lacks empathy. – Sara Konrath at Indiana
University has done a study showing that American college students have been getting less
and less empathetic, with the sharpest drops
coming since the year 2000. So how do we fix this? The answer comes from the
very latest in neuroscience, and I’ll get to that in a bit. But first, what exactly is empathy? Empathy is when you imagine
what it might feel like to be in someone else’s shoes. This can be really hard to do. Like, for example, right
now I’m in my wife’s shoes. And, uh … it feels really awful. Gotta switch to sensible pumps. We humans have been empathizing since, well, before we even had shoes. Compared to other animals,
we weren’t so good at doing things like
leaping or having claws. We survived because we
had this one superpower: we could imagine what another
person might be feeling. This allowed us to work
really well in groups, so we could do stuff like
farming and hunting and such. – Humans are really social creatures. And to live and survive,
we believe we need empathy. So it’s not enough to have just physical survival on your own. For a human, we have to live in groups, and we have to cooperate and get along. And so it’s important to
know when someone feels sad, for example, or is in
pain, and empathy helps us to share that person’s
feelings and to help them. We also think it’s really important to share other humans’ positive emotions, and positive emotions play
a really important role in social life. They are at the foundation
of human relationships. They help us to stay connected to others for years and decades of our lives. And those kinds of relationships
are crucial to survival. – Not that we’re the only
animals who have empathy. So do some of the other
big-brained creatures, like the great apes, along with elephants, and whales, and dolphins. Those other animals have
one kind of empathy: emotional empathy. They instinctively put themselves
in another dolphin’s … flippers. We humans have emotional empathy too, but we also have a second kind of empathy, a kind that lets us use our experiences as well as our instincts so
we can better imagine things from someone else’s perspective. Empathy can sound like kind
of a mushy concept, but no. – Empathy isn’t mushy; it is hard science. – Neuroscientists like Dr. Bruce Miller first discovered the empathy circuit when they were working with patients who had a particular kind of dementia called frontotemporal dementia, or FTD. Many of them lose their empathy. – Imagine an illness when the
first manifestation of this is that you don’t care
about your children, your partner, your loved ones. When someone suffers an
illness, you don’t care. This breaks down everything
about our humanness, our human connection, so
what connects us to people is suddenly disappearing. – When brain scientists like Bruce Miller and his colleague Bill Seeley
were studying people with FTD, they noticed that certain
parts of their brains had shut down. They looked at where their empathy wasn’t, and that showed them where
empathy was supposed to be. And that’s when they
discovered the empathy circuit. – Regions in the circuit help us to detect other people’s
feelings and then produce an emotion in response to
those people’s emotions. So, for example, there’s
parts of the temporal pole and the amygdala that are
really important in helping us to understand other people’s
experiences and emotions. And these systems project to
the anterior cingulate cortex, which then generates
this emotional reaction throughout the body, through
the autonomic nervous system and the face, and that system produces this emotional reaction. A really important structure
in this system is the insula, and the insula is a part of the brain that helps us to represent
our internal states. So it’s not enough to just have the brain produce the emotional
reaction, but then our brain has to represent how
the body has responded and monitor those internal cues. And once we access
those internal feelings, we can better gauge our internal states and then act empathically. – This is a circuit we
never realized existed. This is a circuit that has grown as the human species has grown. – So how exactly does empathy work? Let’s say I’m hanging out with you. You know what, we can
use a visual aid here. (lively music) Could you just tilt your chin just … Yeah. A little more. Okay. And let’s say I start to get upset. Now you start to empathize. You pick up on my emotion
and you start reflecting it. And not just in your brain. The more you empathize,
the more your whole body can get in sync with mine: facial expression, heartbeat,
breathing, posture. Now you go further: you try to comfort me, ’cause you’re obviously
such a cool person. And it works. But what if you don’t empathize with me? Wow. And I thought you and I were buds. And what if it’s not just you and me? What if it’s a whole lot of us? Well, then eventually our empathy circuits will actually start to get weaker, and we might become less empathetic to the next person we encounter. We retreat to our own little groups, our family and friends, the people we consider
“Us” as opposed to “Them,” and everyone outside of that
group becomes “The Other.” (“The Other” echoing) Society breaks down. The collective empathy circuit is broken. And we don’t know why,
but we start to feel off. It’s because we’re not
connecting to our fellow humans. We want to reach out, to empathize. It’s in our nature. But our empathy circuits are weak. So we tend to connect less and less, especially with people who are
outside of our little group, till we reach a point where,
because we’re so divided, we have all these terrible problems. And also because we’re so divided, we can’t work together to solve them. Okay, now that I’ve
completely bummed you out, here’s the good news: we can fix this. We can actually strengthen
our empathy circuits. If you’re old like me,
you probably remember “Eight-Minute Abs.” – And just crunch right up. My feet are on the ground. – Well, there’s a simple
exercise you can do every day to strengthen your empathy circuit. You could call it “Eight-Minute Empths.” (cheesy music) You know? “Empths,” for … empathy. I’ll work on it. The exercise begins when you realize you’re feeling a negative
emotion towards someone. Like, let’s say you’re on
line at the supermarket and I cut you off. This makes you angry, and you realize that’s what you’re feeling. So now here’s what you can do. First take a deep breath. (inhales deeply) Or two. (inhales deeply) Next use your imagination
to try to figure out why I was so rude to you. Maybe I just found out
that my mom needs surgery. Maybe someone was just rude to me. You don’t have to guess the right answer. I mean, usually you won’t be able to. But just trying to imagine
how I’m feeling, and why, will strengthen your empathy circuit. And when I pick up on your empathic vibes, then I might start building
up my own empathy circuit. And then these waves of
empathy can start to spread. – In a culture or in a society, empathy does emanate out from individuals. Those kinds of feeling states
could rapidly be transmitted across people, communities,
states, countries. – We don’t have to love everyone. I mean, you know, we can’t. But we can almost always
empathize with them. It starts with just a
small leap of imagination between you and me, and then it spreads in more little leaps, and more, till it all adds up to one
enormous leap so powerful that it can solve seemingly
insurmountable problems. It seems like it’s not
just, like, a cool thing or maybe a fun thing to learn about how your brain generates empathy and what the empathy circuit
is, but it actually … is an important thing. It’s, like, an important thing
as a citizen or as a parent. – It’s the most important thing. – Wait, say that again. – It’s the most important
thing, to be empathic. – When you see people with
frontotemporal dementia, they are alone, they are isolated. And you can imagine a
country losing this circuit. They will become isolated,
they will become alone. And conversely, you can imagine
what happens to a person who cares about others, who
connects to other people. Their world gets bigger, richer. – So brain science can
help us to save the world. It can help us to save humanity. – I think we must unite. There are so many things
that threaten humanity that will make things
worse if we aren’t united, if we don’t work together. (inspiring music) – We can do this. We have to do it. We want to do it. You feel me? I think you do. (upbeat music) “Empths of Steel.” (beep) “Prance Your Way to Empathy.” (beep) “Seven-Minute Empths.” – [Director] Cut!

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