Empathy and Self Control: Connected in the Brain

Empathy requires going beyond immediate self interest. Self-control is essentially empathy for one’s future self.

Empathy and self control are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites impulsivity and selfishness.

Neuroscientists have reached consistent agreement about the part of the brain where empathy activates responses. What’s fascinating is that current research is linking this same part of the brain with self control.

Can Empathy be Taught?

From the Kids’ Own Wisdom perspective: NO. And from the neuroscience perspective, I imagine the answer would be the same. So, what to do? Empathy is essential for humanity to remain humane.

Empathy can be drawn out. Empathy can be exercised. Several programs are succeeding at just that task. ROOTS OF EMPATHY is one time-tested program:

A growing number of educators and social entrepreneurs across the country are discovering that the secret to learning empathy, emotional literacy, self-awareness, cooperation, effective communication, and many of the other skills classified as “social and emotional learning,” lies in experience, not in workbooks and rote classroom exercises.  Unleashing Empathy: How Teachers Transform Classrooms With Emotional Learning

Enlivening empathy - naturally.
Babies brought into classrooms are wordlessly enlivening young students’ empathy with the ROOTS OF EMPATHY program.
Dogs in Classroom Help Children Learn Empathy

A South Carolina education program is proving that dogs themselves can do plenty of teaching:  Healing Species, sponsored by the Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault, is a compassion education and violence prevention program being taught in two schools in Florence and Darlington Counties. There is high hope that these programs will expand to other schools.

The concept is pretty simple: bring kind rescue dogs into classrooms to help kids learn empathy and pique their interest in difficult subject matter. But the effects are profound.

“Even for my toughest kids, the most street savvy, it almost physically transforms them into a child with empathy. I’ve got guidance counselors giving me specific instances where students are applying what they learned and taking care of each other when that wasn’t there before.”

Healing Species develops empathy in students.
HEALING SPECIES is a highly effective school program that brings dogs into classrooms to facilitate the development of empathy in young students.

Kids’ Own Wisdom is another effective approach that does not attempt to teach empathy. Instead, peer group discussions are structured around SOARR-ing questions to evoke kids natural inclination to collaboratively solve problems. Kids willingly (enthusiastically, even) resolve their own challenges. They just need the right kinds of questions,  under the right circumstances (peer group discussions) to ‘spark’ their innate creativity and perspective taking abilities. 

Did you ever, in your wildest dreams, imagine that neuroscience would combine with babies and dogs to help us help our students create better lives for themselves?  Fascinating times, to be sure.

Neuroscience Explains: The Empathy-Self Control Connection

An interesting experiment helped to demonstrate this connection: Volunteers saw a picture of a man standing in a room with red discs on the wall. The volunteers could see all the discs, but they had to try to estimate how many the man in the room could see. This required them to shift their perspective to the man’s, and they were less able to do this when the rTPJ, (the location of empathy in the brain, as identified by scientists), was disrupted. What’s even more fascinating, this experiment predicted both impulsivity and selfishness – the opposites of self control and empathy – as measured in different experiments.

Long term consequences

Impulsivity and selfishness are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites restraint and empathy. Perhaps this is why people who show dark traits like psychopathy and sadism score low on empathy but high on impulsivity.

Perhaps, also, it’s why impulsivity correlates with slips among recovering addicts, while empathy correlates with longer bouts of abstinence. These qualities represent our successes and failures at escaping our own egocentric bubbles, and understanding the lives of others—even when those others wear our own older faces.

Source: Self-Control Is Just Empathy With Your Future Self – The Atlantic

Perspective Taking is a 21st Century Skill

Open-minded people are psychologically and emotionally flexible enough to consider alternative solutions. When open-mindedness is combined with solid self-worth, constructive outcomes are likely.

It’s inevitable: people see things differently… even when they’re standing close and looking at the same situation or event. Different perspectives can cause a lot of problems, or they can improve situations. Totally depends on everyone’s perspective taking abilities.

Why are there individual perspectives?

Basically all our experiences – situations, events, what other people say and do – are up for interpretation. Interpretation is based on lots of known, and a variety of unknown, elements: past experiences, culture, faith, family values, personal preferences and previous associations to name a few. Differences don’t need to imply right or wrong … they’re just different. Period.  Even little kids “get that,” when they’re given the chance.

Provide students with multiple opportunities to exercise their own hard-wired curiosity about other peoples’ perspectives – with zero pressure for them to agree. Chances are pretty good that those kids will be inclined to open-mindedly consider others’ thoughts and feelings before arriving at their own final conclusions.

Open-minded people are psychologically and emotionally flexible enough to consider alternative solutions. When open-mindedness is combined with solid self-worth, constructive outcomes are likely.

What would the world be like without different perspectives?

For starters, life would be monumentally BORING. Creativity would be non-existent. But look at the bright side: there wouldn’t be any disagreements.  Zzzzzzzzzz!!!

Is there a way to have the best of both? Of course there is. Bring together groups of peers to objectively discuss situations and challenges familiar to everyone in the group. It really helps to show a picture of the scenario you choose to have the kids discuss. Be prepared with a list of 10-20 questions that respect kids’ intelligence in order to facilitate the most successful perspective-taking exercises.

Questions that communicate respect for kids’ intelligence and problem solving abilities are: √ Open-ended.  √ Unpredictable, but relevant.   Here’s a full example for trying out with your 5-7 year old students.  (Read through all of the questions ahead of time, so you can maintain the discussion’s momentum.)

Check out these additional resources for supporting your success at increasing the perspective taking skills of all grade levels.

Keys to Enriching EVERY Student’s Experience in Inclusive Schools

Enriching every student’s experience in inclusive schools is much more likely with well designed peer group discussions.

Enriching every student’s experience in inclusive schools is a worthwhile challenge on so many levels, for so many reasons. By creating ‘peer group’ discussions around topics to which all students can relate, belonging grows and community is spontaneously built. Talk about enriching!

When discussions are facilitated around well-designed lists of open-ended and wide-ranging questions, much can be learned by all participants, including the facilitators.  Just 10-15 minutes of this type of exercise, a couple of times each week, can reveal surprising layers of insight from all participants. All.

Building belonging …

Ultimately, these experiences build ‘belonging,’ in the most natural and un-forced sense. Fundamentally, we’re all interested in each other, and we’re all ‘wired’ for empathy. (And we are working with the following definition of empathythe psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

EMPATHY, if it is to grow, has some very definite requirements:

√ It can't be taught.    √ It can't be forced.   √ It's born right in us, so it just needs to be exercised.

The natural instinct to empathize is most available when there is zero pressure to do so. Peer group discussions can create those enriching opportunities. (No lectures required. In fact, lectures during these discussions, turn out to be counter-productive.)

Benefits for students without disabilities include:
  • Prepares all students for adult life in an inclusive society
  • Increased appreciation and acceptance of individual differences
  • Increased understanding and acceptance of diversity
  • Respect for all people
  • Opportunities to master activities by practicing and teaching others
Benefits for students with disabilities include:
  • Peer role models for academic, social and behavior skills
  • Increased inclusion in future environments
  • Higher expectations for themselves

Benefits for facilitators:
Take the long view when measuring WIN-WIN-WIN Gains

When peer group discussions are designed around real-life topics common to all students’ experiences, triple-wins really can be achieved. Just remember to take the long view, in terms of measuring progress. The first time you go to the gym you don’t expect to look in the mirror and see a difference. Right?  In fact, there’s no exact time when you can predict when you’ll see improvements, but you know that if you continue to workout on a regular basis, positive results are inevitable.

Same with the process of building belonging by facilitating regularly scheduled peer group discussions. If you continue to provide opportunities for kids to share their thoughts around topics that are personally relevant, commonalities, shared values, and empathy will grow. It’s a beautiful inevitability.