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Hey there, and welcome to Life Noggin.
You're watching a friend hang a picture on the wall of your house.
She swings the hammer.
Her hand slips, and she smashes her thumb. Ouch!
You rush to her side to make sure she's okay, not just because you don't want her to sue you, but because she's your friend and a fellow human.
You can imagine what she's going through.
What's happening in your brain is a complex process that we've evolved to help us survive as a species.
It's called empathy, and it's "the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing."
It's different from sympathy in that you're putting yourself in someone else's place and understanding what they're going through, not just feeling sorry for them.
While empathy can be seen in other species—dogs and primates come to mind—it's actually rare in the animal kingdom.
So how did you lucky humans develop it?
Well humans gained empathy in three steps.
First, humans began pair bonding with our mates as a way of raising our young.
The need to cooperate with another person to keep babies alive encouraged our brains to grow.
Second, humans started living in communities.
Having to regularly deal with other people made us smarter.
If you've ever had roommates who refused to pick up after themselves on occasion, then you know how important it is to be alive together in peace and throw out the garbage once in a while!
Third, human tribes had to cooperate to survive in harsh environments, where food was really scarce.
Here, we learned the importance of putting the good of all over our own desires.
Essentially, relationships are at the core of why we evolved the way we did.
Everybody reach out and hug somebody.
I mean, someone you know, if they're cool with it.
Don't hug strangers.
Studies have shown that people seeing images of others in pain experience activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula, areas of the brain that process pain.
When you tell your friend “I feel your pain”, you're not just being cliché.
You kinda do. And that's amazing.
Human beings are still naturally self-centered, however.
We project our life experiences and emotional states onto others.
To compensate for that, another part of our brains, the right supramarginal gyrus, separates our emotions from those we see in others.
It keeps us from going full Johnny Bravo on people and helps us understand what they're going through, even if it's different than our own experiences.
Knowing this about human development, it seems obvious that empathy is part of our nature, and not something we learn.
But that's not the whole story.
We're born with the basics of empathy, but it takes work to make us empathy pros.
See, children need to be empathized with in order to fully experience empathy themselves.
If your caretakers empathize with you, you're more likely to be an empathetic person.
On the other hand, you can be taught not to empathize, or be born with a disconnect in the empathetic centers of the brain.
Some researchers believe those who lack empathy due to, say, a difficult childhood suffer from sociopathy, and those who are born with an inability to empathize suffer from psychopathy.
Words like “sociopath” and “psychopath” get thrown around casually, so it's important to know these are real conditions that people deal with, even if it's only a small percentage of the population.
Are you an empathetic person?
What other mental processes that we take for granted do you want to see covered?
Have you ever wondered if humans are naturally born good or bad?
Check out this episode.
As always, I'm Blocko, this has been Life Noggin.
Don't forget to keep on thinking!
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What If You're Born Without Sympathy & Empathy?

7571 Folder Collection
Celeste published on March 31, 2019    Celeste translated    Evangeline reviewed
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