Nov 22, 2015, 09:59AM

What Is Empathy?

Refugee situation compels us to dig deep.

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At a time when we feel so much pain and confusion in the midst of this global crisis, many people, myself included, have far too many complex things going through their minds for empathy to occur. Empathy goes beyond sympathy, which is seeing someone’s distress and realizing they are suffering. Empathy is using imagination to experience suffering as if it were your own.

Even if we lack imagination, humans are wired with the emotional intelligence to experience empathy. Brain scans and MRI studies show that a specific area of the brain is linked to empathy. When shown images of someone else's suffering, participants’ brains switched on parts related to the compulsion that relieves suffering.

In San Diego, Vilayaynur Ramachandran, director of Center for Brain and Cognition at University of Southern California offers, "We used to say, metaphorically, that 'I can feel another's pain.' But now we know that our mirror neurons can literally feel your pain." "Mirror neurons dissolve the barrier between you and someone else," says Ramachandran. He calls them "Gandhi neurons.”

I’m conflicted, along with so many others, about empathy and the refugee crisis. Fear often keeps us inside our comfort zones, hesitant to take on the world. Empathy is about defining, understanding, and reacting to the concerns and needs that underlie the emotional responses and feelings of others. Taking the leap from compassion to action can be difficult.

Once we see suffering, I think it is difficult to turn away because it creates moral responsibility. I use my imagination, wondering what it would be like to flee from my home with only the clothes on my back, maybe some water or a blanket. Walking or driving to some unknown place, where language may be difficult and food may be scarce. What if I were pregnant? What if I didn’t know where my adult children and family were?

The refugee situation compels us to dig deep inside and respond as human beings with empathy, to discover who we are in the way we give. As I write this I wonder, “Where will my concern for humanity take me?”


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