Scientists have discovered that certain brain networks light up both when you perform an action and when you see someone else performing it – allowing you to ‘mirror’ the experience of it happening to you too.
When it comes to emotions, the more self- aware you are and the greater your ability to read the emotional states of others will be. This allows you to better understand what they are going through.
Theory of mind (ToM) is a psychological concept that refers to your ability to understand others’ knowledge, emotions, intentions and desires, in order to interpret how others act.
This ability continues to evolve throughout adulthood, strengthening our ability to understand what drives others to act as they do, and recognise that they hold perspectives that differ from our own.
The benefits of empathy
At the core of human understanding lies a willingness to be moved by another person in order to better relate. Empathy not only benefits us when it comes to understanding other people, it helps us to communicate our ideas in ways that makes sense to those with a different perspective to ours, too.
On a planet with 7.4 billion people, hailing from 195 countries, speaking around 7,000 different languages, there are many connections yet to be made, endless perspectives to try on for size and abundant space for understanding to flourish in between.
What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy?
In order to become closer to others, we need to be able to understand and experience the highs and lows of their journey with them. Your capacity to do so defines how empathic you are. Experiencing the inner state of another person is an essential ingredient for cultivating connection.
Empathy is foundational in any meaningful relationship as it strengthens the bond between you and another person, through a deep level of understanding and perspective-taking. In the presence of empathy, you’re left warmly reassured that someone else truly gets you.
On the topic of understanding each other’s plight, sympathy and empathy are often confused. While a sympathetic person may feel sorry for you, they aren’t sharing your perspective or your feelings as they do.
In contrast, the empathic person displays a capacity to feel for you and with you, showing a deeper level of understanding and emotional investment that ultimately leads you both to a much closer connection.
How to be more understanding
To better understand others, cultivate a healthy sense of curiosity. Ask questions instead of speculating based on your own perspective, prior knowledge or previous experiences.
By tuning into your breathing, your body and your emotions, you’ll become more present, aware, and better able to pick up on the feelings and emotions of those around you too.
Use your imagination
Imagine what another person may be going through in his or her situation and how that could shape their current perspective.
Check in with yourself
Catch yourself in the act if you notice that you’re judging another person. Check in and ask yourself honestly how you’d feel if you were in their place. Challenge yourself to practice a deeper understanding in these moments.
Train your brain
What you think and feel is what you become, so use this knowledge to intentionally reprogram your brain. Consciously cultivating a sense of understanding will train your brain to naturally become more empathic on its own. Practice while walking past strangers on the street or hearing a story in the news.
Photos by Thought Catalog and Vince Fleming on Unsplash