Theory of Mind and Empathy | Neuroscience

Through brain-mapping, neuroscience is unlocking the mystery of the theory of mind and empathy Empathy has long been an enigma to me. I have written two books that explore empathy disorders among those with Asperger Syndrome. Problems with empathy explain why folks with ASD struggle in their relationships with loved ones. And it explains why those loved ones are often furious with their ASD partners and family members. Yes, it’s true that we humans are a product of nature and nurture. However, with the advent of neuroscience that can peer into the workings of a live brain, we’re finding powerful evidence that a huge chunk of empathy is hard wired.

A recent New York Times article reports about this in the context of trying to peacefully integrate the Roma (many call them Gypsy) into Hungarian society by busing the children to different schools. It’s reminiscent of the race struggle that occurred in the United States. What’s interesting is that now, with greater understanding of how empathy works, they’re applying new techniques to resolving these issues.

Emile Bruneau, cognitive neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has spent years studying conflicts in Israel and the West Bank, along the U.S./Mexican border and within the political parties of Democrats and Republicans, is on the scene trying to find out, through brain-mapping, when and how empathy breaks down.

Neuroscientists have already mapped out the “theory-of-mind network” of the brain. Theory of Mind (ToM is a theory because the mind in not directly observable) is the ability to attribute beliefs, intentions, desires, imaginations, emotions, etc., to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own. Within that ToM network, they’re pinpointing specific tasks such as how the brain makes moral judgments.

How will things turn out for those in Hungary? Time will tell. Many of the conflict-resolution programs have not worked well because they haven’t tapped into the power of empathy. While many are empathetic toward their own family and group, they are able to mute their empathy toward their “enemy”. We’re hopeful that intervening on a psychological level will make societal intervention more effective.

Empathy is an important component to peaceful family, business and community relationships. Each act of true empathy brings us closer to happiness. Do you find yourself struggling with controlling your emotions, so that you can truly see how others are feeling? If you live near Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA please contact my office and schedule an appointment so we can discuss techniques and tools that can help you improve in your art of empathy.

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