Do we lack empathy?: putting yourself in the shoes of others can be trained

Humans are social beings.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
18 August 2023 Friday 10:23
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Do we lack empathy?: putting yourself in the shoes of others can be trained

Humans are social beings. We live in the company of other people since we are born and we develop our social skills from the first moments of our lives. These fluid and adaptive interactions involve practically all the basic cognitive functions of our brain (perception, attention, language, memory, executive functions...), as well as more specific mental abilities. Among them is what we call “social cognition”.

It is a complex concept in which mechanisms that perceive, process and evaluate social stimuli coexist. It allows us to develop a representation of the social environment and makes it possible to issue an appropriate response to the situation. And although there is no absolute agreement on what processes social cognition includes, all the authors agree that it includes three main components:

As with the rest of our cognitive abilities, behind each of these abilities there is a brain substrate that makes it possible. Brain networks that include regions such as the amygdala, the insula, or the prefrontal cortex are essential for social cognition to function correctly.

This allows us to venture that this faculty is affected in certain pathologies. It is logical to think that some people with autism spectrum disorders or psychiatric problems such as schizophrenia or neurodegenerative diseases will suffer, to a greater or lesser extent, alterations in these processes. And indeed, they are generally not especially good at identifying the emotions of others and acting accordingly. Their connections and brain circuits present abnormal functioning.

Another profile of patients who have helped to clarify and study social cognition over the last few decades are those who have experienced subsequent brain damage. People who, after suffering, for example, a head injury caused by a car accident, began to show difficulties in relating to their peers.

Initially, we might think that other deficits, such as memory or language problems, may have a greater impact for these patients. However, the relatives of people whose social cognition is affected perceive it as something especially limiting. It hinders interactions with your loved one and the possibilities that he or she will have to function adequately in the social world in which we live.

Fortunately, and thanks to brain plasticity, these patients can benefit from intervention programs that manage to improve their social cognition. So it is worth asking, can healthy people also train and perfect it?

This seems obvious when we think about childhood. In fact, children develop this mental facet from the first years of life and up to adolescence. It occurs at the same time that other higher cognitive processes develop, such as executive functions (a set of skills that allow us to make decisions and carry out behaviors directed at objectives and oriented to the future), hand in hand with the maturation of the aforementioned prefrontal cortex.

But it's never late. Neuroplasticity, although it declines with age, lasts a lifetime. Interesting research has revealed that adults without any pathology can improve their social cognition. It is possible to train our ability to recognize, comprehend and understand emotions in others, as well as to put ourselves in another person's place and get to experience what they are feeling.

These training programs are made up of specific exercises, which we must rehearse and practice. These are activities such as assigning emotions to different faces, imagining a person's response in a certain circumstance, or inferring what someone might be feeling in a social situation.

It is about rehearsing in a structured way, as we do when we want to play an instrument or perfect a language. We also have a great opportunity to develop our social cognition when we put it to the test in real experiences and work on it.

And whenever we want to improve at something, the first thing is to know and understand the skills involved. That was the purpose of this article.

Article originally published on The Conversation. Loles Villalobos Tornero is from the Faculty of Psychology and is in the department of experimental psychology, cognitive processes and speech therapy at the Complutense University of Madrid.