The Science Behind Empathy


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Presented at PMI NYC Agile SIG on June 3, 2014. Pictures can be found here

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The Science Behind Empathy

  1. 1. The Science Behind Empathy -By Ram Srinivasan Certified Scrum Trainer and Agile Coach @ramvasan,
  2. 2. About This Session • Brain Science is an evolving field, multiple models exist for complex processes • Though I explain a “process” by itself, the brain “parallelizes” a lot of processes at the same time • Same brain regions can be active during different processes
  3. 3. The Basics – Triune Brain Theory
  4. 4. Empathy, Mindreading and Mirror Neurons
  5. 5. Rock – Paper - Scissors
  6. 6. Theory of Mind (ToM) Ability to grasp that others have believes, thoughts, intentions and feelings that are different than that of our own Mentalizing Applying ToM to experientially understand others state of mind, believes, desires and particularly emotions without injecting our own
  7. 7. Mentalizing is non-trivial
  8. 8. Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock
  9. 9. The New Game – RPSLS variation • Your goal is to have the same sign as that of your partner • You cannot agree on a specific sign before or during the game, you have to discover it by playing the game • You (or your partner) cannot use the same sign consecutively or cannot use consecutive signs (e.g. rock this time, paper next time) • You are ONLY allowed to “read” the other person to guess what sign they may use
  10. 10. The New Game … With Emotions Partial list of emotions from
  11. 11. Empathy (Feeling Into .. ) Process • Mind Reading (i.e. decoding others’ emotions) • Affect(emotion) Matching • Empathic Motivation (positive regard with non-fleeting concern)
  12. 12. In Daniel Goleman’s terms … • Mind Reading (i.e. decoding others’ emotions) • Affect(emotion) Matching • Empathic Motivation (positive regard with non-fleeting concern) CognitiveEmpathy EmotionalEmpathy EmpathicConcern (positiveregardwithnonfleeting concern)
  13. 13. An Experiment • If you won Rock-Paper- Scissors, you are “A”. • Please stand up and start thinking about a story that you can share, which had moderate to significant emotional impact on you • Turn around and face the back of the room
  14. 14. An Experiment • If you are reading this, you are “B” • When “A” shares his/her story, your goal is to maintain “poker face” i.e. show no emotions • You can ask questions, but your voice should be a monotone voice i.e. your voice does not raise and fall
  15. 15. Be the Mirror
  16. 16. Mirror Neurons and Imitation Mirror System in monkey and humans
  17. 17. Mirror Neurons and Imitation • When observers watch the actions (with intentions) of others, their brains mimic those actions as if the observers themselves are performing those actions • Subconsciously, our brain can mirror • Actions • Emotions • Intentions (right pSTS and premotar system) • Activating the “mirror system” relies on more than perceived emotions, it relies on perceived movements, and more subtle variations like perceived movement in space
  18. 18. Mimicking Emotions • When we see another person’s facial emotions, we mimic those emotions in subtle ways • If the person is unable to mimic those expressions in subtle ways (say due to Botox injections), they will be worse at recognizing emotions of others “Auditory mirroring” is secondary, and person who is able to match the client’s processing style is more likely to convey empathy
  19. 19. Empathic Motivation Empathic Motivation A sustained positive regard which is non-fleeting, and moves the person to do something How Would Empathic Motivation Show up for You During a Conversation?
  20. 20. Active Listening
  21. 21. Listening vs. Hearing
  22. 22. Listening • Biases • Experience • Culture • Preconceived Notion and Thoughts • Judgment Listening is a active cognitive process, i.e. we do not just hear, we make sense out of those words Your Internal Dialog
  23. 23. Active Listening- Reduce Internal Chatter • Internal Chatter is minimized • Listen with empathy for clarification and collaboration
  24. 24. Internal Chatter(Mind Wandering) • One type of Resting State Network (RSN) is the Default Mode Network (also called Narrative Network) • Associated with Stimulus Independent Thought • Is active when one is not doing cognitive, motor and visual task • It is the brain’s preferred state of being • Default Mode Network is a Task Negative Network • Default Mode Network is involved in Social Cognition • Thinking about oneself, other and relationship of self to others – Evolutionary Significance
  25. 25. A Wandering Mind… Is an Unhappy Mind Questions: How are you feeling right now? What are you doing right now? Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing? Reference: A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert
  26. 26. A Wandering Mind… Is an Unhappy Mind Facts: • Mind wandering is common • 47% on an average • At least 30% during every activity except making love • People were less happy when mind wandered • Being “present” signified more happiness Reference: A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert
  27. 27. DMN When Focusing on a Task • Internal focus on our train of thoughts shuts down our sensory system and consequently memory of the event • As default network is activated , task positive network is deactivated (attention and engagement is decreased) • Situations that do not need focus – boring or repetitive tasks let mind wander and vice versa • Catch 22: the very circuits that use to catch the wandering mind are the same circuits recruited by the wandering mind • Vicious circle of fatigue, stress and anxiety
  28. 28. Meta-Awareness • Can be defined as one’s explicit knowledge of the current contents of thoughts, feeling and sensations • Noticing of mind wandering aids in the direct control of consciousness • The fact that we can take stock of our conscious experience allows the individual to initiate downstream changes that will ultimately allow mind wandering to be controlled Reference Articles Meta-awareness, perceptual decoupling and the wandering mind Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference
  29. 29. References
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