“The overall goal is to reduce aggression and bullying by enhancing the ability of students to take each other’s perspectives.” – Paul Thagard
(The following excerpt from This Is Your Brain On Empathy by Paul Thagard recently appeared on psychologytoday.com. To view this post in its entirety click on the link below.)
I recently attended a research conference in Toronto sponsored by Roots of Empathy, an organization dedicated to increasing empathy in schools. The method that they have pioneered involves bringing babies and mothers into classrooms to provoke interactions and discussions among students, from kindergarten to grade 8. This technique has been so successful in improving classroom behavior that it has spread across Canada and to several other countries, involving more than 1500 classrooms and 600,000 children. Before the conference, I was fortunate to attend a local grade 6 classroom visited by a darling infant girl named Meadow.
The question I addressed in my presentation was whether neural theories of emotion can explain why the Roots of Empathy method works so well. I argued that there are neural mechanisms that explain why babies in classrooms can foster empathy, operating in two different modes.
First, the baby visit employs an automatic and unconscious mode relying on basic physiological connections between the baby and the children, and among the children.
The second mode of empathy is more deliberate, conscious, and verbal, resulting from a skilful teacher using words to draw parallels between the baby’s situation and the situation of the students.
My view has long been that emotion involves both cognitive evaluation and physiological perception, in a way that is performed in parallel by numerous brain areas. Similarly, empathy is both a physiological and a cognitive process, and its achievement is enhanced by tapping into both aspects of emotion using automatic and deliberate modes of empathy. If you want to emphasize with somebody, you should try to align your bodily states and also your cognitive evaluations, both of them integrated in patterns of brain activity that approximate the experiences of another.