It has long been recognised that some people may naturally be more empathetic than others. This may be due to both a genetic predisposition, and or developmental life experiences. For example there is a significant wealth of research that growing up in a safe and loving nurturing environment, in which others were empathetic towards us, enables our brain to develop greater ability to self sooth and manage our own emotions and also generate empathy towards others. Neurological research has demonstrated that the empathetic centres of our brain also regulate our autonomic nervous system. This means that in receiving empathy and compassion we are able to shift from protective stress and fear driven states to ones that bio balance our brain and encourages a sense of internal calmness and relaxation.
In contrast if we experience significant anxiety, trauma or distress particularly during childhood and our environments are less empathetic, our brain may naturally learn to give greater survival priority to our primary self protection systems and meeting our own emotional needs through goal directed behaviour. Perhaps more importantly it may also then impede our ability to generate and receive empathetic sensitivity towards others and ourselves.
New understanding and research into brain development has also highlighted that although we may all have a genetic trait regarding the level of empathy we can experience, most if not all of us, are not reaching our empathic potential.
With new advances and discoveries in neuropsychology and anatomy, we are still only at the early stages of fully appreciating our brain function and its possible capacity. We now recognise that our brain has a massive ability to evolve throughout our own lifetime due to its integral neural plasticity. This means as we continue to learn during our life, we can continue to evolve and mould our neuronal connections in our brain by what we do.
There is a growing volume of evidence based research that empathy is not just a fixed or static genetic trait, it can also be learned and any pre-existing empathetic ability can be enhanced. Our levels of available empathy can also be influenced by both the environmental circumstances we find ourselves in and our more primitive brain functioning.
This has allowed us to appreciate that the development of empathy can be viewed as a skill rather than just a pre-determined trait. Like every other human skill, the more you practice it the more sensitive and proficient you and your brain will likely become. Interestingly the concept of empathy and compassion has been practised as a skill within Buddhism for thousands of years, which now appears to be supported by growing neurological research.
As a result of our changing environment towards bigger and more complex adaptive systems and increasing communication as people we are at a cross roads in our evolution of encountering new and different psychological, social and technological challenges for our species . This by nature involves processes of greater understanding, collaboration and integration in developing solutions, but in which our more primitive brain responses at times can still reduce or impede us. There has never been a greater time or need in our evolution for developing greater empathy towards others and our planet as an adaptive new brain survival strength.