Richard G. Petty, MD


"The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy."
–Meryl Streep (American Emmy and Oscar-winning Actress, 1949-)

Most people think of empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person, human or otherwise. Yet there is another piece to empathy, and that is the ability to communicate that understanding back to the other person. We use empathy in our day-to-day interactions with others; by showing others that we know how they feel. Empathy is a skill that helps us navigate our way through life: if we know how someone else feels, we can imagine how he or she might react and plan accordingly. Good therapists have to be good empaths, and so do good interviewers. One of Oprah’s extraordinary skills is her ability to empathize and establish rapport in a matter of seconds.

Yet we know learn that empathy is not a purely human attribute. Until 4-5 years ago, most scientists said that emotion and empathy were unique to humans, and were some of the ways in which we were differentiated from the other inhabitants of our world. Yet everyone who lives with a non-human creature knows that that is not so. Now scientific research has confirmed it. Some of it is summarized in a very nice new book by Frans de Waal, entitled Our Inner Ape. Professor de Waal is originally from Holland, but now directs the Living Links Center at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta. Many mammals have been shown to have higher levels of empathy such as being able to take on the perspective of other animals and show great caring and sharing. The Darwinian idea that competition is the key factor driving behavior is giving way to an understanding that cooperation is a key to the survival of groups.

In the last decade, there have been some stunning breakthroughs in neurology. We have learned that genes in the brain do not so much determine behavior, but they instead predict how an individual will respond to the environment. That is why we constantly say that "Biology is not destiny." Yet there is more. Vittorio Gallese and Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma in Italy have made an extraordinarily interesting discovery. They discovered that there are in the frontal cortex of the brain what they call "mirror neurons." If I gently touch one of your fingers, a group of neurons will light up in the sensory parts of your brain, and so will some association neurons in the frontal lobes. If you now watch me touch my own fingers in the same way, those areas in your frontal lobes will light up once again. Just watching the touching produces a mirror effect. If I taste peanut butter ice cream, part of my brain illuminates. When I watch you eat peanut butter ice cream, the same part of my brain illuminates again. The implication is that my brain is resonating with what someone else is feeling. This is a lot more than salivating because someone else is eating something that I enjoy. V.S. Ramachandran from the University of California, San Diego, quite rightly described this discovery as the single most important and unreported story of the last decade. "Rama" as everyone calls him, is the author of a marvelous book – A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Imposter Poodles to Purple Numbers – which I recommend highly.

So we have a probable neurological explanation for one of our key behaviors. But is that the end of it? Far from it. Empathy can almost certainly be learned and amplified. Ten years ago a Canadian Educator named Mary Gordon founded a project called Roots of Empathy, which has been shown to increase the ability in children, and many medical schools are trying to teach medical students to be more empathic.

"Empathy feels these thoughts; your hurt is in my heart, your loss is in my prayers, your sorrow is in my soul, and your tears are in my eyes."
–William Arthur Ward (American Writer, Pastor and Teacher, 1921-1997)

But there are dimensions of empathy which stretch beyond the neurological. Researchers at the Institute of HeartMath in California have reported that brain rhythms synchronize to the rhythmic activity of the heart, and when people are feeling love or appreciation, their blood pressure and respiratory rhythms become entrained with that of the heart. Sustained positive emotions produce a state of coherence throughout the body. But this is where it becomes even more interesting. The electromagnetic field of the heart can transmit information between people, up to a range of about five feet, and one person’s brain waves can synchronize to the heart of another.

There is also increasing research indicating that empathy can be a non-local phenomenon, enabling people to pick up thoughts and feelings over great distances.

I am going to post some more material about this fascinating field over the next few weeks

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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