Written by Alexa Erickson
Empathy is always important, but when times are tough and caring for others is even tougher, it becomes even more essential. Because we are so often in our own bubble, with our own unique outlook on the world, it can be easy to let others’ feelings fall by the wayside. But understanding how other people experience the world is essential for not just the care of others, but our own personal development as well.
When we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, trying to understand their experiences and perspectives, we are practicing empathy. Sometimes empathy just kicks in, serving as a natural instinct, like when we see someone crying or bleeding. But true empathy requires conscious effort.
But does it really have to take a whole lot of work? Or can practicing empathy come with a bit more ease? Researchers from the Department of Psychology at Cambridge University believe it is as simple as taking deep breaths.
According to the study, deep breaths ignite the state of interoception, or paying attention to what is happening inside your own body, and identifying other people’s emotions.
For their work, the team of researchers, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience at the University of London, asked participants to sit quietly for a set amount of time and count their own pulse. They were not permitted to use any method for counting, other than simply sitting silently and concentrating on their heartbeats.
The participants then watched a 15-minute video about a social interaction, divided into short clips. Between each clip, they were asked questions about the mental state of one of the characters. The researchers found that the participants capable of counting their own heartbeats showed a significant association with how well they could identify other people’s emotions.
According to the researchers, such results confirm past research that has found these processes use the same portion of the brain, called the insular cortex. Such insight reveals that the body is incredibly intelligent as a whole — not just the brain. Despite consciousness often being associated with the brain, it is within all of our body’s cells. And the more consciously aware those cells become, the greater awareness we are capable of having for the external world outside of our body.
“We suggest that interoceptive training may have a beneficial impact on the real world,” concluded the study.
Along with counting your heartbeats, there are other methods of practicing interoception you can practice, such as various deep breathing exercises, and mindfulness training such as meditation.
A breathing exercise to try is retaining the breath in order to stimulate the nervous system in a way that trains the brain to relax by way of discomfort. This is called strengthening the compassion muscle.
This 20-minute guided mindfulness exercise may be of help as well: