Science has come a long way in improving our lives, from helping us to address problems within our bodies by finding a way to develop means of prevention to keep illness at bay and to create prosthetics to make body parts work again that previously became unworkable. But what about changing the inside of our brains? What if we want to improve our emotional health or compassion toward others? Is there a way to train our emotions for the improvement of our lives?
Treatment with neurofeedback, which is a training tool that employs electroencephalography (EEG), a multitude of changes can be made in our brains. Neurofeedback is a way of improving our brain’s electrical pattern, for the purpose of improving its function in different areas. For example, optimizing brain waves related to attention can help you focus better.
One experiment examined the brain waves of a young boy while he played a video game that resembled something that came from the 1980s. On the screen, a red arrow appears in the middle of the blue screen. The nose of an airplane appears from the left. Depending on the position of the triangle, the airplane must either climb or is able to continue to glide at its current level. But there is no joystick to play this game – instead, the child has to pilot the plane by thought alone, while several electrodes are fixed to his head. Researchers hope that through this type of neurofeedback, patients can learn how to control specific parameters of brain activity.
This is beneficial because there is no proven magic formula for people to learn to harness their own individual brain waves – it is a trial and error process. The hope is for this type of neurofeedback therapy to help patients dealing with depression, epilepsy, attention-related disorders, depression and more, including improving cognitive performance. But could neurofeedback help you become more empathetic?
Digging Deeper into Empathy
Empathy is defined as a wide range of experiences relating to other people, generally being able to sense the emotions of others; it is being able to imagine what they are feeling or experiencing. Empathy is traced to special brain cells called “mirror neurons.” These neurons fire in the brain when we see someone else perform an action; as if we were performing those same actions ourselves. Some “mirror neurons” become active when we see someone who is suffering; these brain cells become active as it we are suffering ourselves.
A sizable chunk of human empathetic capacities are the result of genetics, according to research, stating that about 10 percent of differences in our ability to empathize is related to variations in our genetic makeup (although other sources suggest the number be as much as 50%). The other 50% can be learned/enhanced or restricted.
Neurofeedback Can Help Build Empathy
This is good news for anyone who wants to build his or her empathy “threshold.” If neurofeedback can help people to build empathy, it may be able to help a great number of people in today’s society as many do not have much empathy. Think about it – from childhood, human feelings are often discouraged. Boys are told to “suck it up,” while girls are told that they are “acting too emotional” or “acting crazy” and need to stop. But the truth is, compassion or empathy is what helps people to get along better and is the root of good social skills overall.
If you struggle with getting along with your romantic partner, family, friends, bosses, coworkers or people in general public, you aren’t alone – and there is hope! Neurofeedback therapy may benefit you by helping you to train your brain so you can be more compassionate. Some studies suggest couples in conflict can benefit from this type of training in addition to those with other relationship struggles. People with antisocial personality disorders might also see improvement in their relationship skills.
It currently remains unknown how long brain training for empathy with neurofeedback lasts and more research is needed before we can recommend neurofeedback to help patients become more sensitive to pains and joys of others. But we do know that neurofeedback is quite helpful for helping patients with insomnia, anxiety, depression, memory, and ADHD. So the focus of neurofeedback therapy at this time is to treat patients with these conditions.
This blog was written by Mrs. Courtney Cosby and edited by Dr. Majid Fotuhi.