Teaching Empathy with New Emotional Research


Educating for empathy may be up for a change. But isn’t empathy part of emotions? Aren’t emotions in bred to begin with? Or are emotions now part of a concept that the brain builds in relation to outside events? Let’s return to empathy.  There are various approaches to helping students look outside of themselves, and across at others to see and feel how they feel. Dr. Dewar tells us:

Teaching empathy? This might sound strange if you think of empathy as a talent–something we either have or lack. But research also suggests that empathy is a complex phenomenon involving several component skills:

  • A sense of self-awareness and the ability to distinguish one’s own feelings from the feelings of others.
  • Taking another person’s perspective (or, alternatively, “putting oneself in another person’s shoes”).
  • Being able to regulate one’s own emotional responses.


But it turns out that empathy is really part of emotions, and we don’t really understand emotions! Well, we don’t, but the experts are working on it. Experts such as Lisa Barrett at Northeastern University:

University Distinguished Professor of Psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett‘s new book “How Emotions Are Made, The Secret Life of the Brain,” she writes about a new theory of how the brain constructs emotions that could revolutionize psychology, health care, the legal system, and our understanding of the human mind.

how emotions are made book cover

Writer Andrew Solomon says this about the book, “This meticulous, well-researched, and deeply thought out book provides information about our emotions—what they are, where they come from, why we have them. For anyone who has struggled to reconcile brain and heart, this book will be a treasure; it explains the science without short-changing the humanism of its topic.”

The book is already garnering much attention from several media outlets including the Wall Street JournalElle magazineForbesNew York MagazinePopular Science, and Booklist Online.

Hybrid Insights Are Key

Tom Vander Ark is hosting a website “Getting Smart,” that really gets after this, the use of emotions, and in particular the use of empathy in the middle of big data.

“Keeping the soul in data is the great strength of the hybrid insights approach.”– Johannes Seemann

With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and increased use of big data, learning and how we learn is being accelerated and changing at exponential rates. This is resulting in an increasingly automated world in which decisions are influenced by trends curated from massive data sets.

The role of an educator as empathy advocate has never been more important. Let me explain…

In an episode of the The Good Life Project podcast, Tom Kelley (Founder of IDEO) talked about design-thinking. Design-thinking is often used in businesses to “transform the way organizations develop products, services, processes, and strategy.” In turn, big data is often used in the design-thinking process to help identify trends in human behaviors and interactions, so that the end product, solution or design is likely to fill a need of a particular population or group.

He quotes a podcast by Kelley where:

In the podcast, Kelley reminds fellow design-thinkers that in order to avoid my fear of big data being used without considering the students, to spend time seeking hybrid insights. Hybrid insights are formulated when you take big data, personify it and then use that insight or story to help develop your design, solution or product. It means going beyond a core set of personas and averages to really get to know specific users or people that you are designing for. Kelley addresses my previously mentioned caution and argues that yes, it is concerning, but that it isn’t really authentic and true design-thinking if you are not keeping empathy at the center and revealing hybrid insights.

Quantitative and Qualitative

In a Bloomberg Benchmark Podcast with authors Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider, they share their findings from studying money saving habits of over 200 families that live paycheck-to-paycheck. They used a mixed method approach, collecting both qualitative and quantitative data, and found that participants in the study saved their money in unconventional but intentional ways. Participants also all seemed to need a mix of flexibility and structure in their saving strategies and techniques. Morduch and Schneider share that if they just looked at the data and never interviewed the participants, they would’ve never found such valuable hybrid insights. Schneider shares that this ability to use both quantitative and qualitative information allows for deepening intuition and deepening of understanding (listen around the 11:00 minute mark for more).

Rigorous science upends the mind-body myth

photo by Brooks Canaday/Northeastern University

by Thea Singer

How do you feel right now, in general? Pleasant or unpleasant? Crummy, calm, or jittery? Somewhere in between? Northeastern’s Lisa Feldman Barrett and her colleagues have discovered the system in the brain where those basic feelings originate.

The new findings, published last month in the journal Nature Human Behavior, could help solve mysteries regarding the tight connection between mental and physical health, including the neurological drivers behind the opioid crisis. Deciphering those mechanisms would open the door to developing more effective remedies. The findings could also revolutionize our understanding of how we make decisions, leading to more considered choices in areas ranging from the law to the economy.

“This paper really breaks down the barrier between mind and body,” says Barrett, University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern. “It shows that the two are not separate, that the system that is important for creating and representing feelings is also important for thinking and remembering, paying attention and decision-making, and so much more. Feelings, in other words, are part of any mental event—any action, any thought, judgment, perception, or decision. They are properties of consciousness.”

Two unified networks

The new brain system comprises two unified networks, each of which loops through various brain regions.

The two networks work together to keep your body’s systems—immune, cardiovascular, metabolic, and so on—in equilibrium as you respond to both internal and external “stressors,”—that is, everything from hunger and noise to transitioning from sleeping to waking or even standing to sitting. Such regulation is called “allostasis.” At the same time, these networks create the sensations inside your body—the general feeling states that thrum below the surface. That phenomenon is called “interoception.”

When these feelings are very intense, these networks create emotions ranging from sadness to glee.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on May 16, 2017.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Share this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More from EdSpeak

Discover the tools and strategies modern schools need to help their students grow.

Community Schools Reform

As a seasoned researcher of K-12 public schools and someone dedicated to improving the quality, equity, and creativity in education, I wholeheartedly support the proposal

Read More »

Subscribe to EdSpeak!

The SchoolWorks Lab Blog, connecting teaching to policy through research.