The Neuroscience of Resilience: Empathy

(Post 5/9 in a series)

As we learned in The Neuroscience of Resilience:  Attunement, an important factor of resilience is attunement – which stems from a sound resonance circuit developed via early, secure attachment experiences.  It allows us to have “felt sense” that others get out experience – and we get theirs.  As we continue on in this series on resilience, we are exploring the following questions:

Can we build up our own resilience?  How?  What does the brain and neuroscience have to do with it?

Before moving on, I highly recommend you look at the first article in this series where we looked at how regulation of the autonomic nervous system helps us to stay calme and engaged.  It will be useful for you to have the background information so you can more easily follow where we are going.  Now let’s at another aspect of the neuroscience of resilience:

Empathy:  you know what I know, and I know that you know

Neuropsychologists see empathy as the integration of body-based information and emotional signals and cognitive thought and beliefs about another’s experience, making sense, making meaning, creating understanding, and then checking out the accuracy of that understanding through a verbal feedback loop.  I experienced the difference between attunement and empathy when my mother died.  Many, many good people could attune to the grief and disorientation I was feeling.  And I found it was the people who had lost someone to death themselves who could deeply understand, and convey that empathic understanding of, what I was going through, oftentimes more than I could grasp myself at the moment.

Neuropsychologists now posit it was the need for empathy – the need among our ancestors on the savannah to understand quickly what other members of the tribe needed to communicate about potential danger to the tribe, and the need to nurture a growing child and developing brain through such a long period of dependence and maturation, that drove the evolutionary development of the “higher” human brain, the complex frontal lobes of the cortex that eventually developed language and all the capacities of thinking evaluating, planning that are where we usually focus our interest in resilience.  The pre-frontal cortex is considered the evolutionary masterpiece of that cortex.

The title of “evolutionary masterpiece” is not just for the importance of the PFC’s nine functions individually, but for the integration of all nine functions that allow us to be fully resilient.

  • The pre-frontal cortex integrates bottom up processing of body based sensations and emotions, with the top down processing of conscious reflection and awareness.
  • The pre-frontal cortex integrates the approach bias of the LH with the avoid bias of the RH so we can wisely engage and have good boundaries.
  • The pre-frontal cortex integrates the logical, linear, language based mode of processing of the LH with the holistic, imagistic emotional-relational mode of processing of the RH, vastly increasing our options through greatly expanding our perspective of choices.
  • The pre-frontal cortex also integrates memories, explicit and implicit, of experiences of the past with experiences of the present and projections into the future so we can develop a coherent conscious narrative about all of who we are, how we came to be where we are in life, and what we can do next about the unknown.
  • The pre-frontal cortex, through self attunement and self empathy, allows us to integrate all parts of who we are, all split off, exiled parts of our selves, so we have all of our innate wisdom from all of our experience and use up less energy managing those split off parts through denial, dissociation.  That integration frees so much energy for resilience.
  • The pre-frontal cortex, through attunement and social engagement with others, integrates our experience of self and others with other people’s experience of self and others, including us.  Brains develop in interactions with other brains, and the pre-frontal cortex allows us to learn how to live life resiliently from people close to us as well as from mentors, role models, literary and historical figures.  We can take in their resilience and use it to inform and expand ours.
  • The pre-frontal cortex allows us to integrate various levels of consciousness, from clear spacious awareness in the moment, not hooked anywhere, to moments of awareness of being with experience in the moment, often many at a time, to moments of recognition of being embedded in an experience, caught in the moment, believing this moment, this state, is the only state that’s true.

It is those many modes of neural integration from the pre-frontal cortex that promotes – is, in fact, the neural substrate of – resilience.

See the next article in the series, The Neuroscience of Resilience:  Response Flexibility

(This is an permission granted adaptation of the June 2010 newsletter by Linda Graham, MFT, with permission).