You connect more deeply with those close to you.
That’s what researchers at the University of Virginia discovered when they studied the brain of individuals under the threat of suffering.
Individuals under threat showed the same brain activation when they thought a close friend was being threatened.
If a friend is under threat, it becomes the same as if we ourselves are under threat. We can understand the pain or difficulty they may be going through in the same way we understand our own pain.
Interestingly, the researchers also discovered that this pattern of brain activation was absent in participants when they thought a complete stranger was being threatened.
It’s much easier for our brains to connect emotionally to those we consider our friends or family. Experiencing the same type of suffering can lead us to a deeper emotional connection with someone in a similar state of hardship.
But empathy is different than sympathy.
What happens when you don’t have any similar experiences to draw from?
It’s got to do with putting yourself in other people’s shoes and seeing how far you can come to truly understand them. I like the empathy that comes from acting. – Christian Bale
Not an actor? Can’t quite conjure the right emotional response?
You’re not alone.
Your Feelings Make All the Difference
You project your emotional state onto others.
Finding the words to write in a sympathy card can be hindered by your own emotional well-being.
Researchers at the Max Plank Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences have found the mental link that connects emotions and empathy.
Participants in this research study who were exposed to positive stimuli were unable to correctly assess their partner’s emotional response to a negative stimuli.
The participants’ own emotions distorted their assessment of the other person’s feelings.
Your happiness diminishes your ability to recognize emotion in others.
So, what’s the cure for writer’s block on your next handwritten sympathy note?
You can better empathize with someone if you’re in a similar state of mind. If you’re feeling down, you’re more likely to connect with someone who’s suffering.
But, you don’t have to actually experience suffering to get the same results.
Simply thinking back and remembering times that you’ve experienced hurt, loss, or disappointment can help you better sympathize with someone. Even if you don’t know them very well.
A study published in the journal Science found that those who read literary fiction, with its development of in-depth characters, are better able to empathize with others. Even those that might be strangers.
Literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.
Those who read more fact-based, nonfiction works did not show the same level of understanding for the emotional states of others.
Using the results of these three studies, we can formulate a simple strategy to help write better sympathy cards.
To Write from the Heart, Start in the Brain
It’s all in your head, so to speak.
If you can remember your own similar experience, you can better empathize.
If you haven’t “been there, done that”, you can still prepare your mind to better connect with the emotion of others.
Try these strategies for turning mental sympathy into heartfelt empathy:
- Imagine another hurtful experience you have been through
- Talk with someone who has been through a similar experience
- Watch a movie depicting a similar situation
- Read a good, imaginative work of literary fiction
- If all else fails, watch, read, or listen to something sad
Once your mind is engaged, it’s easier for your heart to follow.
You likely can’t change the circumstances of someone’s misfortune, but your words can help ease the pain.
Flickr creative commons image courtesy of Al King.
Though sympathy alone can’t alter facts, it can help to make them more bearable. – Bram Stoker, Dracula