Empathy is the ability for people to truly understand other people’s feelings and emotions, which helps them cooperate and live peacefully with others. Scientists are beginning to understand what makes empathy possible, and it could be as simple as getting some good quality “me” time.
In a study published on May 2, researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of London looked at the link between interoception, or paying attention to what is happening inside your own body, and identifying other people’s emotions.
Researchers instructed participants to sit quietly for a set amount of time and count their own pulse, without using any method other than “silently concentrating on their heartbeats.” This is a common way of measuring interoception, according to the study.
Then the participants watched a 15-minute video about a social interaction, divided into short clips. After each clip, they were asked a question about the mental state of one of the characters. Amazingly enough, how well the participants could count their own heartbeats was closely associated with how well they could identify other people’s emotions. No other association was found.
The researchers say this confirms other research which found both of these processes use the same portion of the brain, the insular cortex.
“We suggest that interoceptive training may have a beneficial impact on the real world,” concluded the study.
Aside from counting heartbeats, other methods of practicing interoception can include deep breathing or “mindfulness” training, such as meditation.
A simple mindfulness exercise is described in the video below: