Cognitive traits that matter: Empathy

Cognitive traits that matter: Empathy

by admin, June 24, 2019

Author: Dr. Meghna Manocha

Empathy is a beautiful trait that we have seen developing in kids soon after their training in Brighter Minds. The cause of this still needs future research. Let us examine what it means and what is currently known about it in this blog post.

The word empathy stems from the Greek Word Empatheia meaning feeling into or the ability to perceive the subjective experience of another person. In other words, it means to put oneself in the other person’s shoes to understand what they are feeling. This word is often confused with sympathy, which means feeling sorry for someone’s situation. Empathy is when you truly understand and can feel what another person is going through.  “Attunement”, “resonance” and “mirroring” are some other words used to describe empathy.

Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman break down the concept of empathy into the following three categories.

Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking.

Emotional empathy is the ability to share the feelings of another person.

Compassionate empathy goes beyond simply understanding others and sharing their feelings: it actually moves us to take action, to help however we can.

Hence empathy involves understanding an emotion, feeling it in one’s self and moving on to help a suitable way. In other words, the roots of empathy lie in self- awareness that leads to compassion and altruism.

Empathy is also a major contributor to one’s Emotional intelligence. It deals with not just verbal but also nonverbal aspects of communication with others like reading their facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures etc. It is an important tool needed for various successful human relationships. The relationship between a newborn and his mother, between a manager and co- workers, husband and wife are suggestive of this. Experts are talking about this aspect of EQ to be an important prerequisite for future job applications. It is considered a very important part of good managerial skills.

In terms of evolution of the human brain, empathy and compassion are considered to be higher functions of the brain. The neuro-circuits are present at birth but the wiring of circuits happen as the baby grows, depending on the environment it is exposed to. We have seen babies cry when they hear another baby cry or a toddler well up in tears in seeing another toddler in pain. These are mostly instinctive response and they may not understand why they are feeling this way. The same toddler may grow up to continue to “tune-in” or learn to “tune-out” of these responses, depending on the environment she is brought up in.  Hence, we can infer that empathy is an emotion which can be taught and learnt.


The first thing is to teach a child is to be aware of her own feelings. This can be done by naming the emotions as she experiences them. This can make the child self-aware.

The next step is to keep the child aware of how others are feeling, when hurt or sad, to help her  “tune-in”

As the third step, go beyond and ask questions like what can be done to comfort the other person. These simple day to day exercises of naming of emotions, thinking and feeling them help build neural connections in a growing child’s brain.

Thus, we need provide a sharing and caring environment, where a child learns to grow from “me” to “we”. This can result in emotionally intelligent and empathetic children.



  1. Daniel Siegel: The Developing mind.
  2. Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson: The Yes Brain, How to develop Courage, Curiosity and resilience in your child.
  3. Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence, Why it can matter more than IQ.



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