Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

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Culture of Empathy Builder:  Maia Szalavitz


Maia Szalavitz    

  Maia Szalavitz is a neuroscience journalist obsessed with addiction, love, evidence-based living, empathy, fertility and pretty much everything related to brain and behavior.
She writes for Time Magazine

Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD

Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential and Endangered

Empathy Blog on
Want Empathetic Children? Take Joy in Empathy


 Maia Szalavitz & Edwin Rutsch: Dialogs on How to Build a Culture of Empathy


We video tape many interviews and empathy conference panels. It's helpful to have a transcript of these videos since it makes it easier for viewers to quickly access the contents We invite you to help out. Visit this page for instructions on how to do it. You will be contributing to the viewers ease of use and personal growth, as well as, helping to build a culture of empathy and compassion.  We are grateful for your help!


(Much gratitude to Marcelle Kors for doing this transcription)

00:00   Introduction of Maia Szalavitz

01:22   How can we build a culture of empathy?

· Start with children – they learn by being treated with empathy

· Wiring of stress systems. Being with others who are caring and nurturing

· Empathy is fundamental for health. Empathy is not a luxury

03:30 Maia’s two kinds of empathy:

· Cognitive empathy – can be used positively for connecting or negatively such as for manipulation. Perspective taking.

· Emotional empathy – sharing another’s feelings, generally, is always positive

   Definitions of Empathy:

· Academics and scientists use word empathy in many different ways.

· Fundamentally, it is being able to put yourself in another’s shoes and care.

   Edwin’s four parts of empathy

1.  Self-empathy: self-knowledge, mindfulness

2.  Mirrored empathy: also called emotional empathy

3.  Imaginative Empathy :Perspective taking, putting yourself in another’s situation (actors are masters at this)

4.   Empathic Action: Working together empathically: when empathic, more collaborative, harmonious.

· Importance of self-empathy is often overlooked. Shame and self-hatred blocks self-empathy.

· Importance of calmness and safety to empathy: The calmer you are the more functional the highest brain regions are – thinking is more creative and abstract. When stressed, the focus is on survival, fear, threats, cortex shuts down and focus is on self-protection/preservation no room for empathy.

· With respect to empathic action, feeling too much empathy can actually reduce one’s ability to be helpful to another. It’s complicated!


12:44   Maia’s book and reasons for writing it

· Her co-author, Dr. Bruce Perry, his research and practice

· Astonished by the lack of empathy with respect to those suffering from addiction and chronic pain. Why deny drugs from those in chronic pain, out of fear that others might get addicted? Doesn’t seem fair.

· Also astonished by lack of empathy in many current addiction recovery treatments. “Let’s attack them”, “let’s humiliate them”.

· Maia’s personal observation on her own empathy discovery efforts

· We must pay attention to empathy because it runs through everything, from the economy to child rearing

16:48   Importance of empathy

· Empathy is everywhere when you look for it. The greatest moments of joy, for most, are times of special connections with others.

· Its more than world peace and kumbaya – it makes you HAPPY. Also, we are a social species and cooperation has an evolutionary value.

· We may have selfishness as part of our make-up, but we also have empathy. Why always emphasize the negative?

    How can we raise the value of empathy in society?

· The instinct and desire is for fairness and is visible even in children.

· Awareness is key - especially now in our financial crisis facilitated by overwhelming greed.

· When terrible things happen, we tend to question our values and what matters.

23:30   Maia’s book: the science

· Be conscious of the science. It points us to our fundamental truths. The ideas that we had of ourselves as selfish and bad are not even scientifically valid. Our instinct is actually not to be selfish.

· Very few people would want to live in a sheer ‘survival of the fittest’ world. We are hard-wired for empathy. A creative and collaborative world is much more fun place to live in.

    Maia’s book: Empathy’s importance to social relationships, health and happiness

· Moments of connection and sharing are those we remember

· Social support and connections make you happier and healthier. The more we know and learn about this, the easier it will be to encourage the promotion of a culture of empathy. Giving (altruism) actually does make you happier than receiving

· Example would be policies and attitudes to health care. It’s about security. If we are anxious and in fear about health - affording it, paying for it, what if something happens - empathy is blocked and shut down. Also, this would cut health care costs too, since reduced anxiety leads to increased health! A virtuous circle, not a vicious circle.

· For any new Policy, ask yourself, does this make us more empathic, or is this disconnecting us further? How does this affect social connections?

31:26   Format of the book is real stories.

· Empathy is why stories are interesting to us. They foster perspective taking.

· Stories also make the science in the book more interesting and accessible.

· Mary Gordon and her Roots of Empathy program, brings babies into schools so children can watch child development. Helps children see empathy developing in someone else.

· Mary Gordon points out that the reason we enjoy music, storytelling, arts, novels, films etc. is that it connects us, shared experiences.

34:30   Empathy is seen as a feminine quality

· Programs that foster empathy are often the first to be cut. This can be seen as a sexism problem. We associate nurturing, the arts, empathy, with femininity and femininity is associated with triviality.

    Empathy and Child development, promoting empathy in children

· How trauma affects development.

· We have historically believed that babies don’t learn or remember anything and anything in the fist few years don’t matter. This is wrong.

· The way our earliest memories are set up is the foundation for later experiences and memories. If early memories are of disconnection, neglect, this sets the tone for later life. This makes evolutionary sense.

· Ideas for promoting empathy include care for mothers and caregivers, one-on-one attention, reading to children, promoting perspective taking, playtime, promoting familiarity.

· Important to encourage perspective taking in children.

· What you exercise will grow. Make perspective taking explicit.

· Role of child’s natural temperament and stage of development is important to consider when teaching empathy.

· Be what you want your children to be.

· Communicate that it feels good to help people. It’s not a chore. Make it fun.

47:45   Empathy, Oxytocin and Addiction

· Being nice gives us a nice feeling, it’s a real motivation. The brain gives us‘opium’ (Oxytocin) when we are nice.

· When we share a moment of joy, be there in a mindfulness way – We don’t always stay in the moment, even with the good stuff.

      Can we get addicted to empathy?

· We can be addicted to others: children, parents, lovers.

· Addiction is defined as “compulsive behaviours despite negative consequences” and this is also a good definition of parenting.

· Physiology of joy (brain chemistry) operates on the same system, whether shooting heroin or enjoying the moment of the birth of a child.

Lack of empathy can be a cause of addiction.

· Maia’s personal experiences with addiction and what caused it.

· A high level of self-hatred and over-sensitivity. Opiates gave me artificially what I could not get naturally. In recovery, learned how to get it naturally.

· Un-empathic recovery methods don’t make sense because lack of empathy is often what started the addiction in the first place.

55:44   Exploring empathy going forward

· Working on her next book. It will be more personal

· I saw myself as a horrible, bad person who couldn’t do anything worth loving.

· Most people want to be accepted, loved, make a meaningful contribution. Empathy is the source of it all.

· Need to get back to “love thy neighbour as thyself”. Then all the extraneous stuff and distractions fall away.


Final thoughts: The more we can come up with ways we can be calm, relaxed, and gentle to ourselves and others, the happier and healthier we’ll be and the more a culture of empathy will be created.


JUL 13, 2015 - Empathy for the Rest of Us by Maia Szalavitz
"Why we cringe for our fellow humans, and why it's so important.
Empathy might seem like a squishy, vaguely liberal word—a sentimental virtue of minor importance. But the more we learn from neuroscience and psychology, the more it appears that much of human social and economic life, not to mention individual health, fundamentally relies on it. Which makes the rise of inequality— something that threatens empathy—all the more troubling.

The term empathy conflates two separate but equally important human capacities. The first is simply the ability to know that other beings have distinct minds, agendas, and points of view, and to imagine what these are. Psychologists call this cognitive empathy, or theory of mind. Cognitive empathy is morally neutral: A doctor needs it in order to have good bedside manner; a con artist needs it to take advantage of his mark."

July 19, 2012 -  Part 1: Empathy isn't a Vegetable:
Science Reporter Maia Szalavitz on how to give empathy a PR makeover.
MS: We underemphasize how fun and cool it is to connect with other people, and how actually our greatest joys in life are about connection and empathy. Let’s say you’re the most successful person in the world but you have nobody to share it with—it’s pretty bad, right? That most of our joys are relational and not material, again underlines the importance of this. We feel like empathy is a vegetable and it’s like something that we have to do because it’s good for us or like exercise or something, but actually it’s the root of all fun.

July 19, 2012 - Part II: Science reporter Maia Szalavitz on how to cultivate empathy in children
Maia Szalavitz: You can just explicitly encourage perspective-taking, like while reading to them, ask, “What do you think this character thinks? How do you think he feels? When you’re in one state, it can be very hard to imagine another state. If you’re cold it’s really hard to pack your bathing suit. You just can’t imagine that it could be warm somewhere else.

Maia Szalavitz on Empathy

OurBlook interview with Maia Szalavitz,
How do you define empathy, and what new scientific findings have emerged about it?
MS: Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and care what it’s like to be there. It has at least two distinct parts.

Book Review: Born For Love
"Co-written by a science journalist and a child psychiatrist, the book argues that the human brain is hardwired for empathy. We're built to connect to others, but we're not born that way. Our amazing ability to sync our minds with others takes years of practice. It all starts with an loving and attentive mother. (A dad, a grandmother, or an adoptive parent can also fill this role. What matters is the sustained, intensive interaction.)"

Oct. 28, 2011 - How Being Socially Connected May Sap Your Empathy
"Feeling socially connected is good for you, both physically and mentally, but in a paradox, it may also make you less empathetic to the plight of others.

Numerous studies have established that having lots of social support is associated with longevity and better psychological health, but past studies have also hinted that there’s something about the chemistry of connection that inclines people toward unkindness — particularly toward stigmatized groups like those with disabilities or addictions.

Browse the book at Harper Collins: has beginning pages from each chapters.
"An inside look at the power of empathy: Born for Love is an unprecedented exploration of how and why the brain learns to bond with others—and a stirring call to protect our children from new threats to their capacity to love."

Book Outline Notes:

  • Opening quote

    • “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”  Albert Einstein

  • 00. Introduction

    • conditions that foster and hinder empathy?

    • a lot of questions

    • Maia was bullied for being sensitive - wants to connect

    • About Mary Gordon Roots of Empathy

  • 01.  Heaven in other People

    • about Mary Gordon and Roots of Empathy

    • many short stories

    • empathy definition

    • empathy rooted in our biology

    • child development

    • mirror neurons

    • Adam smith - sympathy was early word for empathy.

    • golden rule and morality

    • empathy body simulation - not conscious.

    • children reach out and want to help. (Alan Alda video)

    • Self as distinct entity

    • early empathy as emotional contagion (grass blowing in the wind)

  • 02.  In Your Face

    • Story: baby born with facial defect

      • effect on mirroring that person

      • we need to be mirrored -  effects of defect

    • Oxytocin soothing effect or empathy

    • solitary confinement is emotionally distressing

  • 03.  Missing People

    • Story: girl adopted from Russia orphanage

    • effects of early childhood neglect

    • babies need connection and empathy

  • 04.  Intense World

    • Story: boy with autism spectrum

    • 2 part of empathy, feel and cognition - perspective taking

    • autism perhaps form being flooded with to much empathic information?

    • empathy isn't an on/off phenomenon - it's a spectrum

  • 05. Lies and Consequences

    • Story: Story of child from traveler culture - lying

    • honesty is cornerstone of empathic relationship.

    • need true feelings to deepen empathy

    • About child development science

  • 06.  No Mercy

    • Story: young rich boy rapes girl - has everything why does he do it?

    • about child development studies

      • gene -  epigone

      • attachment for healthy development

    •  various stories of serious 'bullying'

  • 07.  Resilience

    • Story: how a girl growing up in an abusive family maintained and developed empathy

  • 08.  The Chameleon

    • Story: a girl that adapts to different social environments to fit in.

      • she ends up joining a gang and doing gang violence

    • teens mimic each other

    • about mimicry - mirroring - perspective taking

    • how empathy may have developed evolutionarily

      • evolution of group nurture of children

  • 09.  Us Versus Then

    • Story: a young boy kills another

      • grew up in foster homes

      • his needs for empathy were not met

      • crack addicted mother

    • the Science

      • verbal ability related to impulse control

      • stress reduces empathy

  • 10.  Glued To the Tube

    • Story: boy raised by TV

      • neglected by depressed mother

    • importance of relationship - versus just listening.

      • reacting to each other

    • violence in the media -

    • children mirror the behavior around them

    • military reduces empathy so soldiers can kill

      • boot camps for teens is the same thing

  • 11.  On Baboons, British Civil Servant and the Oscars

    • leadership and social hierarchy

    • Coauthor Burces work with cults,

      • cults  are authoritarian

      • how they work

    • stress levels on the social hierarchy

      • health effects

    • antidote to stress is empathy

  • 12.  Warm as Iceland

    • an empathic society

    • importance of empathy in society

    • critical for a well functioning society

    • impotence of trust which is based on empathy

    • Oxytocin

    • How do countries get and maintain empathy?

      • starts in family

        • parental care

    • story of insurance executive seeing inequality in America and effects on healthcare

    • social inequality and loss of empathy

      • high crime rates

      • low life expectancy

      • effect is from stress


  • 13.  All Together Now

    • "Empathy - fully expressed in a community of nurturing interdependent people - promotes health, creativity, intelligence, and productivity. In contrast, apathy and lack of empathy contribute to individual and societal dysfunction, inhumane ideologies, and often brutal functions."

    • Empathy has been decreasing the last  5 decades

    • How can we build empathy?

      • 1. realize how important it is

      • 2. more social relationships

      • 3. be conscious of the science

      • 4. care for the mothers, care givers

      • 5. one on one attention for children

      • 6. reading to children

      • 7. promoting perspective taking in children

      • 8. roots of empathy

      • 9. play time for children

      • 10. promote familiarity

      • etc