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Culture of Empathy Builder:  Rick Hanson

Rick Hanson
Rick Hanson is a " neuropsychologist and have written and taught about the essential inner skills of personal well-being, psychological growth, and contemplative practice – as well as about relationships, family life, and raising children." He is the author of: Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.

One of Rick's metaphors of empathy is that it's like, from 'Dante's Inferno' where angel Virgil goes into hell with Dante. It is a companion that goes with you in the dark parts. The companion has an arm on your shoulder and they look out with you at the world.




2011-01-06 - Rick Hanson on Empathy - Interviewed by Edwin Rutsch
(Video on Vimeo)

Rick Hanson Interview Outline

  • 00:00 -  Introduction

    • neuro psychologist 

    • primary author Buddha's brain

    • background in contemplative practice

    • I have a special interest, a particular interest  in practical methods, useful things, found at the intersection of psychology, brain science and contemplative practice.

  • 00:51 - How does empathy inform your work?

    • I'm a practicing therapist so use it. Methods guy.

    • as husband, father and therapist am engaged in the life of empathy

    • just today was talking with a couple about the role of empathy

    • More broadly I think looking out at the world today, we have a crises of empathy in a way.

    • as hunter gatherer inter group empathy didn't mater so much

      • in current century 1% of males died from war

      • in hunter gather culture it's estimated 12% of males died in violence

      • we evolved to have empathy for us

      • a global economy of 7 billion needs empathy

      • I have a lot of interest in how do we build a culture of empathy?

  • 04:07 - How can we create a culture of empathy?

    • Many levels of intervention

      • within the mind

      • between one person and another

      • other levels as well

        • philosophical

        • public policy focus

        • media focus

        • culture focus

    • 1. Appreciate the skills of empathy

      • empathy is a skilled act - we evolved 3 major neural systems that support different aspects of empathy

        • a simulation of what it's like for the other person (mirror neruons)

        • simulate emotions (insula comes in)

        • simulate thoughts or mental activity

          • developmental theory of mind grounded in prefrontal cortex

      • 05:45 so we have these 3 simulation systems

        • actions

        • emotions

        • thoughts

      • just because we evolved the most empathic brain doesn't mean we can use it

        • need to have people appreciate the skills of empathy

        • how to be more skilled in empathy is helpful

        • I work with couples who don't have very good empathy skills

        • It's a mater of naming what those 3 circuits are

        • and developing ways to stimulate those

          • it's in my book as well

        • need to stimulate the circuits of empathy to strengthen them

          • neurons that fire together wire together

      • 6:45 one part of it is just teaching skills

        • 1. key place to start is in childhood

          • school based programs

        • 2. make skills available in the culture

        • 3. talking about empathy

        • 4. be careful about categorizing people as them.

        • a lot goes on the media

          • red state - blue state

          • Christian - Muslim

          • liberal -conservative

        • in the brain when you create these distinctions, you create a yellow flag for no empathy or fearful aggression toward them

          • next level - if you feel threatened by them then your in a red flag situation

          •  us vr. them - the wolf of hate is looking for someone to bite

  • 08:40 It sounds like the first step is to articulate and teach a set of skills for empathy?

    • 1. learning the skills

    • 2. applying the skills

    • 3. appreciating how easy it is for people not to be empathic - watching the ways that empathy gets dropped out

      • by differentiation

      • separation between us and them

      • feeling threatened - often in a way that's out of proportion to reality

    • 09:40 having the skills of empathy as a key component of emotional literacy

      •  emotional literacy needs to be taught

      • 1. needs to be taught routinely at the level of

        • children

        • schools

        • people getting married

        • high schools

        • corporations

        • throughout the world with world business and diversity

      • 2. be trained in the factors that undermine empathy

        • us and them

        • being -feeling threatened

        • the manufacturing of the sense of being threatened

      • 3. to appreciate the value of empathy

        • it goes toward your work Edwin

        • the example of people that are nurturing and empathic toward us, tgehy can turn to be unempathic very quickly

        • how quickly people that lived side by side, can turn on each other

          • Northern Ireland

          • Hutu - Tutsi

          • Serbs - Muslims

          • etc

          • Routinely I see it in couples

        • So it's easy to not be empathic, it's real easy to turn off empathy

        • So appreciating the importance of will is a key part of building a worldwide culture of empathy

  • 12:45 So, it's raising empathy to be a social value?

    • You have to value it, you have to see the point of empathy

    • A shift in values

      • the feeling arises that we may want to hit someone but it's normative that we don't generally do it as adults. there are exceptions for sure.

      • Or radical slurs that were uttered 200 years ago and now considered anathema

      • there can be an evolution of a value in how we conduct one selves

      • before was littering out of the car, not not so much

      • there's a shift of consciousness in some regards

    • I'd love to see that with empathy

      • the balance of assertiveness with empathy

      • I observe a major obstruction to empathy - people think that if they open themselves up for empathy,

        • I'm going to be waving my rights

        • or that I agree with them - they will think that I'm approving of what they're saying when I'm actually not

        • No -you can be absolutely tuned into another person who you think belongs behind bars.

          • I have examples of that in my mind who have held high office in America, but on the other hand I have empathy for them

          • Another example is Sadam Hussein - a brutal dictator. I have  empathy for his sons dieing but also think he should be in prison for life.

    • We can be empathic for people while being very assertive. In fact we can be better assertive because we understand what is driving them

  • 16:00 - What do you think about the debate with Obama and conservatives related to empathy and the Supreme Court?

    • sometimes we have coded language

    • I'm not a legal scholar so don't have a lot to add to that

    • What the issues is getting at, I suspect is, How do we balance judgments, which are based on rules, the constitution, statures, etc. and balance that with a human feeling for the people involved?

      • my view is that you can do both, it's not either or

      • it's not a dichotomy

      • you can have a great deal of clarity

      • while having enormous empathy for the people who will suffer

  • 18:00 - Do you have a metaphor for empathy?

    • I have a couple

    • 1. Casting loose from the moorings to enter the deep waters of the other person

      • to have enough confidence - this is were differentiation comes in

      • studies show that people who have pores boundaries actually have a hard time sustaining empathy

      • it's like Goldilocks and the 3 bears

      • not to hot, not to cold, not to close, not to distant - it's the sweet spot that promotes empathy

      • So to enter the deep waters of another persons thoughts, feelings, complex dynamics - wow, you've got to have some confidence  that your not going to get swallowed up and never come out alive.

    • 2. From Dante's inferno - angel Virgil goes into hell with him

      • it's like a companion that goes with you.

      • they have an arm on your shoulder and they look out with you at the world

      • instead of sitting across from you looking over at you

      • I see the landscape of the mind is like lovely flowers and dark and smelly bogs.

      • One way of doing empathy is to look over and say I see it

      • Another way is to jump over with the other person, put your arm on their shoulder and look at t

  • 22:00 Do you have a metaphor for the opposite of empathy?

    • coldness, distain

    • indifference

    • a photo comes to me - a photo of a man in Africa during a famine and a man walking away steals the food from a weak man

    • couples in my office -a divide between couples

    • people can't separate from their own situation to tune into the other

    • failure of empathy boils down to a failure of autonomy

    • people don't have a grounded enough sense of me, themselves over here, it interferes with entering into a sense of we

  • 25:00 So in a way we need to get grounded with ourselves?

    • that's often the case, it helps to be mindful of ones own inner world.

    • it teaches us to be more ware and at peace

    • helps to be more centered with our self

    • being centered in the self, we can then bob around in the others world

  • 25:30 Does the mindfulness tie in with the Buddhist work you've done?

    • it overlaps it

    • there are many was to mindfulness

    • was part of the human potential movement

    • clinical psychology

    • it's a mater of knowing yourself - know thy self

    • It's the capacity to be empathic with ones self

    • Empathy for others begins with empathy for oneself

      • that means the capacity to sense below the surface

      • the hurt, woundedness or vulnerability, under the frustration, despair

      • tonight I want to work on my book but I also want to relax because I'm a bit fired

        • to be aware of both of those

        • we need to tolerate complexity

  • 27:40 Empathy as a metaphor of a mosaic made of small tiles .

    • I think of myself and people as a mosaic with many tiles

    • it's easy to get caught up or zero into just one tile and miss the fact that there are all these other tiles.

    • it's not just one thing

    • this metaphor fits with neuro science and neurons, complexity of psychology. it fly's in the face of the monolithic self.  the I is just one thing.  No, we have all kinds of layers,

    • it's a jungle in our brains. it's a whole ecosystem. we had happy elves and scary tigers, and everything else around it. that's the mosaic.

    • that is also consistent with the Buddhist view that finds no final 'I' in the middle of all that.

  • 29:45 For the mosaic, do you need to step back to see the whole?

    • there is complexity

    • to be empathic is to appreciate complexity and to be open to it.

    • use an investigative process

    • a lot of what empathy is in practice is feeling, listening. looking, beneath the surface.

    • being open to the deeper, and deeper, younger, less verbal layers that produce the surface expressions of the mind.

  • 31:00 How do you take the journey into empathy for the self?

    • I've thought a lot about that, it's actually hard for people

    • I've thought of it in terms of neural psychology, how do you do that?

    • Buddhism has very developed practices for self-empathy mindfulness

    • 1. First you have to want to change

      • How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb. Only one but the light bulb has to want to change.

      • some may be afraid to see what's there

      • be clear on the reasons to be more self aware

    • 2.  We all need our Angel Virgil - activating the felt sense of being with someone that cares about you. 

      • imagine being with someone that cares about you

      • take the 10 seconds to remember the felt sense of the caring

      • can help them more able to open up

    • 3. stay with it

      • metaphor of all the tracks of a sound track

        • body track,

        • emotion track,

        • verbal thought track

        • imagery track

        • dynamics track

      • what does this remind me of

      • sustaining the investigation to know yourself better

    • 4. talk with someone about it

      • can make it more real

    • 5. be self empathic with someone right now live right now

      • person is nonjudgmental, accepting

      • relational self empathy

    • these can all be helpful in becoming more self aware

  • 36:14  So having an empathy buddy imagined or real?

    • that can really help

    • there's something very human about tell the other person

    • don't slip into the masters thesis of your mind. It make no differenced

    • they've got the words, the theory, the concepts but they're not in touch with themselves

    • feel the truth as they speak it.

  • 37:06 I get that most in dance.

    • that's a good way to put it

    • a lot of self empathy is nonverbal

    • most of the brain is dedicated to nonverbal processing

    • a lot of expression of our truth is not verbal

    • a way to discover ones truth is to play with the movement of it

    • what does it feel like right now to be you?

    • movement can help you discover how you feel inside.

  • 39:00 The narrative of your life and did you learn empathy along the way?

    • First memory of being around 3, banged head, mother drive me to the emergency room for stitches. Was in car having a deep sense of her worry, tension, alarm.. I wanted to reassure her. First memory was organized around empathy.

    • there's a natural variation of empathy among people

    • growing up I was at the high end of empathy.

    • For some that's a burden. i.e. the witness of the execution

    • The Buddhist teachings on equanimity can be helpful for people who are very empathic.

    • they say the person over there is the Nexus of any 10,000 causes upstream. few of which have your name tag on them. they just happen

    • yes, empathically you feel for the other but it's their own.

    • the capacity to hold that recognition

    • I went through a lot trainings

    • In the last 10 years neurology has been extremely powerful

    • many contemplative traditions

    • understanding how the brain works gives you a powerful insight how the mind works

    • For example with empathy, when you realize there are 3 intertwined overlapping neural networks,  that tells you a lot about empathy

  • 45:00 Any aspect of empathy that's important that we should cover?

    • I think it is useful for people to appreciate that they  have a profound capacity for empathy.

    • I mean, we evolved arguably based on the reproductive advantages, which is the engine of biological evolution,... the reproductive advantages of empathy.

    • hunter gather bands that had a little more empathy were able to pass that on and out compete others

    • this process became a positive cycle

      • language capacity

      • emotional signaling

    • very powerfully, empathy - it cultivations, inclination to use it has been a (or the) primary driver of our human development

    • brain tripled in size and much of the capacity of the brain is devote to empathy

    • it's important for people to realize how naturally empathic they are

    • Play with it as a skill - like a foreign language

    • In a relationship it's OK to put a want of more empathy on the table for negotiation

    • I work with couples

    • a little empathy can go a long way.

    • they are not a black hole, they just need 5 minutes of empathy

    • 5, 10, 20 minutes a day of real listening and engagement would just make everything so much better


Being Well Podcast: Empathy
Last week we began the strength of Intimacy by exploring the balance of Intimacy and Autonomy – including how a strong sense of personal autonomy increases our ability to be emotionally intimate with others. When we’re strongly grounded in “me,” we’re more able to be empathic without getting flooded or overwhelmed.

Today we’re continuing our discussion of Intimacy by focusing on Empathy, which allows us to tune into and understand other people.

  • 0:30: Why do we need to be empathic in order to be intimate?

  • 1:50: Where does empathy come from biologically?

  • 5:15: Summary of the three ways we can show empathy.

  • 5:50: Is empathy a trait that can be developed?

  • 8:15: Sustaining your attention to other people.

  • 10:35: Letting yourself be truly affected by another person.

  • 12:30: Empathic joining vs. problem solving.

  • 13:55: Having empathy for perspectives very different from your own.

  • 18:45: Ways to have empathy in the moment.

  • 20:00: Feeling felt.

  • 21:20: Using empathy responsibly.

  • 22:00: Empathic imagination.

  • 24:15: How to avoid playing the psychologist.

  • 26:00: Being aware of true intentions.

  • 27:40: Managing tone and using empathy to communicate.

  • 30:25: Finding me and we through empathy.


Two Wolves in the Heart: The Evolution of Empathy and Aggression, Of “Us” and “Them”

"Introduction This essay is about the origin of the best and the worst characteristics of human beings . . . and how to nurture the good that lies inside every heart. What Is Empathy? Empathy is the capacity to sense, feel, and understand what another person is going through, especially the deeper layers."
"Welcome to WiseBrain, bringing you skillful means for happiness, love, and wisdom – from the fertile common ground of psychology, neurology, and contemplative practice."

2012-10-08  - The Compassionate Brain: Activating the Neural Circuits of Kindness, Caring, and Love
Practical Neuroscience for Transformation, A FREE Online Event Series, beginning Monday, October 8, 2012, 

9-Aug-12 - Have compassion Why?
Compassion is essentially the wish that beings not suffer – from subtle physical and emotional discomfort to agony and anguish – combined with feelings of sympathetic concern.
You could have compassion for an individual (a friend in the hospital, a co-worker passed over for a promotion), groups of people (victims of crime, those displaced by a hurricane, refugee children), animals (your pet, livestock heading for the slaughterhouse), and yourself. Compassion is not pity, agreement, or a waiving of your rights. You can have compassion for people who’ve wronged you while also insisting that they treat you better. Compassion by itself opens your heart and nourishes people you care about


Volume 4, 1 (1/10)
 An exploration of how mindful empathy can help us hold and heal the sense of failure, rejection, and shame that catches us in the suffering of the belief that we are bad or unlovable. 

2011-06-19 - Tune Into Others
Imagine a world in which people interacted with each other like ants or fish. Imagine a day at work like this, or in your family, aware of the surface behavior of the people around you but oblivious to their inner life while they remain unmoved by your own. That's a world without empathy. To me, it sounds like a horror film. Without empathy, there can be no real love, compassion, kindness, or friendship.

2011-06-16 -How Did Humans Become Empathic?
Empathy is unusual in the animal kingdom, so empathy must have had some major survival benefits for it to have evolved. What might those benefits have been? Empathy seems to have evolved in three major steps.
First, among vertebrates, birds and mammals developed ways of rearing their young, as well as forms of pair bonding -- sometimes for life.


2011-05-17 - Just One Thing: Tune into Others
Without empathy, there can be no real love, compassion, kindness, or friendship. Empathy is the bedrock of our relationships with others, says Rick Hanson. Here's how to practice it.


Empathy.pdf  by Rick Hanson

"This article is adapted from a talk given at James Baraz’s Awakening Joy class, 9/26/07 (audio posted at, and it considers four questions:

  • What is empathy?

  • How did the capacities for empathy evolve?

  • What’s happening in your brain when you are empathic?

  • How can you help activate those brain states?"

2010-09-02 - How Did Humans Become Empathic? 
Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
"Empathy is unusual in the animal kingdom. So empathy must have had some major survival benefits for it to have evolved. What might those benefits have been? Empathy seems to have evolved in three major steps.  First, among vertebrates, birds and mammals developed ways of rearing their young, plus forms of pair bonding – sometimes for life. This is very different from the pattern among fish and reptile species, most of which make their way in life alone. Pair bonding and rearing of young organisms increased their survival and was consequently selected for, driving the development of new mental capacities."


Video: Empathy and the Brain - NICABM


2011 Happiness Within Reach Conference at Stanford University
Keynote with Dr. Rick Hanson: "Wiring Happiness Into Your Brain"
Ricks part starts at 30:00  - Slides: 
View  Download



Empathy and Brain Plasticity with Rick Hanson


2007 Empathy pdf
This article is adapted from a talk given at James Baraz’s Awakening Joy class,
9/26/07 (audio posted at, and it considers
four questions:

 • What is empathy?
• How did the capacities for empathy evolve?
• What’s happening in your brain when you are empathic?
• How can you help activate those brain states?