Oct 27

Empathy Deficit Disorder: Retrain Your Brain?

There are those of us with enough empathy and those of us without enough empathy, the latter of which psychologist Douglas LaBier would say suffer from Empathy Deficit Disorder—a diagnosis he made up.

But first, what is empathy? According to Psychology Today, “Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviors.”

According to Greater Good, “Contemporary researchers often differentiate between two types of empathy: ‘Affective empathy’ refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety. ‘Cognitive empathy,’ sometimes called ‘perspective taking,’ refers to our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions. Studies suggest that people with autism spectrum disorders have a hard time empathizing.”

Now, what can you do if you have empathy deficit disorder? LaBier explains how neuroplasticity is involved. “You can ‘grow’ specific emotions and create new brain patterns that reinforce them. As you redirect and refocus your thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the direction you desire, the brain regions associated with them are reinforced. What’s more, changing your brain activity reinforces the changes you’re making in your thoughts and emotions. The result is a self-reinforcing loop between your conscious attitudes, your behavior and your brain activity.”

See his Psychology Today post in its entirety for examples of appropriate exercises for increasing empathy for your intimate partner, for someone you dislike, for strangers you encounter, and for people from other cultures.

In his post titled “How to Test Your Empathy” another expert, psychologist Guy Winch, explains that trying to imagine oneself in another’s shoes “involves directing our awareness to a place our mind does not go of its own accord–to what it feels like to be another person–lingering there for a moment so we register the emotional and cognitive landscape, and then returning to our own reality.”

Want to show empathy to someone you care about but aren’t sure you can pull it off? Emily McDowell‘s popular line of “Empathy Cards” may be of some help. Some examples of her cards’ captions:

When life gives you lemons I won’t tell you a story about my cousin’s friend who died of lemons.

I promise never to refer to your illness as a “journey.”

Unless someone takes you on a cruise.

The Five Stages of Grief:

Crying in public

Crying in the car

Crying alone while watching TV

Crying at work

Crying when you’re a little drunk

Feb 07

Rick Hanson Quotes: Brain Science

Psychologist Rick Hanson, PhD, has authored several popular books that emphasize how to rewire your brain to achieve increased happiness and fulfillment. The most recent, Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happinesscame out last March.

The following are quotes from a few of his previous books.

I. Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (2009) by Rick Hanson

When you identify with something as “me” or try to possess something as “mine,” you set yourself up for suffering, since all things are frail and will inevitably pass away. When you stand apart from other people and the world as “I,” you feel separate and vulnerable—and suffer.

If compassion is the wish that someone not suffer, kindness is the wish that he or she be happy.

The point is not to resist painful experiences or grasp at pleasant ones: that’s a kind of craving—and craving leads to suffering. The art is to find a balance in which you remain mindful, accepting, and curious regarding difficult experiences—while also taking in supportive feelings and thoughts.

Positive experiences can also be used to soothe, balance, and even replace negative ones. When two things are held in mind at the same time, they start to connect with each other. That’s one reason why talking about hard things with someone who’s supportive can be so healing: painful feelings and memories get infused with the comfort, encouragement, and closeness you experience with the other person.

[K]eep in mind the big picture, the 1,000-foot view. See the impermanence of whatever is at issue, and the many causes and conditions that led to it. See the collateral damage – the suffering – that results when you cling to your desires and opinions or take things personally. Over the long haul, most of what we argue about with others really doesn’t matter that much.

II. Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time (2011) by Rick Hanson

There are three fundamental phases to psychological and spiritual growth: being with difficult material (e.g., old wounds, anger); releasing it; and replacing it with something more beneficial.

People recognize that they’ve got to make an effort over time to become more skillful at driving a truck, running a department, or playing tennis. Yet it’s common to think that becoming more skillful with one’s own mind should somehow come naturally, without effort or learning. But because the mind is grounded in biology, in the physical realm, the same laws apply: the more you put in, the more you get back. To reap the rewards of practice, you need to do it, and keep doing it.

Getting excited about something together is bonding; shared enthusiasm makes a movie, concert, political rally, conversation, or lovemaking a lot more rewarding.

III. Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (2013) by Rick Hanson

Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.

Our ancestors could make two kinds of mistakes: (1) thinking there was a tiger in the bushes when there wasn’t one, and (2) thinking there was no tiger in the bushes when there actually was one. The cost of the first mistake was needless anxiety, while the cost of the second one was death. Consequently, we evolved to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once.

I think the sweet spot in life is to pursue your dreams and take care of others with your whole heart while not getting fixated on or stressed out about the results. In this place, you live with purpose and passion but without losing your balance and falling into a sense of pressure, strain, or depletion. This sweet spot is very valuable, so take it in whenever you experience it.

Oct 31

“You Are Not Your Brain”: OCD, Overthinking

The idea that we can deliberately and systematically change our brains with our minds was once thought ridiculous.  But now, largely due to Jeffrey Schwartz and his UCLA research on neuro-plasticity and OCD, this once revolutionary idea is well accepted. Rebecca Gladding and Jeffrey Schwartz adapt Schwartz’s extraordinarily successful program for a mainstream audience giving simple, self-directed tools to help achieve greater happiness, emotional balance, and overall well-being. Susan Kaiser Greenland, regarding You Are Not Your Brain

The full title of this 2011 book by psychiatrists Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding is You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life .

What’s recommended in You Are Not Your Brain has already worked for patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) treated by Schwartz; moreover, related research has been replicated in Germany.

Some pertinent book quotes:

Nothing is more confusing or painful than when your brain takes over your thoughts, attacks your self-worth, questions your abilities, overpowers you with cravings, or attempts to dictate your actions.

Left to its own devices, your brain can cause you to believe things that are not true and to act in any number of self-destructive ways, such as:

  • Overthinking problems and fretting over things that are out of your control
  • Getting stuck or panicked by unfounded fear and worries
  • Blaming and chastising yourself for things that are not your fault
  • Engaging in unhealthy behaviors to escape life’s daily stresses
  • Reverting to past patterns when you are trying to make a change

Even if our lives usually run smoothly, when we are stressed or feeling down these false thoughts and unhealthy actions find a way to sneak in and cause havoc. They can shake our confidence, make us find ways to escape reality, use drugs or alcohol, overeat, spend money we don’t have, avoid people we care about, become angry, develop excessive expectations of ourselves, not say what we really think or feel, limit our range of experiences, worry excessively … you name it. 

A critical component to getting better — in the long term — is to understand that these highly deceptive intruders are coming from the brain (not you!) and that these false messages are not indicative of who you are or of the life you could lead…Although some methods may teach how to change the meaning of your thoughts (as in cognitive-behavioral therapy) or how to become aware of your thoughts (mindfulness), they do not emphatically tell you that these brain-based messages are not representative of who you really are and that you do not have to act on them.

The Four Steps

Step 1: Relabel — Identify your deceptive brain messages and the uncomfortable sensations; call them what they really are.

Step 2: Reframe — Change your perception of the importance of the deceptive brain messages; say why these thoughts, urges, and impulses keep bothering you: They are false brain messages (It’s not ME, it’s just my BRAIN!).

Step 3: Refocus — Direct your attention toward an activity or mental process that is wholesome and productive — even while the false and deceptive urges, thoughts, impulses, and sensations are still present and bothering you.

Step 4: Revalue — Clearly see the thoughts, urges, and impulses for what they are, simply sensations caused by deceptive brain messages that are not true and that have little to no value (they are something to dismiss, not focus on).


Gladding, the co-author of You Are Not Your Brain, emphasizes the following important fact in a Psychology Today post:

The key to the Four Steps is practice. You literally need to keep using the Four Steps over and over. By becoming more aware of what is happening and learning how to Refocus your attention in healthier and productive ways whenever a deceptive brain message strikes, you teach your brain new, beneficial responses. With time, you will learn how to place your attention where you want it to go, not where your brain is beckoning you to follow.