Empathy: The superpower of human connection

Produced and written by Andrea Brody

“When we feel empathy,” says Judith Orloff, “we're igniting our mirror neuron system, which is the best of what we can possibly be. Empathy is the best of who we are.” Graphic by Gabby Quarante/KCRW

Judith Orloff, UCLA clinical psychiatrist and author of The Genius of Empathy: Practical Skills to Heal Your Sensitive Self, Your Relationships, and the World, explains that empathy is what connects us. It’s the ability to care, to listen, and to open our hearts. The practice of empathy, Orloff says, is a simple yet “precious gift” and that displaying empathy is  the “best of who we are.” Orloff also says being empathetic is “a way we can save our world because empathy is the key element in reaching out to people, even if you disagree with them, even if you don't like them, it allows you to establish accord with them.”

In addition, Orloff says, “when you're open to empathy, all kinds of good things can happen to your body. There's something called the Mother Teresa effect, where it's been shown that if you witness an act of empathy, and I were to draw your blood, it would show that your immunity would go up immediately. And what that says to me is that just alone, watching empathy can increase our immunity and make us healthier.”

Zachary Wallmark, an associate professor of musicology and with the Center for Translational Neuroscience at the University of Oregon, talks about his research on the intersection of music and empathy. Wallmark has  observed, through magnetic imagining, how listening to music relates to social cognition and empathy. “Empathy,” Wallmark says, “produces a very distinctive neural signature in the brain when folks are listening to music. Empathy modulates music processing in areas of the brain that are associated with cognitive control, with social processing, with reward, and with emotion.” 

Through music, Wallmark says, we can “explore our own identity, learn about others, bond with others. So music can be useful in social cohesion, bonding, [and] it can help coordinate group activity. It can also demarcate social boundaries, who is like us and who is different from us.

In her book The Genius of Empathy: Practical Skills to Heal Your Sensitive Self, Your Relationships, and the World, author Judith Orloff says  “If you're having difficulties with your relationships, just try this gift-- just to listen, with your eyes, with your voice, with your heart -  it's such a gift and it helps people feel seen and heard and valued, which is the point of empathy.” 

Judith Orloff, pictured here, says “in my life, the most important thing to me is connection, and love and understanding. That is what gives me the most meaning Whether it's with nature, with human beings, with animals - empathy allows us that opportunity to connect with our human kind and everything about this life that we've been given.”  Photo courtesy of Bob Riha

Zachery Wallmark, pictured here, says “music can create a kind of playground to try on, in a fantasy sense, different types of emotional reactions. You can be a different person, you can experience things that you're not experiencing in your … normal life." Photo by Kim Leeson.

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  • Judith Orloff - UCLA clinical psychiatrist; author
  • Zachary Wallmark - Associate Professor, Musicology; Affiliated Faculty at the Center for Translational Neuroscience, University of Oregon


Andrea Brody