Even before the current COVID crisis, psychologists reported that empathy is declining in our culture, and most dramatically in the young. At the same time, research in the fields of neuroscience and social psychology is clearly showing that, while competition is innate to humans, so is empathy. In my book, The Chemistry of Culture, I point out neuroscience has revealed that our desire and ability to trust and help each other has been hard-wired into our brains by human evolution.
By better understanding the brain chemistry of culture, we can improve our ability to collaborate and to empower each other. Neuroscientists like Harvard’s Paul Zak are showing how culture changes the chemicals in our brain. Scientists are learning how the brain’s chemistry creates the chemical foundation for our outward behaviors. And as they better understand the brain chemistry behind our relationships, they are learning how our culture creates a cocktail of drugs in our brains and, like a delicate dance, the chemistry of our brain both governs, and is governed by, our culture.
What we’ve learned from this neuroscience research is good news: We are indeed capable of creating a better, more humane, and empathic culture than we currently have. These lessons are cause for hope. Because empathy impacts far more than our personal relationships, it shapes the way we see and experience the world around us and how we interact with others who share our space. But we’ve learned that do so, we must be intentional in our actions.
Prior to the current COVID crisis concern about the decline of empathy and other social-emotional skills, were already growing among educators. Given the unprecedented and sudden shift to virtual learning from traditional face-to-face learning that teachers were forced to make… it is now more important than ever for us to understand the practical applications of exercising empathy in our student’s daily lives, and how we can recognize and reward their empathy in our classrooms and schools.
That is one reason I’m so excited to have joined the Peter R. Marsh Foundation as Program Director. Our Silent Servant Student Award Program offers schools a free Action Plan they can use to reward and recognize students who exercise empathy through Service Learning. It’s a fast, free and effective way that schools can be intentional about improving empathy in all their students.