Social neuroscience research tells us that empathy is a complex, situational, and learnable brain function – at least for most people. And it is an emotional state made possible by the evolutionarily late-developing neocortex. Consequently, it is a very high-level and sophisticated brain function where we literally “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.” Why is this a high-level and sophisticated brain function? Because the very design and primary function of the brain is self-serving. It is ego-centric. It is about self-preservation and self-prospering and not about others.
Fortunately for us, millions of years of neurological evolution have created a fascinating work-around to this truth. Deep areas of the “emotional brain” like the amygdala eventually figured out how to communicate with memory areas and the more objective outer layers of the brain like the somtosensory cortex and the supramarginal gurus. This sophisticated integration allows the brain to develop what is known today as psychological boundaries – our ability to discern who we are as being separate from others physically and emotionally.
Our ability to create and maintain boundaries represents the difference between sympathy and empathy and therefore our ability to understand others on a much deeper level.
But that is only half of it, because if we can perceive what another person is feeling, but can’t convey this understanding to them, then there is only limited value to it. What needs to happen next is the person must “feel felt” as Daniel Siegel likes to say. The person must feel that you understand them on an emotional level, because that is where significant trust begins.
Additionally, research tells us that our ability to function in an empathetic fashion is very situationally-influenced. In other words, if we are distracted, cognitively busy, emotionally-closed, or even too joyful, we will be unable to accurately read what another person is feeling and accurately internalize it. Instead, we will misread them and then project what we THINK they are feeling. And empathy is not about thinking- it’s about feeling.
All of this is relevant to relationship-driven dentistry as our capacity to function empathetically is key to the establishment of meaningful and collaborative treatment plans as well as facilitating their follow-through.
So, our mindset influences our patient’s mindset, and then their’s -ours. And to make that emotionally interconnected experience positive and constructive for both of us, empathy must be present.
Paul A. Henny, DDS
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