Neurogenesis and Ideas for Training Your Brain to Listen with Empathy

To start, I should say that I generally dislike pop-psych articles and promotional efforts that include cute sayings like, you can “Train (or re-wire) your Brain.” Most of you know this about me, partly because I like to make pithy comments about how, in fact, our brains actually don’t have any wires.

Despite overuse of the “wiring” analogy, I’m all-in on the principle that our behavior influences our brain structure, function, including a vast array of neurochemicals, hormones, and yada, yada, yada. In the following excerpt from our forthcoming Clinical Interviewing text, we provide a brief scientific commentary and recommendations for what we might oversimplify as “empathy training.”

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Neurogenesis refers to the birth of neurons and is one of the biggest revelations in brain research. Although neurogenesis primarily occurs during prenatal brain development, humans and other mammals generate new neurons (brain cells) throughout the life span (Jenkins et al., 1990). When adult neurogenesis occurs, new neurons are integrated into existing neurocircuitry.

Over 30 years ago, researchers demonstrated that repeated tactile experiences produced functional reorganization in the primary somatosensory cortex of adult owl monkeys (Jenkins et al., 1990). This finding and subsequent research supporting neurogenesis underscore a commonsense principle: Whatever behavior you practice or repeat is likely to stimulate neural growth and strengthen skills in that area. This is our explanation and prescription for how you can become more like Carl Rogers.

Multiple brain regions are activated during an empathic experience. Kim and colleagues (2020) summarized the complexity of what’s happening in the brain during empathic or compassionate responding, “Our analysis of sixteen fMRI studies revealed activation across seven broad regions, with the largest peaks localized to the Periaqueductal Grey, Anterior Insula, Anterior Cingulate, and Inferior Frontal Gyrus” (p. 112). In a similar review, Sezer and colleagues (2022) wrote:

Mindfulness-mediated functional connectivity changes include (1) increased connectivity between posterior cingulate cortex (DMN) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (FPN), which may relate to attention control; (2) decreased connectivity between cuneus and SN, which may relate to self-awareness; (3) increased connectivity between rostral anterior cingulate cortex region and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMN) and decreased connectivity between rostral anterior cingulate cortex region and amygdala region, both of which may relate to emotion regulation; and lastly, (4) increased connectivity between dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (SN) and anterior insula (SN) which may relate to pain relief. (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2022.104583)

If we focus in (somewhat inappropriately) on a particular brain structure, the anterior insula or insular cortex, a small structure residing deep within the fissure that separates the temporal lobe from the frontal and parietal lobes, seems particularly linked to empathy experiences, self-regulation, and other compassionate counseling-type responses (Chen et al., 2022).

Compassion meditation (aka lovingkindness meditation) is also associated with neural activity and structural development (or thickening) of the insula. Individuals who engage in regular compassion meditation have thicker insula, and when they view or hear someone in distress, they show more insula-related neural activity than individuals without compassion meditation experience (Hölzel et al., 2011). Other researchers have conducted meta-analyses and written reviews indicating that several brain structures are activated during cognitive-emotional perception, regulation, and response, and the relationships among them are highly complex (Kim et al., 2020; Pernet et al., 2021).

To oversimplify a complex neurological process, it appears generally safe to conclude that compassion meditation and other human activities related to empathy may contribute in some way to the thickening of the insula and development of other brain processes that enhance empathic responsiveness.

Although our knowledge about what’s actually happening in the brain is limited, these findings imply that you should engage in rigorous training to strengthen and grow your insula—as well as some of its empathic and self-regulating buddies like the posterior cingulate cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, rostral anterior cingulate cortex region, and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (Sezer et al., 2022). This “training regimen” might contribute to you becoming more empathic and therefore, more therapeutic. In addition to practicing mindfulness or lovingkindness meditation, such a regimen could include:

  1. Committing to the intention of becoming a person who listens to others in ways that are accepting, empathic, and respectful.
  2. Developing an empathic listening practice. This would involve regular interpersonal experiences where you devote time to using active listening skills described in this chapter. As you practice, it’s important to have listening with compassion as your primary goal.
  3. Engaging in the active listening, multicultural, and empathy development activities sprinkled throughout this text, offered in your classes, and obtained from additional outside readings.
  4. When watching videos/television/movies, reading literature, and obtaining information via technology, lingering on and experiencing emotions that these normal daily activities trigger.
  5. Reflecting on these experiences and then… repeating… repeating… and repeating them over time and across situations

Rogers wrote in personal ways about his core conditions for counseling and psychotherapy. Contemplating his perspective is part of our prescription for developing an empathic orientation toward the variety of individuals with whom you will work.

“I come now to a central learning which has had a great deal of significance for me. I can state this learning as follows: I have found it of enormous value when I can permit myself to understand another person. The way in which I have worded this statement may seem strange to you. Is it necessary to permit oneself to understand another? I think that it is. Our first reaction to most of the statements which we hear from other people is an immediate evaluation or judgment, rather than an understanding of it. When someone expresses some feeling or attitude or belief, our tendency is, almost immediately, to feel “That’s right”; or “That’s stupid”; “That’s abnormal”; “That’s unreasonable”; “That’s incorrect”; “That’s not nice.” Very rarely do we permit ourselves to understand precisely what the meaning of [the] statement is to him [or her or them]. I believe this is because understanding is risky. If I let myself really understand another person, I might be changed by that understanding.” (Rogers, 1961, p. 18; italics in original)

As always, send me your thoughts on this content, as well as any ideas for improvement. Thanks and happy Friday!

6 thoughts on “Neurogenesis and Ideas for Training Your Brain to Listen with Empathy”

  1. John, It has always struck me as funny/odd that BOTH Carl Rogers & B. F. Skinner were American Humanist Association “Humanists of the Year” in the 1950s, when most people (still likely) thought they were opposites. My UM almost Counseling MA (after Soc/Psych BA at UM) in 1972-73 study of Rogers, and my reading of the entire lifetime publications of Skinner have long convinced me that BOTH were VERY “Humanistic” and it is our lack of recognition how and why that in Counseling & Science, there are MANY languages that often seem incompatible to us because we most all “speak” too few of them. I think Skinner more scientifically “proved” his Humanism in his lifetime than Rogers did, though our human fear of knowing too much about ourselves likely makes us unable to see so much about the nature of our human behavior. Plus “Free Will” muddles the whole issue for too many people! Skinner said we needed to go BEYOND (NOT without) “Freedom” (Free Will) & “Dignity” which is so poorly understood because of our fears someone will “psych us out”! [I was a Psych Tech” in Army 1966-69 incl MASH-like Med Unit in 25th Infantry at height of Vietnam late 12/68-mid 9/69 and people shied away from me so I would not “Psych them out”!!] Secular (& much Religious) Buddhism seems a wonderful language of Science, Humanism, Mindfulness, Compassion too, very compatible with Skinner’s findings!
    Lots to chew on here. PS Best email to contact me is always personal one at licorice@bigsky.net

  2. I struggle with Carl Rogers’s last paragraph but it certainly gives me food for thought. Maybe it’s my stubbornness that my inner self quietly, silently thinks “that’s ridiculous….how can a person so smart believe something so dumb?” Maybe it’s a habit I need to work on breaking. Our current political climate has just heightened this inner voice. Happy Holidays.
    K

  3. Hi John, certainly been a long time. I am still working part time as a CD counselor. This year I have been “chosen” to provide documentation of my on-going training for my license. We are required to do at least 2 CEU’s in Suicide Prevention. I have chosen to review and integrate training you so graciously provided through your blog on suicide prevention. The board says that in order to count it I would need a statement from you that from July 1, 2021-June 30,2022 you made available 3 hours of material for me to review.

    If you can, great if not no worries I can figure something out. I thought it was worth a try. FYI I believe the information you are producing on suicide prevention and intervention is the best quality information. I won’t get started on some of the other information I have heard.

    I hope you and your family are well and thank you for your consideration.

    Sincerely,

    Kim Azure kmazure@blackfoot.net

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