Engaging empathy can be painful
Do you really want to connect with your readers? Read on.
Recently, my younger brother lost his construction business after 10 years of bleeding his soul into the company.
I felt his heartache as if it were my own. I shed tears with him, but I had lost nothing personally. Our brains synced, and I felt his pain and fear for the future. I experienced the feelings of another human being, and it connected us in a powerful way.
You have felt this. Remember a moment when a true friend or family member suffered a serious loss or disappointment. What did you feel looking on?
You felt the same pain, and in fact, the same neural centers in both brains were firing messages of suffering. You felt empathy.
Mirror neurons in the brain produce empathy
The type of cells that do this work in the brain are referred to as mirror neurons. They reflect, duplicate really, feelings and actions of others.
Mirror neurons are the key to our empathic superpower, and they can intimately connect us to the readers of our blogs.
The experiences, thankfully, do not have to be painful either. Mirror neurons were first discovered in Parma, Italy in 1992 when researchers found the exact same neurons fired whether a chimp watched a person eating an apple or the chimp actually ate the apple. Observing fired the same brain regions as acting. To the mind, there is little difference between acting and watching someone else act.
Remarkable. Witnessing, or even imagining, the actions and emotions of another person triggers the same neurons we use when we perform the action or feel the emotion. We are hardwired to feel the empathy which connects us to other people on a neurological level.
This is how I felt the pain of my brother as a real experience, as if it were happening to me. The same effect is achieved in film, fiction, and everyday life - when you take the time to notice people, real or fictional, and feel their experience. You don't even have to try because it happens automatically.
Putting empathy into words
Empathy is one of the most complex and intimate experiences we share with others. Merriam Webster clarifies the term, leaving out the neuroscience:
the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
Empathy is the pinnacle of human experience and evolution, and nothing can move people to action as it can. However, the subtle passion of empathy can be drowned out by the noise of self absorption.
In blogging, when our focus is on helping our readers, "we increase our capacity for connection," and this is one of the few ways to authentically connect with your audience. It doesn't matter that you are not in physical contact because you can create the same effect through your crafted words.
And though we began with tragedy, empathy includes all human emotions, actions and experiences. You don't want to always depress people with your posts, but through your carefully crafted language, you can make them feel whatever you want - joy, excitement, motivation, seriousness, sadness, and elation. Just imagine if you harness those emotions in your reader. How effective will your writing be?
The great poet Percy Bysshe Shelley recognized this unique power in writing to magnify both the writer and the reader:
A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.
Our best tool for "moral good is the imagination," by which he means empathy (the term was created in 1909, after Shelley's death). We can experience and know all human passion and emotion through the power of empathy, and we can use our writing skills to promote action and moral good.
Empathic blogging nuts and bolts
Nothing will engage your audience and bring them back more than empathy because they are not only thinking as they read, they are feeling. Here are some ideas to consider in harnessing empathy for good in blogs:
Being conscious of the power of empathy and how it works in the brain will empower your writing and the readers who are blessed to find a kind and thoughtful individual writing to them. They will connect with you, and relationships will develop.
For the big picture of mirror neurons, watch this video
You might also enjoy:
Have you tried using empathy in your writing? What were the results?
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By Darin L. Hammond
Darin works for BlogCatalog, owns and writes at ZipMinis.com, and freelances as a writer and designer. Darin Publishes across the web on sites like Technorati, BC Blog, Blog Critics, Broowaha, Business2Community, SteamFeed, LifeHack, and Social Media Today. Find Darin on Google+.