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Inspiring stories can lead to empathy

Inspiring Stories Can Lead to Empathy
Assistant professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang conducted the study.

A USC researcher has studied emotions such as compassion, admiration and inspiration.

These emotions may be linked to deeper levels of learning and a sense of self, according to assistant professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, who has a joint appointment at the USC Rossier School of Education and the Brain and Creativity Institute at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and graduate student Vanessa Singh.

The study suggests that we are able to be more compassionate toward others when we empathize with them on a psychological level, as opposed to a physical one. Put another way, we should try to understand people’s mental anguish during a tragedy, not their physical pain.

“When we learn about others’ personal and emotional triumphs and tragedies, we appreciate and understand these stories in part by relating them to our own experiences – in essence, by comparing them to our own self and memories,” Immordino-Yang explained.

The hippocampus is the neural structure responsible for facilitating the formation of new long-term memories. It also organizes and facilitates recall of older perceptions and experiences, forming part of the system that allows an individual to use what he or she has learned to guide future behavior.

Immordino-Yang and her team isolated hippocampal activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging scans on participants who had been told inspirational and compassion-inducing stories.

The researchers found that the participants often would spontaneously reflect on their own lives and express a desire to be better people after hearing stories meant to induce admiration for virtue or compassion for social or psychological pain.

“Your body may function differently when you are inspired by someone’s mind,” she said. “Like poets who write about fluttering hearts or feeling a ‘punched in the stomach’ sensation when you hear about someone’s bad news – our data suggest that you literally feel these emotions with the same brain systems that feel physical sensations.”

Immordino-Yang’s study, which will be detailed in the upcoming paper “Hippocampal Contributions to the Processing of Social Emotions,” also looks at how feeling strong emotions about other people’s situations invokes brain processing for personal memories and experiences, and possibly facilitates the formation of new memories.

The researcher wants to explore what this means for learning about ourselves and for teachers trying to help children from various cultural backgrounds envision a more successful life.

“Our ultimate goal in education is to help children develop into intrinsically motivated, socially responsible learners with academic and emotional skills to think deeply and creatively about the meaning of their and others’ actions,” Immordino-Yang said.

“My hope is that by studying the emotions we have about one another and how these emotions shape us through development, we will gain new leverage points from which to promote purposeful, useful and socially responsible learning in schools.”

Inspiring stories can lead to empathy

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