The Science of Empathy and Social Connections


Carine Bouery speaking at the Emotional Intelligence Online Summit in 2020 for People Builders and the Emotional intelligence Academy on the Science of Empathy and Social Connections.

Carine is a workplace happiness specialist from Dubai.

05:48 - Shifting from ME to WE

15:13 - Understanding what Empathy is and why it is important

23:28 - The types of Empathy

31:34 - The Vagus Nerve connection

40:50 - The 6 Habits of Highly Empathetic People



Look at this picture (watch the video). I want you to look at this picture and I want you to notice what you're feeling. What kind of emotions are springing up from you? With this picture, when we see a baby like this, we'd be like “Oh, what's wrong?”. There's something happening there, there is an emotional engagement.  

Then we compare that to this picture (see the video), the very famous picture by Kevin Carter, photographed and was published in the New York times in 1993 which actually won a Pulitzer prize. When you look at this picture, what kind of feelings come up? Are you feeling the stress knowing that this little girl is about to die and this vulture is going to eat her? What kind of other feelings do you get? Helplessness because you can't seem to do anything about that?

Compare these kinds of emotions to what you saw earlier which is the baby picture. You can start to understand how empathy and compassion in our system start to play. And we're going to talk more about that.

But before I get into it, I'd really like to highlight something about the enlightenment era. It was one of the most progressive times of human history. Back in 18th century Europe, there were many religious wars, there were many political uprisings that were going on, and it was very similar to what we're seeing today. And I really believe we need to look back at the enlightenment era of human progress and realise that it was at that time where sympathy, reason and science were used to enhance the human flourishing and create a more just and fair world.

The “Me” and “We” Perspective

For the last century, it's always been about “me”. The “me”, meaning “I want this”, “I want to make sure I have this”, we introspect, we look inwards. But today in this time and era of our human progress, we need to start looking at the “we” and how we come together and why is this necessary. Because by understanding others, we start to understand ourselves even better. And we're going to dive deep on that.

So how does that really look?

If you look at the “me”, which is the human being, and then the environment, which is the “we”, how we all interact together, what's going on? How do I influence my environment? I influence it in this way. In my system, I've got values, I've got beliefs, I've got even my own psychological biases and from there, I start to get thoughts about the world. For example, I have a bias towards, let's say, homosexual people, and my thought is “Oh, they're not good.” and then I get these emotions. When I think about this thought that they're not good, I get angry, I get bitter towards them. And then what happens when we have these biases or beliefs that generate certain thoughts that in turn generate emotions, we start to display certain types of behaviours that are, in this case, negative.

What does that do to our environment?

It creates a negative environment.

Now we all know this, and we see this on the outside, but in reality, this is all biology. This is what this presentation is going to be about.

Everything Psychological is Biological

Let me tell you a little bit about our biology as we get into the science of empathy and social connections.

According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California Riverdale, through her lab studies, she found that there are certain percentages that influence our levels of being happy or what kind of experiences we have.

In this chart, or in this image here (see the video), we see that on the events on the outside, only 10% of that determines our happiness or our experiences.

That’s only 10%.

And then you see in this chart (see the video) that 40% of our experiences is determined by our choices, our thoughts, and our behaviour.

On the right side of the chart (see the video), we see that majority of our experiences in life and our happiness come from our genetics. Meaning we'd be very lucky if we were born out of funny parents. If we were not, that doesn't mean we can't be happier or we can't generate more positive experiences in our lives, because we've got the 40% that can work in our favour of what we saw earlier from this “me” to the “we” arrow here on the chart (see the video).

The main message of this slide (see the video) is that we need to get more mindful and intentional about our thoughts and emotions that generate certain types of behaviours. We need to understand why these thoughts come up, what kind of values, beliefs, and biases do we hold, and then go even deeper by understanding our biochemistry and urology and realising that sometimes innately, there are things we can't control. But through intention and through mindfulness, we can change that.

This leads me to this beautiful concept…

Emotions Transform Us

Imagine yourself as the fish in this fishbowl (see the video).

If we never changed the water of this fishbowl, what would happen to the fish? Of course it would die. We have to change the water because this is as what they say “We not only feed it, but we also have to clean its water for it to continue to thrive in its environment.”

This is the same as emotions.

If we are encapsulated by negative emotions, be it from other people or from ourselves internally, we will become sick. And that can affect us on a cellular level, according to science.

Why do I mention emotions? It's because it's the key to unlocking our ability to empathise with ourselves and with others. When we understand our emotions from a biological perspective, we can then unlock and take out the skills that we need to empathise and sympathise, and also be compassionate with others.

Pro-Social Behaviour from Connection

I'm going to share with you a very amazing experiment that I came across recently.

What we have seen with lab studies is more experiments on the primates or the apes and then more studies with dogs and now recently with rodents or with lab rats. In this particular study done by a group of neurobiologists at the University of Chicago, they found that rats as well can display empathetic behaviour.

In this particular study, they put a free roaming rat inside a cage, and within that cage, there was a constrained rat in the cylindrical tube. Now, this free roaming rat, within a certain amount of time, understood that it needed to free this constrained rat, and so it did, because it felt the constraint rat and it saw its feelings of distress.

Then the neurobiologists introduced another rat that this free-roaming rat did not even know, yet this free roaming rat helped freed this constraint new rat. And then they introduced a black rat, so that it's not recognisable of its kind. What happened was even though it took a bit more time, eventually this white free roaming rat freed the black constraint rat.

What does this say?

It tells us that empathy is deeply rooted within us.

Even though empathy here is the empathy from rats and not the same as the human empathy, the basis is the same. The basis is that we are upset by another individual's distress.

What is empathy?

Let's define it in a more definite and clear way, because a lot of people have different ideas about what empathy is.

Here's a screenshot from the movie To Kill a Mockingbird based on its novel. And here we have Atticus Finch telling his daughter, Scout, and explaining to her what empathy is, and this is what he says: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

This was how Finch taught his daughter empathy.

Other emotional intelligence researchers define it as the ability to sense other people's emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone might be thinking or going through. So basically taking their point of view or understanding the point of view. Now, how is empathy different from sympathy? I put these two points here because sometimes it could be misleading.

With sympathy, there's not much emotional engagement. If I were to refer to the first picture I showed you of the crying baby (see the video), that was more of a sympathy rather than empathy, because it's just an automatic emotional response by looking at a face that is in distress. This is something we will talk about and why.

Empathy is different from kindness and compassion, because in empathy, you can actually feel with someone, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to take action by doing something about it. That is its difference between kindness and compassion.

Why does it matter?

In this slide (see the video), we see in general a decline in empathy and happiness levels. Even though some scientists would disagree to this, and one of them being Steven Pinker, if we look at our world in data, we’ll realise that happiness levels have increased and poverty levels have declined.

In here we're being a bit more specific, and this is again, based on the studies done. In the left chart (see the video), we see an empathy study done on college students in the US and we could see that their feelings of sympathy have gone down by almost 50% between 1979 and 2009, and it's still going low. At the same time, what's also going low is their ability to imagine other people's suffering or other people's points of view that went down to 34% from 1979 to 2009.

The chart on the left shows (see the video), as you can see the line in general going down, that's basically happiness levels around the world today using the Cantor Ladder study. The Cantor Ladder study is basically saying to just rate your life satisfaction, or how you feel about your life today overall, rated from one to 10, 10 being you're thriving. So between eight and 10, you're thriving, and of course below four, you are suffering and struggling. And in here, the numbers on the left indicate that we are at a 5.2 and a little bit lower than that in happiness levels overall in the world.

We also understood from science that when we are egocentric or when we are power hungry, it could actually damage the empathetic circuitry in our brain. I put here two articles for you (see the video), and one of them, by Harvard business review, you can check them out in your free time. What science says is that we are not sure the egocentric, but there is a part of the brain that auto corrects this, so we can be empathetic and more compassionate. That part of the brain is the Supramarginal Gyrus.

Also, what we see in this slide (see the video) is that the era of fast-upgraded technology, which is leading us to a fast lifestyle, and making us live our lives very quickly and making us make decisions quickly, in turn make us less kind, less compassionate.

In this particular case here in the slide (see the video), touch is one of the most important elements we have as human beings, and that is now being replaced by technology. In here, I put the Oxy meter that measures your oxygen levels, for example. So rather than caring for our patients and offering them a sense of touch or holding their hands, which creates beautiful neurochemicals being released into our system that is creating a positive, emotional environment within our system, and today we're kind of losing that as technology comes in.

I have put this beautiful quote by a virtual reality guru Jaron Lanier, and he's very big on empathy, and he's so against social media himself, and you can see a lot of YouTube videos about that. He says “Empathy can be turned to terrible ends because people behave like jerks when they turn into tribes or packs. The problem with the online world today is that to maximise engagement, you need to maximise emotional engagement, and the emotions that are most engaging are the negative ones.”

Why Practice Empathy?

I put some names of scientists who took part in different studies on empathy, and this is what they came up with. By being empathetic, you are more helpful, and you're less interested in delivering things that interest you and only you, by being empathetic, you're creating something called an emotional contagion, you're reducing prejudices, racism, and bullying, and we know that bullying is a very big problem today, especially in schools.

Empathy allows us to become practical real-life heroes and be more selfless, for example, we will fight inequality. Even at work, and this is very true, having a good boss or an empathetic boss leads to less of a likelihood of developing heart disease. Having an empathetic boss helps increase levels of happiness at work. So in general, we enjoy better health. And this is something now the police force is looking into, understanding how to practice empathy in order to handle crises in a more effective manner, and also tackle racial prejudices.

The 2 Types of Empathy and Its 3rd Layer

Pychologists have put empathy into two types, but there is of course, a third.

  1. Cognitive Empathy (Understanding)

In a way this is not really sympathy, but understanding the point of view or the thinking process of another person, and that doesn't necessarily require any kind of emotional engagement. This is also called Perspective Taking.

  1. 2. Emotional Empathy (Feeling)

In this type, you're actually feeling what the person is going through physically, emotionally and mentally, because it hits you on a deeper level. It’s also called Affective Empathy, because it affects you and you actually feel it. This creates something called an Emotional Contagion for it becomes contagious. If we go a level deeper, you can have Emotional Empathy, like I mentioned earlier, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to take any of the person’s feeling.

  1. Compassionate Empathy (Feeling by Doing)

Taking practical steps to reduce the concern and pain of another person. Also called Empathetic Concern.

I just want to quickly show you how Cognitive Empathy and Emotional Empathy look different than the brain. (see the video)

Different parts of your brain are being activated as you use Cognitive Empathy and Emotional Empathy. Let me just also mention that sociopaths or psychopaths sometimes develop a great ability in Cognitive Empathy, but they use it to manipulate others. There's no emotional engagement, and that's why they could be quite good at manipulating people. They have high cognitive empathy skills used in a negative way.

Why Can We Empathise

Let's now look at our biology and how is it that we can empathise. What's in our biology that makes us as such?

We are known as Homo empathicus. Psychologists have revealed that we are primed and wired for empathy, social cooperative, cooperation, and mutual aid. That begins by our strong attachment relationships in the beginning of our lives, especially in the first two years of our lives. There is strong evidence that empathy has deep evolutionary biochemical, and neurological underpinnings.

Another phenomenon is what we call Mirror Neurons. Now there's a huge debate about Mirror Neurons, however, they have been identified previously by a group of Italian scientists who did studies on apes. Basically, Mirror Neurons are a subset of brain cells that fire when you watch others engage in activities and express emotions. For example, I saw you pick up a jar and you made a kind of funny looking face. You actually identify with it.

I'd like to refer back to the baby picture. When we see the baby in distress with that sad face, that automated response they say are because of the Mirror Neurons that exist in our brain.

Why Can We Empathise

We can empathise because of the reward circuitry that exists in our brains. Egocentricity and power can damage this empathetic circuitry. This is exactly what we're seeing in here (see the video). I put an image of how negative emotions play out in the brain and how positive emotions  play out. You can see the green area is where all the positive emotions are being activated. And then the blue area is where most of the negative emotions are happening. Also, the value levels of yellows to red indicate positive emotions.

Why aren't we good at empathy?

According to research, we're more likely to help a single sufferer than we are to help a large group that we don't know, we don't see, and don't identify with. Empathy can be quite exhausting, especially when you get really taken into the emotions of another person that you forget your own. So this is where emotional intelligence should come in and our ability to regulate how much we can do of that, so that we don't lose ourselves in the process. And I'm sure you're learning a lot about that in the summits already.

Another thing about empathy is that we tend to think and look at the world from our lens, from our point of view, rather than other people's points of view. So we tend to think we know everything that's going on in the other person's mind, heart, body, and soul, and then we tend to make judgments that cause us to not behave in the way that looks or feels empathetic.

Also, when you can't do anything about helping someone, especially looking at that picture of the girl and the vulture waiting for her to die, these feelings of helplessness can sometimes lead to indifference, and that's a bit not so good.

Empathy in our Brain

There’s an interesting study done by Dr. Tania Singer, she's done many studies on pain and empathy in her lab, and it turns out that the areas in the brain where pain gets triggered is the same area where empathy gets triggered. On the left, you see the pain that the trigger is quite higher and empathy is it's the same region of the pain, but we kind of feel it, but not as much as if we were experiencing the pain ourselves.

Empathy in Our Genes

Empathy is also in our genes. This is something I discovered recently. I'm not sure if you all know about oxytocin. Oxytocin is this wonderful neurochemical that gets released by touch, by physical intimacy, through motherhood. It's also known as the trust molecule or the love molecule. Now, what's so interesting about oxytocin is that it is that single gene that influences our empathy. However, it's got three different variations and now you'll understand why we all empathize on different levels. What they found in this gene are these three variations called AA, AG and GG. They found that those with the GG variation of oxytocin were able to empathise much more than their counterparts AA and AG.

The Vagus Nerve

Another beautiful, biological structure that we have in our system is the Vagus Nerve. The vagus nerve is what connects our brain to our heart area or chest area down to our digestive region. It's sort of like the link that links these three major intelligences in our body - our mind, heart and gut intelligence. A lot of studies now are being done on gut intelligence and on heart intelligence, not enough on the heart though, but that's now coming. The beautiful thing about the vagus nerve is that feelings of compassion and kindness activate it, and feelings of pride and egocentricity reduce it.

What does the Vagus nerve do when it’s activated?

- It helps us breathe better.

- It controls our heart rates.

- It keeps our blood pressure stable.

- It activates our immune response in the correct manner.

It's that thing that's working in the background. It's like almost like our subconscious mind and our subconscious functionalities in our body that is happening unconsciously to us, but consciously to our body. So, it's so important to keep this vagus nerve healthy and activated using empathy and compassion.

The Reward Circuitry

Through lab studies, we found that giving emotional support in comparison to just holding hands or no support at all makes us feel so good about ourselves. It's quite rewarding that we give emotional support. The feeling of reward is the same as what we think makes us happy. So let's say I got the new iPhone today, that makes me happy. That kind of feeling of owning a new iPhone, the iPhone 12, is more or less the same of the kind of reward sensation we feel in providing emotional support and talking at the moment itself.

Touch and Voice

We also have the ability to touch and to use our voice to convey emotions. As you hear me now, I have quite voice intonations here, and you can sense the points at which I talk about something in a more passionate manner and things I talk about in a less passionate manner. So voice plays an important role in conveying emotions.

I put two pictures here (see the video), which is so funny because it's also culturally influenced. Here, there were a bunch of scientists who observed people in a social environment, and they found that with British people sitting together, nobody touched anybody, not even a tap on the hand, the tap on the shoulder, nothing, in comparison to Puerto Rican's. For example, in a sit-down of one hour, I believe it was, they exchanged 180 touches. It kind of tells you a lot as to why certain cultures have a certain character. British are perceived to be colder than Latin American people. So again, perception and all this can be changed once we get intentional and mindful about our thoughts and our actions. The 40% that can still help us change our DNA and ourselves.

Peace-Making Signals

We also have built in peacemaking abilities, and that's so important when it comes to interacting with other human beings, because we're not perfect, we'll make mistakes. In these particular photographs, these people were asked to share an embarrassing moment in their lives, and the camera caught them doing this with their head going down to the side, the eyes down, touching the face. So this side gesture of the face exposes the neck, which biologically, or let's say neurologically, we understand that as vulnerability. Here, the message is “I'm right now being vulnerable, I'm feeling embarrassed. I’m here asking you to trust me, to forgive me or to reconcile with me.” It's the silent language that we have with each other through our body language,


Cooperation comes more intrinsically, and it's actually more fun and rewarding to humans than competition. Cooperation exists everywhere, it's out there in nature. Think about how the ants work together to build their home, to deliver food into their homes. We've got different species of fish, there's this type of big fish that allows the smaller fish to come in and clean the teeth of the big fish and basically gets food off of that. So the big fish is getting the benefits of getting its teeth cleaned and the small fish is getting its benefits of getting food that is stuck between the teeth of the big fish. In nature that happens. This happens even in our bodies, we are alive today because our cells and tissues and everything, our systems are cooperating together to make us talk, to make us blink, to make us breathe. I mean, this is a miracle on its own.

Here's a study by Robert Sampson. He found that neighbours that cooperate or neighborhoods that have a community that cooperates more and act very well together and are kind with each other, have better child health, they have more high school graduation rates, they have a longer life expectancy, and reduced crimes and social disorder. Isn't that amazing?

Anti-Social Behaviour from Disconnection

Speaking of connections, let me go back to the rat experiment. In this particular experiment, they took a newborn rat and completely raised it in a separate environment away from all of its kind, rat species and everything else. After a certain period of time, these rats, as they grew, they were introduced into this cage. Now we see the same setup that we saw the first time of a free roaming rat with a constrained rat inside this cage. Now this free roaming rat in this case, it come from a disconnected social background. It had no connection with its kind whatsoever. What's fascinating to see is that in this particular experiment, that free roaming rat that had no connection of its kind whatsoever, did not even think to help the constraint rat and did not even open the door. They tried that with a black rat, the same thing happened.

What’s amazing here is that the empathy is not just determined genetically, but it's also determined environmentally. Think about our kids, for example, if they were to grow up or to study in a school that has multiple cultures of people, how would that look like as they grow up to be an adult? When children gets exposed to other people of different races, nationalities, religions, and so forth, what will that say about their empathetic skills? It will definitely improve. This is the message here…at the end of the day, our purpose on this planet is to connect with others and to serve others. That's why we're here.

The 6 Habits of Highly Empathetic People

I'm just going to take you through now how to cultivate your empathetic skills. I would refer to Dr. Roman's, empathy book Why It Matters and How to Get it. Let's talk about the first habit.

Habit 1- Cultivate Curiosity about Everyone and Everything

Highly empathetic people are very curious people. They're curious about everyone and everything. I know sometimes it's difficult to approach someone you don't know and talk to them. This is why in curiosity, once you find that feeling of curiosity, it can then lead to developing the ability to be courageous and to approach other people. We need that a lot today with our networking events and so forth.

How do we develop curiosity and courage so that we are actually interested in other people? Let's go back to being children again, using our natural inquisitiveness about life. You know, how kids ask you, “Why is that?” “How is that?” Let's get into that again. Let’s question everything around us. Let's really try to understand the world from the lens of another person, by really being curious about what they think, and what we're seeing in terms of body language. Make time for more informal, but deep conversations. I'll give you an exercise on that. If you struggle to start small talk with complete strangers, here is a lovely reference set of questions that you can use. This is the 36 love questions developed by Dr. Arthur Aron. Once you use these questions with a complete stranger, you start to develop not only empathy towards them, but also love to a certain degree. Today the police force in the US, I'm not sure in which State in the US, they are using the 36 questions or love questions to adapt for the police force in order to tackle racial discrimination and handle crises, especially around, racial prejudice. So I highly encourage you to look at the 36 questions or love questions by Dr. Arthur Aron. You can Google that and you'll see the three sets of questions that get deeper and deeper and deeper as you go.


Habit 2 – Challenge Prejudices and Discover Commonalities

Highly empathetic people challenge prejudices, and they look for commonalities. Again, they're very intentional about that. How do you do that? You search for what you share as a human and we're all human beings, and we all want the same things. We want good health. We want to be happy. We want to be wealthy. We just want to have a life that's filled with all of that. So find these commonalities with this person despite their race and religion. Sometimes when we can't find commonalities or when our biases, whether psychological or biological biases, get in the way of our ability to talk to someone who's very different from us, then distance yourself physically. Instead of reacting and getting really worked up inside with negative emotions, distance yourself physically to gain perspective.

Once you are physically distant, take a piece of paper or use your phone and write down at least three things that you can find that you have in common with this other person. Now, if you can get into the habit of doing this all the time, when you meet somebody new, trust me, you're empathetic circuitry will be activated, and that part of your brain will become a natural part that you will start to use when you go out there and interact with people who are different from you. When you're in the moment having that heated conversation or difficult conversation with someone you don't understand, or someone who's different than you, then start with this statement by saying, “I'm curious to know why you acted this way.”, “I'm curious to know why you set these things.” Use the word curious here, because it has the ability of taking you out of your emotional state and really becoming cognitive about it. Now we're exercising our cognitive empathy skills when we are curious.

Habit 3 – Try Another Person’s Life

We’ve seen so many social experiments on this. At work, you could actually try being in the shoes of your colleague, doing something that you want to learn more about. For example, you're in marketing and you know you're not so good in finance, you can take the shoes or actually be your finance person for just the day to understand and see what this finance person gets throughout the day. The things they're tackling on a routine basis and so forth. By experimenting ourselves, by experiencing this firsthand, we learn more, and the learning gets embedded faster.

The other ways you can do or try are volunteering. Volunteering is a great way to see what's going on out there and really doing something about it. Here, you're exercising not only your empathy skills, but your compassionate skills. Get into the habit of noticing and acknowledging people's efforts and achievements and milestones and successes, be happy for them, recognise it, send them that random message and tell them, “Hey, I noticed your post on LinkedIn. It was a very interesting article that you put there. I'm very proud of where you are today.” So get into the habit of giving each other more compliments. When you do that, you're activating your empathy.

Here is a list of 100 random acts of kindness and exercises by the University of California Berkeley that you can do. This exercise of course, is science backed. It shows that by doing five acts of random kindness to four or five different people in one day of the week can really shoot your empathy and happiness levels by 60% or more. Just by dedicating one day a week to do five random acts of kindness to five complete strangers can really make a difference, can really help you feel rewarded and happy as a person. These random acts of kindness can be from a simply opening the door for someone to let them through, to baking a cake for a friend, and surprising that friend with it. It could range from many different things. You can Google that 100 random acts of kindness and get all your ideas from there.

Habit 4 – Practice the Art of Conversation

We have to practice the art of conversation. That means we need to even use empathetic language, non-violent communication. There's a very good exercise, all the exercises I'm referring to here are science-backed exercises, by the University of California Berkeley, the Greater Good Science Center Research arm of that university, all their experiments and studies take place there. All these exercises I'm giving you are all science backed and can work once you commit to them. What do we mean by having great conversation skills? We listen hard, we open up and we really care. If we don't feel we care, then again, use that cognitive empathy side of your brain by paraphrasing what was said. When you heard somebody complain about something, paraphrase it using their words, not your words, ask different questions and of course, express concern and understanding. I'm going to give you an example here (watch the video). Look at the difference in this chart. I really love the difference here because it really shows you the difference between being empathetic and being more dismissive. For example, if I were to say, “I embarrassed myself because I said this in a meeting that I was not supposed to say”, and then that person who's listening to you says, “Hey, this happened to me too. Once this…once that…” so suddenly the focus is to that person and their experience. This person might think that by offering an example from their experience could help you deal with your own experience, it's sometimes doesn't work like that. What we need to be saying is “That sounds heavy” or “Yes, I can understand”, “I can relate”, “How can I help you”, “I'm here for you”. The thing that we tend to say a lot is “At least you didn't die” or “At least you didn't get fired”. This phrase “at least” is also diminishing that empathy or giving because what happens to the person listening to the phrase “at least” makes them feel like, “Oh, then I'm being extra sensitive that my feelings are not validated and I'm not supposed to be saying anything”. On the contrary, all emotions and thoughts are validated as long as we can sit down and talk about them together in a constructive way.

Habit 5 – Inspire Action and Change

Roman, the author of the book empathy, and the researcher behind the Six Habits believes that empathy is not just a fluffy word. It is actually a radical transformational type of energy, and it's supposed to inspire action and change. When we do that, it means we need to get out of our comfort zones. We need to look at the injustice in the world and do something about it. We need to look at other people's wellbeing and not just our own. We need to be fair, and fight for equality. How do we do that? Sometimes it could be a very scary thing to start a revolution. What we need to do first is to overcome our own fears and discover our strengths. There are many exercises we can do, but for the sake of time, I'm just going to jump to habit number six, which is a very important one.

Habit 6 – Develop an Ambitious Imagination

Once we overcome our fears, we develop an ambitious imagination. What do we mean about that? Let's look at Ghandi and how he was able to put himself in the shoes of his enemies, the English occupation at the time. By understanding our enemies or those in power or in authority, we can then start to widen our perspective of the world and have more effective dialogues with people or with these types of people in order to reach peace or reconciliation. For example, now we are seeing a huge shift in renewable energy, a great transition towards that, but especially here in the middle East, we still rely a lot on fossil fuel consumption. So the ambassadors and activists and businesses in renewable energy, how can they have a more constructive conversation with people or businesses in the oil and gas industry, so that both these industries that are considered enemies, start to converse with each other and talk about a smooth green transition that will benefits not only the renewable energy sector, but also the oil and gas sector. Maybe the renewable energy sector can help the oil and gas sector do things in a more sustainable way and so forth. So this is the idea. Another idea here is slavery. Slavery was one of those things that was completely banned from our humanity. It started by feeling empathetic to those slaves, to the exploitations they are going through on a daily basis, the trials and tribulations and the suffering and the pain that they've been going through. If it weren’t for this collective, vicious and inspirational step that comes from empathy today slavery would still exist. Now, we still see that with human trafficking, it's still happening in the background, but in terms of policy, in terms of rules and regulations and civil rights, slavery is off the table, thanks to the power of empathy.

The Truth About Habits

We can develop habits and that's thanks to latest research we have found on the brain that it's as plastic and it can generate new cells. So when we talk about plasticity, we talk about the ability of the brain to reorganise itself and create new circuits in response to our environment, and most remarkably in response to our thoughts. Lifelong plasticity means that the brain is plastic throughout our lives, and it can be changed.

We have something called neurogenesis. Recent research has shown that STEM cells in the brain can grow new neurons at any time and at any age. The brain has the ability to generate themselves.

We also found that we can teach ourselves new things that we couldn't teach our old selves because we are continuously shedding old cells and renewing and making you ones. They say that by one year 98% to 100% of our cells in our body have been completely replaced. So the “you” last year is a completely different from the “you” this year because you have a new set of cellular structure. What researchers have found with that information is that it takes about two to three months on average to learn a new habit. The least number of days is 21 days. That's why you see a lot of meditation programs for example that go for 21 days. It helps you start that underpinning for a new habit. However, that could progress up to 284 days, according to scientists, depending on the person themselves, and how committed they are to learning these new habits, committing to positive psychology practices and so forth. But on average, it's two to three months.

Now we we've talked a lot about the brain and we see that this is all a brain thing, and it's all biology and neurology, but what really starts this revolution in our biology and neurology is the opening of the hearts. This is why meditation is key. It is key to help building these new circuitry in our brain.

I put for you here a link (see the video) called the loving kindness meditation developed by The Greater Good Science Center, the research arm for UC Berkeley. It's one of those beautiful meditations that you can do to help open up your heart to listen hard, not only to others, but to your own thoughts and emotions internally, and to be vulnerable. Vulnerability leads to love, kindness, compassion, a higher level form of empathy. This is what we're trying to achieve here.

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