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Oct 2014 by PCI College

Bite-Sized Book Review: The Empathic Brain by Christian Keysers

Jade Mullen, PCI College Lecturer reviews 'The Emphathic Brain' by Christian Keysers which won the 2012 Gold Medal for Best Science Book

In his book ‘The Empathic Brain’ Keysers explores our ability to empathise with other people. He does this through investigating the possibility that empathy is ‘deeply engraved in the architecture of the brain’ (p.12).
This is by no means light bedtime reading, however Keysers style of writing made this topic appealing and comprehensible. The book is dotted with stories and examples of a personal nature to illustrate the most highly scientific topics. The opening story regarding how his own emotion was transmitted to a church full of people on his wedding day as an example of the power of empathy was enough to keep me reading.
The book is centred around the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ in the brain. It is these neurons that enable us to be social beings – feeling with and relating to other people. ‘Mirror neurons “mirror” the behaviour and emotions of the people surrounding us in such a way that the others become a part of us” (p.10).

Keysers explores the role that mirror neurons play in our learning and ability to acquire skills. The findings have important implications for trainee therapists as it has been found that merely studying is not enough to understand actions of others but you must also acquire the skills of the other person in order to gain a much deeper understanding of what they are experiencing. This reinforces why the trainee therapist must attend personal therapy and engage in so many live counselling skill demonstrations to understand how counselling can be for both the therapist and the client.

In the chapter on ‘Sharing Emotions’ the importance of sharing facial expressions in order to understand others is discussed and how facial mimicry can trigger emotional contagion is explored – these are essential elements in the therapeutic relationship, elements that therapists congruently and naturally engage in to foster trust and mutual understanding.

The book goes on to discuss empathy and mirror neurons within a number of interesting topics, for example; the male and female brain, autism and psychopathy.

This was an interesting and at times challenging read. There is no definitive answer as to why some individuals are more empathic than others but it is agreed that there are degrees of empathy within us all. This adds some interesting food for thought into whether empathy is innate, can be built upon or even learned. The Empathic Brain won the 2012 Gold Medal for Best Science Book.

Jade Mullen (MIACP) October 2014
PCI College Lecturer & Year Head Bsc Counselling & Psychotherapy (Years 3 & 4)


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