How could we engineer humans to have more empathy?Charlie Jane Anders6/19/13 8:14pmFiled to: psychologyneurologyneurosciencecompassionempathyself helpanders sandbergfuturismshutterstock17813EditPromoteShare to KinjaToggle Conversation toolsGo to permalinkPeople are capable of amazing kindness, but also of unbelievable callousness. We go out of our way to help strangers, but we also turn a blind eye to misery. But what if you could make human beings kind all the time? What does science teach us about empathy, and how to create it in people? We decided to ask the experts.AdvertisementTop image: justasc/Shutterstock.comWe approached some of the top experts in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy with a pretty simple question: "Suppose you were ruler of the world, and you decided to engineer the human race to have more empathy. How would you go about doing this, and what would be the consequences, good or bad?"AdvertisementThe answers we received reveal a lot about not just empathy, but about human nature.What is empathy?The first thing we realized was, there's more than one type of empathy and more than one way to have it.SponsoredThe term "empathic" encompasses a lot of different things, that don't all have the same root, says psych professor Abigail Marsh with Georgetown University. The most common distinction we make is between "cognitive empathy" and "emotional empathy."People who lack cognitive empathy are usually classified as being on the autism spectrum — it's not that they don't care, they just can't read other people's emotions. "People who are on the autism spectrum are often very compassionate, but they have difficulty in understanding other people's perspectives," says Marsh.AdvertisementPeople who lack emotional empathy, meanwhile, don't have compassion and can't understand what other people are feeling. Emotional empathy is what motivates us to try and help other people when we know they're suffering, which happens via a "complicated series of processes," Marsh tells io9.Extreme Altruists and Extreme PsychopathsMarsh is studying people at both ends of the "emotional empathy" scale — extreme psychopaths, who are capable of insane violence, and extreme altruists, people who will donate a kidney to a stranger. When Marsh was 20 years old, a stranger saved her life in a freeway accident, and she's devoted her career to studying why we do or don't help others.AdvertisementAnd Marsh's research has found that psychopaths have a hard time recognizing fear in other people's faces, and that this appears to be linked to dysfunction in the amygdala, a structure in the brain that is part of the limbic system. By contrast, extreme altruists seem to have a greater sensitivity to fear responses in others. Marsh's work on altruists hasn't been published yet, but she presented a paper last month and she says there are signs the amygdala may be more active in these people.So is the amygdala the key?So do we just need to engineer people to have larger or more active amygdalas, and then people will naturally be more altruistic and sensitive to other people's suffering. Right?AdvertisementAdvertisementNot exactly, says Tony Buchanan with the Cognitive Neuroscience of Stress Lab at St. LouisUniversity. He tells io9, "the amygdala certainly plays a key role in fear recognition," which does have a role in empathy. But at the same time, the size of the amygdala may not actually be the defining factor. And Buchanan's work has shown that a lot of empathy depends on habits of mind, like looking for the signs of fear in others and responding to them. (More on this in a moment.)A lot of having empathy is choosing to be empathic. As Marsh says, "Even among people who have the capacity for empathy, they don't always use it." Understanding why people who do have empathy "turn it on and turn it off" is "where the real action is," she adds.How about oxytocin?There are a lot of myths about oxytocin, the so-called "cuddle chemical," which can create bonding — but there's also some evidence that it does actually increase your capacity for empathy.