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Have You Ever Stepped Over Homeless People? What Science Tells Us About Our Capacity For Empathy

Cheryl Taylor talks about what it's like to live on the streets of San Diego, June 14, 2017. (Photo by Katie Schoolov/KPBS)
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Last year, I interviewed a woman named Cheryl Taylor. The 63-year old wore pink bunny ears on top of her head. She was living on a San Diego sidewalk after being evicted from her home.

She said the people living in the luxury high rise across the street didn't know her story. They'd never asked.

They just yelled, "Bum get out of here, you're just dirty trash, you're not welcome here," according to Taylor.

Then this spring I interviewed Chad Bordes. He was working 16-hour days as a driver for Uber and Lyft and selling cars online. He was also living in his car.

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"How did we get here?" he asked. "How did we get to a point where we devalue human life to where it's okay if we step over homeless people, or you're sleeping in your car, it doesn't matter."

His words stuck.

I know a lot of Californians worry about homeless people in their neighborhoods creating health risks, committing crimes and driving down property values. I also know countless people in the state toil endlessly to help the homeless -- shelter workers, advocates, police officers, paramedics, regular citizens and politicians. And I know many people living on California's streets feel hurt, dejected, invisible and excluded by the rest of society.

This interplay got me curious about our collective capacity for empathy. I looked to science for some answers.

"Empathy is probably as native as any other sensory modality, hearing or vision or taste," said William Mobley, an M.D. and associate dean for Neurosciences Initiatives at UC San Diego.

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He explained empathy is feeling another person's experience. Compassion is acting on that knowledge.

"We learned how to work within our tribe by being able to read each other's feelings," Mobley said.

Empathy can be seen on brain imaging.

"If you look at the parts of the brain that are activated when we feel pain or internal distress or sadness or even surprise, the same regions in the brain are also activated, at least they overlap with regions that are activated when we see pain or surprise in another," Mobley said.

This region of the brain gets triggered when expressing empathy, September 14, 2018. (Graphic by Philip Nenna/KPBS)
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I told him about Kaye, who only wanted her first name used. She's an elderly woman I recently met in Santa Monica. She'd been living on a $1,000 Social Security check each month. When the city started giving her a little money to cover her rent, she was overjoyed because the extra money meant she could help the homeless man across the street.

"I am able to give $10 away," Kaye said. "That's just amazing."

"That's empathy," Mobley said. "It's biblical, right? The woman who had nothing gave it all away."

Mobley said research shows, in fact, that people's experiences can foster empathy and so can the way we talk about people who are struggling.

That point reminded me of Riverside Mayor Rusty Bailey. He refuses to call people living on his city's streets homeless.

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"They're our neighbors," Bailey said. "They already live here. They're our neighbors without homes."

Mobley said Bailey's description is a perfect example of the potential to change mindsets by changing the language.

"Your brain is saying, 'Wait a minute, these are our friends,'" Mobley said. "Well, that means they're people that we like, that we support. We want to be a part of what's good for them."

And that kind of thinking -- practiced enough -- can spark a mental chain reaction.

"Empathy changes everything," Mobley said. "It absolutely prevents me from ignoring or diminishing the value of another human being. And if everybody is of immense value, how can I ignore anybody and suffering? And if I can't ignore anybody and suffering, well then, the whole world changes."

I asked Mobley Chad Bordes's question: Why does it seem that so many folks lack empathy?

"It may just be that we're so darn busy," Mobley said. "We're beset by other stresses. It's hard for us to really be the empathic people that we want to be and maybe even aspire to be. Empathy is challenged by pressure. It's much easier for me to make myself available to listen to somebody with an issue or problem if my schedule isn't burdened by 25 other things."

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, said data suggest that our "empathic muscle" weakens from the time we're born.

"There are certain things about modern human experiences that incentivize a weaker variety of empathy," Simon-Thomas said. "There's good evidence that, in fact, when people living in these highly complex, incredibly populated communities that we live in now, it puts certain challenges on our innate capacity for empathy."

Researchers are looking at whether empathy can be inspired.

A number of studies have shown meditation can encourage it.

"Practices like Loving Kindness Meditation peel back some of the learned habits that we may have developed that suppress our innate empathic capacities," Simon-Thomas said.

Talking about empathy can awaken it too.

"Empathy is a personality trait, similar to optimism and resilience," said UC San Diego geriatric neuropsychiatrist Dilip Jeste. "And all of these traits are partly genetic, only 35 to 50 percent, which means that 50 to 65 percent is not genetic, which means it can be modified, which means it can be improved."

He said even keeping a gratitude diary can stimulate empathy.

Across the board, as people's lives get more stressful, corporate leaders, educators and health care professionals are using training programs focused on building empathy.

"We need it for our survival," Jeste said. "Without empathy, the human species will not survive."

It is a lesson many people, especially homeless people, have learned for themselves.

Remember the woman with the bunny ears -- Cheryl Taylor, whose address was San Diego's streets? She said she wore those pink bunny ears to make people smile.

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.

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