Understand to offer empathy


Understanding with empathy those who have offended us in the light of neuroscience (2/2)

From the Alphonsian Academy professors’ blog

This icon of the Jubilee of Mercy (2015-16) helps us to better feel Jesus’ empathy towards us, through his gaze mingling with that of the wounded man. In this sense, Monbourquette’s psycho-spiritual model, presented in our last post of 11 November 2022, highlights how empathy can facilitate forgiveness, allowing the wounded person to grasp the perspective and emotions of the offender, and then, with God’s grace, adopt attitudes of compassion and mercy following the example of Jesus.

Therefore, empathically understanding those who have offended us can also help us to live this demanding passage from Luke’s gospel where Jesus says: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly. […] And as you want men to do to you, do also to them. […] Forgive and you will be forgiven” (Lk 6:27-28.37).

Jesus’ invitation to adopt a charitable, spiritual, empathetic and merciful attitude towards our enemies can also, on a neurological level, help us to overcome offence, negative emotions and thus contribute to the healing of our wounds. Scientific studies, such as the one at the University of Pisa, reveal, according to neuroscientist Pietro Pietrini, that negative emotions such as rancour, anger, resentment secrete, ‘in biochemical terms, hormones that are detrimental to brain homeostasis and nerve function’. Indeed, many studies suggest that ‘rumination produces negative emotions that activate associations in neural networks, stimulating cognitions, motivations and behaviours typical of resentment’ . Furthermore, “ruminating on the offence without verbalising it or being forced to suffer it passively for a long time can turn anger, fear and pain into toxins that fuel resentment and the desire for revenge” . Resentment towards the offender can therefore have a negative impact on the dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (involved in cognitive and emotional regulation and control) and thus on moral judgement, provoking attitudes such as hostility, revenge, physical, psychological and moral cruelty, abuse of power, etc.

Conversely, forgiveness promotes the biochemical homeostasis of the brain and thus can positively affect moral judgement. Because of the offender’s compassionate, empathic understanding and brain neuroplasticity, ‘forgiveness is a mechanism that allows one to “by-pass”, to overcome and move beyond the offence’. by developing other neuronal circuits that allow us to bypass this painful and traumatic experience. And so, empathic forgiveness promotes the secretion of hormones and neurotransmitters (such as serotonin, acetylcholine, endorphin) that can make us feel more serene towards those who have offended us.

For neuroscience professor Sanguineti, ‘harmony in the brain must be achieved by balancing ‘spiritual life’ and ‘homeostatic cerebral balance’ associated with the body’s chemical and physical properties. Therefore, neuroscience confirms that forgiveness introduces a balance at the level of brain synergy that affects psychic life’ . In this sense, according to Pietrini, their research has shown that forgiveness ‘takes the form of an articulated cognitive process that can enable the individual to overcome negative emotional states by re-evaluating a negative event in positive terms’ . Furthermore, on a neurological level, the activation of the inferior parietal cortex, which is implicated in the experience of empathy and the ability to ‘put oneself in the other person’s shoes’, suggests that an important step in forgiveness is to understand who has offended us. All this neuroscience data therefore supports Monbouquette’s psychological theory of empathic forgiveness.

In summary, we can say that Monbourquette’s invitation to understand with empathy who has offended us, and Jesus’ invitation to love, to do good, to bless, to pray, not to judge, not to condemn, and to forgive our enemies (cf. Lk 6:27-28. 37), enable us: 1) to free ourselves at the cognitive, neurological and emotional levels from the oppression of those who cause us to suffer; 2) with faith and grace, to foster the neuroplasticity of our brain to ‘by-pass’ and overcome our offences, wounds and traumatic experiences; 3) and finally, to make moral judgements full of empathy, charity, compassion and mercy with others and also with those who have offended us.

Mario Boies, C.Ss.R., M.Ps.

Original submitted in Italian and published on the Alphonsian Academy website. There, those interested in the subject will also find bibliographical references provided by the author.