Seeing Similarities: The Science and Practice of Empathy

June 11, 2020

I wanted to share with you one of the scientific observations around empathy that’s taught in the Search Inside Yourself program, and is so important for us to reckon with right now.

Numerous studies point to a startling truth: we tend to exhibit less empathy towards those we view as different.

Ask yourself if can you think of a moment where this was true in your life.

Whether we like to admit it or not, most of us have been guilty of caring less for those that look, talk, or act differently than us.

In recent decades, we’ve gained more understanding through neuroscience as to how ingrained biases affect the brain’s neural responses and in turn, our behavior.

The important thing to note is that much of this is happening subconsciously, deep in the circuitry of our brain.

To illustrate this further, take the research of Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, adjunct professor atStanford University School of Medicine, and Executive Director at the Center for Science and Law.

He conducted a study in 2015 in which they measured the brain activity of participants as they watched a video of a needle being poked into a stranger’s hand.

The catch?

Participants saw a label affixed to each hand that denoted the supposed religious supposed affiliation of that participant (e.g. Jewish, Christian, Atheist, etc.).

This primed the participants to view each hand through a lens of “In-Group” vs. “Out-Group.” In essence, they wanted to see whether a Christian would react in the same way to a Jewish hand being poked as to a Christian one.

(Note: this isn’t just affected by religion. Even seeing someone wearing your team’s football jersey can affect your brain’s empathic response, as this study demonstrated.)

The result?

Dr. Eagleman found that this simple one-word religious label affected the brain’s neural response to pain.

In short, our brains tend to show less empathic response to those in our “Out-group” as opposed to those in our “In-Group.”

So what can you do?

While the research is relatively new, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that mental training, specifically focused on compassion, can make heighten the emotional response in our brains to the suffering of others.

By consciously seeing similarities in others, we can train our brains to exhibit more empathy, which hopefully can result more understanding and kindness in a world that needs it.

Watch here: PBS: The Brain with David Eagleman: In-Group/Out-Group

I highly recommend spending 2 minutes watching the clip but be careful if you are squeamish about needles.


There are many ways in which you might practice seeing similarities in others. This exercise is inspired by SIY and one I’ve found pragmatic and beneficial.

You can practice this at home by imagining someone that you’re finding frustrating or difficult at the moment, or you can do this in-the-moment when you find yourself in a challenging situation (ex. waiting in a long queue).

1. Settle the Mind. Begin with a few deep breaths. This helps us build presence, relax the body, and create space for perspective-taking.

2. See Similarities. Bring to mind some commonalities with this other person. You might recognize that just like you, this other person is seeking happiness in their life. Or you might think how this person has also experienced sadness and loss in their life, just like you.

3. Offer Kindness. This can be done in your thoughts, as a mental exercise, or you might have the opportunity to actually treat this other person with kindness. Just remember, even the act of thinking kind and compassionate thoughts can rewire our brain through neuroplasticity and create a lasting change in how you perceive and act towards others.


We see the world not as it is, but as we are.

— Stephen Covey