Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Taming the Polar Bears in Focus - Taming Empathy

I first introduced this topic in the fall of 2015 in the piece Bipolar in Focus - Empathy and Bipolar Disorder. In that piece we looked at how bipolar seems to have an especially strong capacity for producing empathetic pain and suffering but we also saw that many people who suffer from anxiety and depression do as well. At the end of that piece I suggested that we did not have to necessarily suffer so much and that there were things we could do to alleviate and reduce our capacity for empathetic pain and suffering.

So yes, you read that title correctly - taming empathy, meaning your empathy is one of your "polar bears" that must be tamed.

In modern society we are more and more taught that empathy for others is a virtue and are implored to feel more empathy for the plights of minorities of all kinds and those less fortunate around the world. This of course is important - it's what impels humanity to improve the overall quality of life for all and to reduce prejudices or unfair practices against particular groups. All advances in human rights and improved life quality for others has at its roots, empathy for others. However, like any human capacity, empathy is something that can get overly dominant in our mental and emotional makeup and run amok with the potential to cause us terrible anguish and personal suffering, as we explored in the introduction piece. For many of us, it's not a matter of not having enough empathy for others; we in fact suffer from "overactive" empathy and empathetic pain regions in our brains and this becomes a great deal of our overall depressed mental states and mental suffering - hence the need for "taming" empathy.

To learn why your empathy must be tamed, we'll need to talk a little bit more about what empathy is - and isn't. And most importantly, we'll start to learn how to take better action to satisfy this empathy beast within us.

Did I just call empathy a "beast"? Yes, I did and not by accident. For to learn to truly understand empathy, we first need to learn about:

The Dark Side of Empathy

It is naturally assumed by most (but never by moi) that empathy is a virtue, an ever positive trait to be able, as many put it, "stand in someone else's shoes, to feel with his or her heart, to see with his or her eyes". We feel that to be an empathetic person is to be a "good person", it is something we are proud of in ourselves - we don't stand idly by while others suffer or turn cold shoulders to the suffering of others! And this is largely true, of course.

However, nothing about any human trait is so simple. It's something I learned very early on in my study of neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience (the former is more strictly about the nuts and bolts of the brain, the latter more about how those nuts and bolts create our cognitive abilities and behaviours) - no trait or behaviour is clear cut in how it's created in the brain or manifested in our inner mental worlds or our outward behaviours, nothing is black or white and almost everything about us will be in gradients along a spectrum of many differing shades and hues from good to bad that can slide up and down along that spectrum depending on a great deal of other factors, both internal and external.

And so it is with our capacities for empathy.

Let's look a little more into what empathy is.

While empathy is not unique to humans, human empathy works differently - or should work differently (more below) - than that of, for example, our closest primate cousins. Human empathy arises at least in some part from theory of mind. This is a cognitive ability that is unique in the animal world. (1) To summarize theory of mind very briefly, it is:

... the branch of cognitive science that investigates how we ascribe mental states to other persons and how we use the states to explain and predict the actions of those other persons. More accurately, it is the branch that investigates mind reading or mentalizing or mentalistic abilities. These skills are shared by almost all human beings beyond early childhood. They are used to treat other agents as the bearers of unobservable psychological states and processes, and to anticipate and explain the agents’ behavior in terms of such states and processes.

Cognitive abilities associated with theory of mind are critical to humans' ability to socially organize and cooperate on the scale that we do and the evolution of theory of mind in our minds was one of the greatest foundations for the very evolution and advancement of the human species in the first place. Neurologically speaking, it is located in our vaunted pre-frontal cortex (the area of the brain right behind our forehead), the area of the brain that most differentiates us from any other animal species.

Related to this and also critical for advanced human capacities for empathy is the power of imagination. This is not hard to understand for it is the power of imagination (again, a very unique human trait and ability) that allows us to, well, imagine what's going on in another person's life and paint a picture of it in our minds even though we had no direct role nor bore any direct witness to what the other person went through. This role of the power of imagination in empathy partly explains, I'd posit, why artists tend to be highly empathetic people caring greatly for the world (or to put it another way, why empathetic people tend to make better artists).

So far, so good, right?

Well, not quite.

There is now a great deal of research and evidence that looks at the "dark side of empathy".

What could this possibly mean? How can such a virtuous trait such as empathy have a dark side?

While the idea of a dark side to empathy is not exactly new (philosophers have observed and written on this for some centuries), the cognitive sciences have more recently been able to design and perform better experiments to shed a deeper light on the entire spectrum of empathy and - more importantly - the feelings and actions that can arise from it.

It turns out that our feelings of empathy - and its pain - could very well drive us towards feelings of hate, vengeance and aggression towards the perpetrators of actions against those we empathize with.

As just one small example (out of dozens, if not hundreds) of the neurological underpinnings of this, recent studies have been done that find that those with a genetic disposition towards being more sensitive to vasopressin and oxytocin - hormones implicated in feelings of compassion, helping and empathy - were paradoxically more prone to feelings and acts of aggression.

I spoke in the previous piece on empathy about how bipolar people are especially driven to take action. This is part of the "manic energy" side, a side which could drive great action that can often get us in trouble (a verbally or physically violent altercation, for example).

These powerful empathetic feelings could well cloud our judgments and lead us to jump to conclusions and judgments or to highly biased thinking. This too is now all well studied. It is part of what can lead to an "us vs them" mindset and to create great chasms and conflicts between peoples, races, groups and so on.

The human mind is all too full of "brain bugs" and our hidden capacities for prejudice and racism (various cognitive sciences have many clever ways of demonstrating that we are all probably much more prejudiced and racist than we would believe or portray publicly) and thus we form alliances and identity groups and, more importantly here, biases and prejudices against "opposing" groups in many possible divisive ways.

These natural tendencies towards bias and prejudice plus powerful empathetic feelings may drive us to forget that our value judgments are just that - our values and that they are not necessarily universal or universally "right". Thus as we witness or perceive any action against our views or values or which harms peoples or creatures in ways that offends our values, we often feel a surge of anger and hateful feelings against the persons or group that performed the harmful act. Powerful thoughts of vengeance may take hold. Our judgements may be clouded to the point that we include in our anger rage and thoughts of vengeance against anyone who appears to belong to the group that acted against our values (as just one example, this is most easily observable in hate for all Muslims because of the terrorist actions of a few).

Political leaders* often exploit these capacities for group bias and empathy in ways that may make us support a national or regional act of aggression towards others or against a rival political group that we might not otherwise rationally support. Yes, you read that correctly - empathetic feelings can drive us towards irrational thinking and behaviours.

[* - I don't, by the way, just mean leaders of political parties. I mean leaders of political or politicized groups of all kinds]

All of which means we can be driven - by feelings of empathy - towards feelings of hate, anger, rage and of vengeful aggression and judgment against others in very unhealthy ways.

Feelings of hate, anger, rage and of vengeful aggression and knee jerk irrational judgment? I think we can all agree that none of these are particularly healthy ways of being nor are they particularly useful for solving any human condition or conflict, or those involving other things we often empathize with.

And this same basic dark side to empathy is possible in virtually all peoples around the globe.

Now, does this mean that empathetic feelings necessarily lead to improper actions and behaviours as we've (very, very) briefly looked at here today or does it mean that actions based on this sort of "quick reaction" empathy necessarily wrong?

Of course not. This empathetic burst of pain we feel for another (either physical pain or psychological pain) can absolutely impel us to take quick action to save or help another. What I'm trying to lay the grounds for here is that we have to be careful about jumping to too many conclusions based on empathetic sympathies alone.

Now, that is for behavioural impulses among humanity as a whole. In us "highly empathetic" types, however - so called "empaths" - this is all a much bigger, different and more difficult kettle of fish.

To understand why we suffer so much, or at least much more than the average person (the whole point of this blog, after all), we need to look at two other aspects involved in empathy and empathetic response. Those are:

- Psychological pain

- and a favourite topic of mine, the stress response system

Psychological pain, ooooh boy, is this a big and favourite topic of mine and one that is historically - and horrendously - overlooked and misunderstood by a long line of professionals in the various fields of medicine, psychology and psychiatry (for whom I have a long list of rather unflattering and largely unprintable names).

It would take a separate post on psychological pain and how it works in many of those who suffer mental health problems but for our purposes here today we need to get into it briefly to further understand empathetic pain.

You see, it is referred to as "psychological pain" to distinguish it from physical pain. Physical pain has - ostensibly - an obvious source in our bodies; a broken leg or a burn, for example, that causes pain receptors in the brain to fire. That's what we experience as physical pain. For the most part the medical world can understand and deal with this kind of pain.

So called psychological pain, on the other hand, has no such obvious physical source. You can't "see" where it's coming from; hence, it's "psychological". It often still gets dismissed by the great majority of medical and mental health professionals as well by most of the general public as merely being "in your head", the strong - though usually unspoken - implication being that it's "imaginary" and because it's "imaginary" you should just "get over it".

However, there are a growing number of researchers who study how  both physical and "psychological" is created in the brain that are gaining deeper and deeper understanding into pain of all kinds and it turns out the most of what we experience as pain is, in fact, "in our head". Very briefly (and this is breathtakingly brief, but our space here today is limited); wherever we feel pain in our bodies, there is a corresponding group of neurons where signals are sent and it is the firing of these neurons that create the sensation of pain (the renowned neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran was and remains a leading pioneer and expert in this, most exemplified by his work in understanding and treating phantom limb pain).

Psychological pain is no different - it is generated by specific regions and neurons in the brain. As I explained in the original post, we - among many mammal and even bird species - evolved the capacity to feel and experience the pain of others as part of our learning abilities - as a group we learn faster to recognize and deal with a danger if we can feel and experience pain just by witnessing someone else going through a painful experience (either physical or psychological). It is also in good part what impels us to act to help or save someone. It is an integral part of our stress response system.

Now, to that stress response system of ours. The great Robert Sapolsky has researched, lectured and written about this in probably greater detail than anyone else in the neuroscience and neurobiology biz. He has long recognized and investigated how psychological pain activates the stress response system virtually identically to how physical pain does.

This bears repeating and highlighting, folks: psychological pain activates the stress response system virtually identically to how physical pain does.

In response to pain, the stress response system is going to kick off a cascade of hormonal, neurotransmitter and other neurobiological agents that are going to cause great physiological changes throughout your brain and body that you will experience in a wide variety of ways that would require at least a small book to adequately outline (Sapolsky has several large ones, not to mention hours and hours of lectures and dozens of academic papers devoted to the subject). This can all be good in the short term - if there's an obvious wound or danger to deal with. But when we have misunderstood and unresolved psychological pain that becomes chronic and thus keeps activating the stress response system, this is where we begin to see toxic levels of stress. For some of the most obvious and common symptoms of psychological stress, think of the pain in your chest and thumping heart and what could be raging emotions of all kinds that seemingly pop out of the blue in reaction to something you witness or read that "threatens" your own values, views or sense of fairness.

With a lack of understanding as to why it is happening and left unchecked, the stress response system being 
chronically activated with resultant spikes in stress hormones and other neurobiological changes will create destruction throughout the brain and body leading or contributing to just about every major health problem we have today, including - ta-da! - all major mental health disorders. Chronic stress is what could gravely damage the capacity of every cell in your brain and body to create energy. Chronic stress is just really, really bad news. 

Worst yet, for those who've long lived with psychiatric or mood disorders, there is a very good chance that we'll have lost a lot of our power to do anything about so many situations that arise even in our own lives, let alone large issues involving injustice and unfairness to groups we identify with or empathize with. We'll tend more to be powerless (in both psychological and literal senses) and feel helpless to do anything about all the sources for our empathetic pain.

And it is now well known that real or so called "learned helplessness" (an odd term to try understand the true meaning of) will further exacerbate and contribute to feelings of acute and/or chronic stress.

So perhaps this is the darkest aspect of empathy - runaway empathy creates both acute and chronic psychological pain, the great majority of which we feel powerless to resolve which causes acute stress spikes and/or chronically activates the stress response system which will go about creating all kinds of cellular destruction throughout your brain and body.

When we are "melting down" with pain - this so called "imaginary" psychological pain - I can tell you we almost literally are melting down in very real physiological ways at the cellular level in our brains and bodies.

Not only that, "stress responses" could lead to all kinds of short and long term behaviours or behavioural changes that may well be dangerous for us or at the very least not at all in our best interests (many of which make up a great number of the "symptoms" that are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for most psychiatric or mood disorders).

Now, this is all incredibly brief (though I know it may seem incredibly long), but I hope I have built a compelling case for the need to "tame" your empathy "polar bears".

Empathetic pain isn't the only psychological pain we have to tame, but for many of you reading here, it's a big one - and a pretty important place to start.

Let's first go back to examining why some of us feel empathetic pain more than others. As I stated in the original piece, there's a good deal of evidence that bipolar people experience empathetic pain more than the average population (I have a separate essay in mind outlining that this could well be a root for some (though not all) of the cycling between manic highs and depressive lows). However, I also stated that since I first looked at the connections between bipolar depressive phases and empathetic pain I have spoken to and worked with many people who identify as "empaths" who suffer greatly as well.

So let's look at us as a group for now.

For starters, there is good evidence that so called "empaths" are "wired" differently; a great deal of our sensory equipment and the complex networks of white matter between them has formed and developed differently than that of the general population in ways that make us highly sensitive to all kinds of sensory input: we see more, feel more, hear more. We experience the sensory world around us in more intense detail (which again, is why perhaps many artists identify as empaths or why many empaths become artists). Facial expressions, tones of speaking voices, body language and much so on will be layered not only in much more detail, but will also be experienced more intensely. We read more "meaning" into all of it.

Many empaths I talk to refer to times when being in a room of people they can literally feel themselves deeply sense and "soak up" the vibes of everyone in the room. For many empaths these strong sensations can be very uncomfortable and overwhelming if not unbearable in ways most people simply cannot understand. This is partly what I was getting to in the introductory post on our differing realities.

It makes sense then that people who have this higher and more attuned sensory capacity for others' facial expressions, body language and tonal intonations in speech will have a greater capacity to sense and feel the pain of others as well - empathetic pain - and not only that, experience it much more intensely than that of the average population.

So there's that.

But does this mean that people who are not empaths do not feel empathetic pain as we do?

In some senses, yes. But that does not mean they do not feel empathetic pain. It is a very rare person who does not feel empathetic pain. What needs to be understood here is the wide, wide diversity of all human capacities. People empathize with many, many, different things, groups, peoples, races, genders, creatures and so on. Not only that, people are capable of nearly countless ways of reacting to empathetic feelings.

In other words, just because people don't share your empathies it doesn't mean they don't experience empathy. It may also mean that they have developed different - and perhaps healthier - strategies and powers for helping others they empathize with.

Also, however, I'd like to direct us back to the concept of "ego defenses", which I briefly examined and linked to many psychiatric disorders way, way back in a post I called Broken Ego Defenses. In that post I explained that we all have a number of specialized brain systems that we evolved to help block out psychological pain of all kinds for the very reason to prevent us from melting down with overwhelm from the many harsh realities of life.

We have to understand this from an evolutionary standpoint - in the strictest rules of evolution, the name of the game is to carry on. Things that prevent us from carrying on are a great disadvantage to us as individuals and to our "tribe" in general. Melting down and/or getting physically ill from stress and anxiety from emotional pain would therefore definitely qualify as "dis-advantageous" to our individual, clan and tribe genetic success. This is why our brains also evolved ways to block out too much emotional pain and overwhelm. The capacity to block it out is supposed to be there.

So while many people appear to have the emotional EQ of a fence post (as I am fond of saying), in many ways this is their brain doing exactly what it's supposed to do - protecting them from harm.

It is entirely possible - and I have observed this many times - a person may have a great capacity for psychological pain but at some point was hurt so bad, or felt the pain so intensely, that their mind/brain developed strategies to always avoid that in the future. This again is a great deal of how the stress response system and pain regulation is supposed to work - to learn strategies to avoid pain and its sources in the future. As it is with the great majority of how our brains plot strategies for survival and success, this is for the most part done deeply subconsciously.

Our brains not doing this is partly what I was getting at in the post Broken Ego Defenses and how this leads to a good deal of psychological distress, anxiety, depression, bipolar episodes and so on.

Now, it is also true that too many people care too little for and ignore too much about the world around them and this is obviously not good either.

Those of us who tend towards the higher end of the empathy spectrum have our role in the overall success of our group, tribe, people, gender, etc as well. We tend to be more socially aware. Despite our capacity for pain, we tend to seek out the injustices of the world.

Without people like us, many of the social equality and justice advances the world has steadily made in the last millennium or so would likely not have occurred.

Plus, this is simply the way the brains of us empaths are. As I've stated many, many times in this blog, nobody can just magically with their own willful volition change the way their brain works. This would simply go against all of what is well known about how brains develop and work. What we think of as "change" is really neuroplasticity at work, which means changing literally billions of synaptic connections, the axon wiring between brain regions (the white matter referred to above, otherwise known as our "connectome") and countless other aspects of our brain functioning.

No, no, that does not happen quickly or easily in anyone.

So what to do? How to "tame" these empathy "polar bears"?

Let's look at a few ideas and strategies.

First of all, I want to take another look at a line from the excerpt from the email sent to me that inspired the original post on empathy and pain - " ... there's no getting away from the overwhelming brokenness all around the world."

This, I must say, represents a sort of cognitive distortion, or what I like to call a "distorted reality" that many of us must address. It's a "cognitive bias" our minds can create the more we see injustices and wrongdoings around the world. If this is all we see - and our pain sears these into our memories and minds very strongly - then we begin to form a distorted view of the world that makes it seem all unjust and "broken".

And while there is no question these things exist, it is not a correct or balanced view of the world to see it as all "unjust and broken".

Since seeking better mental health without pharmacological help early in 2013 and as part of my Positive Difference Making Fundamentals, I saw that I had to change my "data input" - everything I take in through various media. I made great efforts to balance negative news with more positive and beautiful aspects of the world around us to give my mind a more balanced - and truthful - view of the world around me.

As well, I quite frankly stopped following a great deal of news in general.

Does this make me a more callous and uncaring person? Will it make you a more callous and uncaring person?

Absolutely not.

I'd also like to remind you of something I've been getting at in a number of posts - my mind, your mind, the human mind did not evolve to be able to handle everything that the modern world throws at it. Over tens of thousands of years, our brains evolved to care about and care for very small groups and/or clans, groups very closely tied to us and our own survival.

In no way, shape or form did your - or any - brain evolve or adapt the ability to handle a world of seven billion people and a communication system that brings news of that world to your fingertips twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week throughout the year. No freaking way. Anyone who tells you any different is greatly unclear of the capacity for human brain evolution and adaption.

So any way you look at it, you have to reduce the amount of news you take in, no ifs, ands or buts about it.

No, this does not make you a "bad person". Yes, I know many of us have been socially trained to feel that we need to be "aware" of everything around us and that to be unaware of the world's ills is to be "stupid" or make us a blind "sheeple".

It means instead that we are coming to terms with our very real and very human limitations in dealing with the pains and injustices of the world.

Let me get you to think of it a couple of different ways. One of these ways I discovered waaaaay back in my early twenties when I was pulling out of a long and dangerously deep depressive episode. I recognized then that a great deal of the overwhelm and meltdown I was experiencing was about things beyond my control.

Back then I thought "who is the most powerful person in the world?". I thought of the president of the United States. He (and  possibly one day she) can get on the phone and have direct and impactful contact with all kinds of other people of great power. Despite this great power, not even the president of the US can stop, for example, citizens of his own country from mowing each other down with automatic weapons.

It was then that I recognized that "if someone with that kind of power can't just change these things, what the hell am I going to do about it?"

This can be a rather unsettling, not to mention dis-empowering, feeling and yes, I know you hate this feeling.

So I'm going to tell you what I learned then: we - you, I, anyone of any capacity or power - can only work within our sphere of influence. That's how people work. If our sphere of influence is small, then so be it.

Throughout my life and as my circles of friends and spheres of influence changed over and over and as I cycled through periods of bipolar ups and downs, I've had to learn and relearn this lesson many, many times.

What this also means is that we must learn an ageless and universal fundamental truth - we must let go of what we cannot control.

Yes, Grasshopper - we must let go of what we cannot control. And I can one hundred percent guarantee you that the vast majority of the injustices and wrongdoings around the world are very, very much out of your control. Yes, I know ... that's very sobering. But it is a Truth. A truth that we cannot deny and must learn to accept.

This was an extremely hard lesson for me as the year 2013 wore on and as I delved deeply into the world of mental health, suicide and people becoming incapacitated by their conditions and suffering. I massively, massively took on that suffering. And as the manic energy that I had to start that year wore off and as fatigue took over and my capacities to do anything diminished to almost zero and I was melting down over that and my vanishing ability to help anyone, I realized that all I could do was write this blog and hope that I could help people in this way.

So I must suggest something similar - take on a small, doable project that you feel will help a group you feel needs help, and then focus - and limit - your energies mostly on that. Look for little victories. This is how all change in the world is enacted - small steps and little victories. Do this and your small steps and little victories will join larger streams of similar efforts to become a river of change (or a field of flowers, if you will). No, I am not blowing pseudo profound pop bullshit up your ass. This is really how it works.

None of this is easy, I can tell you. As I have discussed almost ad nauseum and at length all over this blog, no change is easy. Our brains did not get this way overnight nor are they going to change overnight. It takes time and regular and mindful effort.

Nor are we going to avoid being hammered by some especially bad news from somewhere in the world that rips at our empathies and pain. When this happens, I suggest stepping back from the world and allowing that pain to heal - for it must heal in a very literal sense; it's as real as any physical pain and wound.

Lastly and finally  I must raise the question of whether the painful empathy many of us experience is even "correct empathy", or the proper empathy to be experiencing.

Now what could I possibly mean by that?!

To understand that, we have to return to that previous piece on this subject and remind ourselves that homo sapiens evolved and share empathetic abilities with a good number of other animal species. And it is here that I must point out the uncomfortable fact that a good amount of what we experience as empathy is on the same level of, for example, a baboon. This is what's basically known as "mirror empathy". Hey, I've nothing against our close primate cousins and it's cool that we share these abilities with many other mammal (and certain bird) species but that doesn't say too much for having a higher, more evolved sense of empathy.

Mirror empathy, or the kind of empathy we share with many other species, is a rather base form of empathy, I'm afraid to say. This kind of empathy is what gives us that immediate impact of pain that hits us right in the gut.

But it is also the kind of "quick reaction" empathy that can be so easily manipulated and which is what makes up the dark side of empathy we're looking at here today.

Like many of our basic human abilities and instincts, just because we have it and it works in powerful ways in us, doesn't mean that this either "good" or "it" as far as the possibilities of a given ability go.

And so it is with empathy. Higher forms of human empathy have, or should have, more to do with what I touched on briefly at the beginning of the piece - the uniquely human theory of mind. This, remember, is what gives us the ability to look into and understand another person's mind.

And like any higher cognitive ability, it takes a lot of work to truly develop its upper limits and potential. For true empathetic feelings and understandings, it requires highly developed listening skills to truly hear points of view or values that differ greatly from our own. Mirror empathy only reflects our own views and values - members of "our tribe", in other words. While this kind of empathy remains important, of course, I'm afraid it will not do for a truly developed human higher form of empathy.

What we are talking about here is empathetic thinking rather than empathetic feeling. [To learn more on this concept and its power, please see this approximately ten minute long RSA Animate video]

No doubt that hurts to hear - it hit me hard when I first understood it - but there ya go. Learning about ourselves and limitations often hurts like that. And to fully learn and grasp something new, we often must first acknowledge and accept that what was is not all there is to a given aspect of our selves.

So to summarize, to tame our "empathy polar bears" we must:

- change how we take in news. Not only must we reduce the news we take in, we must learn to actively seek more positive and good news or stories of what's going on around the world.

- recognize and accept our limitations and act within them. By focusing on what we can do, we can stretch our limitations and abilities to enact change

- recognize that we must take care of ourselves and our own mental health. We are no good to anyone or any cause if we melt down so badly as to become incapacitated.

- realize and understand that it's okay not to take in every pain and injustice in the world. Nobody has the capacity to deal with all of that - nobody.

- in that vein, realize and understand that it's okay to build ego defenses to defend your ego. Yes, it is quite okay to a) have an ego and b) not to let yourself - your ego - get pummeled by everything going on in this big wide world. Having an ego doesn't mean we get a "big head" or anything like that; it means we build a balanced and healthy sense of self and personal boundaries.

- I also try to use my sessions of Mindfulness Meditation CBT as an opportunity to examine my feelings and actions generated by empathetic responses to the world around me. We can really get our knickers in knots over great numbers of things around the world and I use these sessions to work out those knots.

- and finally, think on the difference between "mirror empathy" or empathetic feeling and more highly developed forms of empathetic thinking. One of the easiest and most highly recommended ways of developing this - and a good body of evidence now supports this - is through reading fiction where to fully get into the various characters and their story arcs we must "get in their shoes" and see the world as they see it. This can also be practiced by viewing high quality movies. Being more aware of our listening skills and developing those is a must as well (yes, yes, I know, a lot of work but all the best personal growth work is).

We are not, after all, much good to any kind of true solution to world problems if we only react emotionally which most often leads to being confrontational and our actions easily manipulated by leaders of various kinds (and even in leaders we favour, this may not necessarily be good for solutions either). For truer solutions, we must work at using our unique human empathetic thinking abilities to hear and see other sides of views and values that are not our own and learning to better work together with and not against others.

(1) In the world of animal cognitive studies it has been becoming clearer that many animals have some level of theory of mind.