Muscle Memory and Empathy
The other night my husband and I were sitting in our bedroom looking out the window star gazing. Our discussion revolved around empathy. We were discussing the development of our empathetic responses to one another. We were tussling with the question of why some persons have seemingly more empathy than others. My conclusion without research was that empathy is much like a muscle. Muscles have memory; this concept of memory is a procedural development connecting the cognitive ability to improve through practice of a particular activity using certain muscles (Lifehacker n.d.). These muscles strive to make the most efficient use of motion in order to help proficiency and perfection of the intended activity. The brain, as I understand, will naturally make the most efficient pathways to process, use, and improve as one practices a particular activity. I propose that empathy, or the act of empathizing happens regardless of practice, but that one acquires proficiency in empathy through the practice of empathizing.
As a hospital Chaplain my job required a highly developed since of empathy. Bracketing my own emotions and judgments allowed me to exercise and practice my ability to empathize regardless of my own state. I began a four-month externship as a hospital chaplain, believing that I possessed the necessary virtues to be empathetic. While the statement is true, I do possess spiritual virtues of kindness, gentleness, courage, and fortitude. I did not possess the knowledge that the needs of others trigger empathy first. The process of practice in empathy generates my ability to offer compassionately any of the spiritual gifts given to me to another in need. Each time I walked into a hospital room, or hung out charting at a nurses station, I was practicing. I contend that this muscle in empathy experienced many changes, both growing and straining. There were moments when the muscle was to thick to bracket my own vision. I quickly learned that the practice thinned and elongated the muscle. I begin the dissection of this method by first acknowledging that empathy is a thin-skinned muscle.
Empathy as a muscle initiates a tickling inside your brain, an experiential tickle alerting one to connect the present experience to a previous experience. The brainy academic character Sheldon Cooper of the television show “Big Bang Theory” offers a hyperbole as a present example of empathetic response and compassionate behavior upon recognizing the discomforts or pain of others . Here is a pretend dialogue between Sheldon and his roommate Leonard.
Sheldon, “I will fix you a warm beverage”.
Sheldon, “That is what one does when a friend is distressed”.
There are a distinct set of rules for Sheldon that apply to varied situations regardless of any subtle changes in each experience. Sheldon is addressing the need of his friends through a practiced ritual of compassion. Something in the prior conversation or actions with Leonard, tickled the empathy muscle causing Sheldon to begin a compassionate ritual of comfort. His comforting response, although stilted, promotes the care that helps others to work on their discomfort or pain. Each encounter that generates a tickle deepens one’s ability to recognize the need for empathy and stretches the muscle. As the muscle lengthens, the proficiency in pathways lead one to experience empathetic vision. The pathway for this muscle alters vision causing the focus to center through the lens of someone in need.
A tickle is hard to ignore; recognition is the key to feeling and knowing when to respond with empathy. Empathy by definition and action may be taught, such as with Sheldon. However, for most of us the internal response to an empathetic tickle leads to practice empathy stretching the muscle in practice and discovering that with practice empathy is waiting to lead compassion to action.
 Externship is similar to an internship. It is a short training in a particular field of study.