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Episode 2: Building empathy and compassion – with Prof. Olga Klimecki

By October 31, 2021December 11th, 2021No Comments

Episode 2: Building empathy and compassion – with Prof. Olga Klimecki

In this episode we learn the difference between empathy and compassion, how empathy can sometimes lead to distress and how strengthening compassion functions as the antidote. Professor Klimecki has extensive knowledge on the subject and here she shares her research findings on how social emotions can be changed and cultivated in the mind through intentional effort. We also discuss how cultivating these mental states can benefit us both as individuals and as a society.

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Main topic notes

  • What is empathy vs compassion? [03.00]
  • Do you need empathy to have compassion? [06.21]
  • Empathic distress [07.50]
  • Brain plasticity and social emotions [09.28]
  • Personality traits are not as fixed as we might believe [11.44]
  • How to counteract empathic distress [13.30]
  • Loving-kindness meditation [15.05]
  • How the connections in the brain change with practice [20.03]
  • Compassion training can reverse empathic distress [25.51]
  • The nature of positive emotions in the face of suffering [28.07]
  • On building resilience [31.00]
  • The possible implications for society [32.00]
  • The effect of compassion training on social behaviour [33.54]
  • On compassion while setting boundaries [35.21]
  • What are you excited about for the future of this field? [38.39]
  • On meditation training for conflict resolution [41.08]
  • Deconditioning and returning to who you truly are [44.14]
  • How to create change in the world [46.03]
  • What is your advice to the audience? [49.02]

Main articles

Klimecki, O.M. (2015). The Plasticity of Social Emotions. Social Neuroscience. 10, 466-473.
Singer, T., Klimecki, O.M. (2014). Empathy and Compassion. Current Biology, 24, R875-R878.


  • Empathy is the capacity to share another person’s emotions and feel the same quality of emotion, for example sadness or joy. Compassion is empathy paired with a feeling of care or concern for the other person and the motivation to help.
  • Empathic distress describes a situation where one can become overwhelmed by the sharing of suffering and this triggers a self-preservation mechanism in us that makes us move away from the person if we can. The result is a decrease in helping behaviour as well as distress meaning that it can be harmful for both the person suffering and the person sharing this suffering.
  • Plasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt and change as a result of experience or intentional effort. Relatively short training in loving-kindness meditation creates objective changes in brain connectivity in areas related to love, affiliation and reward in addition to areas for sharing pain. When empathy is strengthened one can enter empathic distress but the research shows that compassion training can counteract this. By training in compassion and modifying the connections in your brain you can therefore reduce suffering both for yourself and others around you.

More from Prof. Olga Klimecki