I spent the first eight years of my life in Tokyo, Japan. Every day, my sisters and I rode the train almost an hour each way to our American school.
There are a thousand tiny memories of those rides – but one that sticks with me, one that I can’t quite shake, is that of seeing the homeless asleep in the stations during the brutal winters. I quickly learned, even as a young child, that not everyone had a home, access to clean water, a family. The homeless are everywhere, and of course an American child in a large city is just as likely to witness what I did. But this was my own experience as a child, my first hand look into the suffering of others.
I’ve thought a lot about my experiences in Tokyo, as I attempt to raise my feisty, sometimes self-absorbed (like most toddlers), jewel of a daughter. She has never known hunger, or cold, or really, any sort of need. But I desperately want to teach her to connect and feel for those that do, to empathize.
How can I teach empathy for those in poverty? How can I teach empathy for the millions of displaced refugees around the world?
According to researchers, empathy is a trait that can’t be taught. But it can be facilitated. And travel, it turns out, is one of the best ways to do it.
I looked for research about this emotional skill set, hoping to hone in on how teaching empathy is done. And I found it in research by Professor Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School who has done extensive research on the benefits of travel, specifically on how it affects the brain’s neural pathways. His 2010 study found that travel, experiencing and adapting to other cultures, “increases awareness of underlying connections and associations.” Apparently, travel improves cognitive flexibility, which is how the mind is able to jump between different ideas.
“This act of perspective-taking is a critical ingredient in compassion and empathy,” Galinsky explained to Quartz in 2016. And it’s with children, especially, that travel can facilitate empathy. “Engaging with another culture helps kids recognize that their own egocentric way of looking at the world is not the only way of being in the world.”
It would seem that when we travel, we teach our children (and ourselves) that there are hundreds of ways to live on this planet. There are hundreds of ways to raise our children, hundreds of ways to reside, whether in homes or apartments or in a shack with stilts. Hundreds of ways to worship and eat and work. And perhaps the most important realization is that our way of living, raising, loving — is not necessarily the right way. When we travel, we are a witness to the unique challenges of the government, the environment, and the economy.
Theresa Wiseman, a pioneer in empathy research, established four attributes of empathy and all of them can arguably be affected and improved by travel. They are:
To be able to see the world as others see it. How can we see the world as others see it if we do not see the world?
To be nonjudgmental. Perhaps we become less judgmental from travel because we are allowing ourselves to be put in someone else’s shoes. We witness firsthand that not everyone has had the same experiences, challenges, or blessings as us.
To understand another person’s feelings. We understand only through experience. Imagination is a powerful tool, but experience is essential.
To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings. Perhaps the most difficult attribute of empathy is how to properly communicate your understanding of an individual. Even more difficult is communicating understanding to an entire culture. But as researcher and author Dr. Brené Brown says, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better, is connection.”
While exposure to diversity through trips to other parts of the world is good, it’s not enough. Samantha C. Sweeney, the psychologist-founder of the education company Cultural Competence says that just taking a trip to another country isn’t always enough. “It’s what you do while you are there that helps cultivate empathy.”
Sweeney suggests that by having conversations with your children on trips about how the lives of others are similar and different to theirs, it allows them to broaden their understanding of the world and their place in it.
What’s most important is that when we travel to other parts of the world and encounter other cultures, we pull ourselves from our “cultural bubbles,” allowing connection to occur.
“We found that when people had experiences traveling to other countries,” Galinsky told Atlantic Monthly “it increased what’s called generalized trust, or their general faith in humanity.”
A general faith in humanity. Yes, that’s it. Isn’t that the trait I (and all of us) so desperately seek?