Whilst we are hard-wired to have feelings and are capable of empathy – i.e. we have the software available – we first need data: our minds’ ability to observe and understand emotions in others. Toddlers start this process of learning when they first become consciously aware that they are both separate from, and able to affect, their parents’ emotions and then later other peoples’ too.
The new developments in neuroscience provide insights into how this process of empathetic awareness is learned. From these we are developing a practical understanding of how this can be affected by the signals in our built environment – dialled up or down or, in extreme instances, turned completely off or on. By applying this ever-growing body of knowledge, we have the opportunity to understand and design our environments to encourage – or discourage – empathetic over selfish, community- aware rather than individualistic responses.
It is exciting to consider how we might apply this new learning in a world managing a pandemic. How we design the verbal and visual signposting of our environments, indoors and out, private and shared. How we agree the laws and customs that will constrain and affect our responses. Can we use these new insights to create truly inclusive environments that actively encourage greater empathy amongst their citizenry in our ageing, increasingly uncertain and now even more threatening and complex world? To turn my anger into empathy when a young runner comes past too close; to turn their inward focus into an awareness of my vulnerability.
Our environment switches our responses on and off. Measuring our brain and neurological responses to different situations and signals and incorporating this knowledge into design processes could be hugely influential in creating greater fairness in the allocation of space and infrastructures and encouraging greater empathy through our designs.