At Christmas, the words “peace on earth and goodwill to all” are more significant than ever. But in order to put these words into action, psychologists suggest that a person must feel empathy toward strangers – a quality not everyone possesses. A new study, however, claims such a quality can be learned.

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Researchers suggest it is possible to learn to empathize with strangers.

Study coauthor Grit Hein, a neuroscientist and psychologist from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, and colleagues found that surprisingly positive experiences with a stranger trigger a learning signal in brain cells that can increase empathy – the ability to understand a person’s feelings or experiences from their perspective.

They recently published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Hein and colleagues note that a lack of empathy or compassion toward strangers is often what fuels conflict between individuals from different cultures and nationalities, suggesting that an increase in empathy could help alleviate such conflict.

For their study, the team conducted an experiment to determine whether a person can learn to empathize with strangers through positive experiences.

The research included two groups of participants; both groups were told they would be receiving a painful shock to the back of their hands, but they were also told a member of their own group (in-group members) or another group (out-group members) – representing strangers – could spare them the shock by parting with money.

The empathic brain responses of each participant were measured before and after they observed an in-group or out-group member experience pain.

At the beginning of the experiment, the researchers found that participants showed weaker empathic brain responses upon witnessing an out-group member experience pain, compared with an in-group member.

However, after only a few positive experiences with out-group members – in which out-group members paid money to stop members of another group experiencing pain – the team found in-group members showed increased empathic brain responses when seeing any member of the out-group suffer pain.

The researchers found that the stronger an individual’s positive experience was with a stranger, the greater the empathic brain response.

What is more, the team found that the increased empathic response was triggered by a learning signal in brain cells that occurs when one experiences a surprisingly positive experience with a stranger.

Based on their findings, the team believes just a handful of positive learning experiences with a stranger could enable a person to become more empathic.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study published in The BMJ‘s Christmas issue in which researchers claimed to have discovered a brain network associated with “Christmas spirit.”

Scientists from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark identified greater brain activity in five brain areas – linked to a number of emotional and spiritual functions – of participants who celebrated Christmas in response to Christmas-themed images, compared with participants who did not celebrate Christmas.

The team said their findings could lead to a treatment for what they call “bah humbug” syndrome.