Cognitive empathy can be put to use to help us feel good again


Dr. Michael Gilead’s research demonstrates how cognitive empathy can be used to help us become more resilient.  One of the future next step may be commercializing these findings into a consumer product – an app that will help people to deal better with stress.  Dr. Gilead’s project is one of eight academic studies to have received Joy Ventures research grant.


Opposable thumbs is one thing that helped us humans rise above other species.  Less well-known, but perhaps no less important, is a uniquely human trait – ‘cognitive empathy’.  “Cognitive empathy is basically our ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes,” explains Dr. Gilead. “This ability is what lets us cooperate better with other people, and also better compete with them.  When you can imagine what another person feels and wants, you get to an entirely other level of social interaction.” The scientific field that examines the neural basis for this ability is called social cognitive neuroscience.


Dr. Gilead and his team at their lab at Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Psychology, are conducting groundbreaking research, and have proven – for the first time – that our ability to empathize with others can help make us more resilient.  In the lab study, people were shown upsetting images, and then asked to imagine the reaction of someone they know whom they view as resilient. Those who did exhibited lower levels of brain activity associated with stress.

“If you experience a stressful situation, and imagine how John Wayne would react in the same situation, you will react one way.  If you imagine how Woody Allen would react, your brain chemistry will actually ‘look’ different, and your reaction and emotions will also be different,” explains Dr. Gilead.


Dr. Gilead is excited about bringing his learnings to help people deal better with everyday stressors.  One possible implementation is an app, which would send the user alerts and prompts, helping the user deal with stressful situations by prompting him or her to imagine how a resilient person they know would react.  Putting themselves in his or shoes in their minds would, according to the results of Dr. Gilead’s research, lead the users to behave more resiliently themselves, and lower stress levels.


Dr. Gilead views Joy Ventures’ activity as a potential game-changer in the Neuro-Wellness arena. “Joy Ventures has ‘awakened’ the field.  I see researchers around me thinking more about implementation, about potentially founding startups, and finding ways to bring their research findings to consumers,” says Dr. Gilead.  “There is a real need for the kind of activity Joy Ventures has undertaken.  The ‘currency’ in academia is usually articles in professional publications, not implementation and industry, and so Joy Ventures is changing this equation, and motivating researchers to think more about implementation.”


“Social cognitive neuroscience is exciting, and has real potential to positively impact people’s lives, but the ‘missing link’ is support and funding to help bring research to implementation,” says Dr. Hagit Alon of Joy Ventures. “We’re proud to be supporting Dr. Gilead’s work – here we can see a clear path forward to bringing solutions to people, and we’re excited to cooperate with him and his team to support the endeavor.”