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PostPosted: Tue Mar 06, 2012 3:05 am 

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Hi all, I just posted this blog on psychcentral, and thought I'd post here too. Would love feedback!

Equine Therapy: Learning Empathy from a Horse




While those in the world of midfulness may be well aware that empathy toward others is a recipe for a feeling of wellbeing within oneself, for many people, just how to increase a sense of empathy can be a challenging subject. This, of course is complicated when many people struggle with feeling empathetic towad others. To be sure, when empathy isn’t expressed, it isn’t gained either. So if this is the case, how does one go about increasing empathy? And, further, is it possible that animals, namely horses, can help us to feel more empatheic toward one another?
To answewr this question, lety’s first take a look at how empathy is, defined, and what factors in human relationships can facilitate it.
When kids have secure attachment relationships (so that they know they can count on their caregivers for emotional and physical support) they are more likely to show sympathy and offer help to other kids in distress (Waters et al 1979; Kestenbaum et al 1989).
An interesting experiment suggests that higher levels of oxytocin can help people better “decode” the emotional meanings of facial expressions. Researchers had 30 young adult males inhale oxytocin (the “cuddle” hormone) and then examine photographs of other people’s eyes. Compared to men given a placebo, the oxytocin men were better at interpreting the emotions of the people in the photographs (Domes et al 2006).
So perhaps kids will find it easier to understand the emotional signals of others if they are well-supplied with their own, naturally-produced oxytocin. Oxytocin is released when people experience pleasant touching (like hugs and massage). It’s also produced when people engage in pleasant social interactions (Uvnäs-Moberg 2003).
So now, let’s take a look at how horses may help us increase empathy.
In addressing the concept of animal assisted therapy, here is what the national Institutes of Health had to say, “Working with animals, such as horses, dogs, or cats, may help some people cope with trauma, develop empathy, and encourage better communication. Companion animals are sometimes introduced in hospitals, psychiatric wards, nursing homes, and other places where they may bring comfort and have a mild therapeutic effect. Animal-assisted therapy has also been used as an added therapy for children with mental disorders. Research on the approach is limited, but a recent study found it to be moderately effective in easing behavioral problems and promoting emotional well-being.”

Beyond this statement, we know that interaction with animals also increases oxytocin, and particularly in the case of horses, mutual understanding. Horses size alone dictates that some form of empathic reading must occur in order to preserve safety. But also, horses, more than any other animal, are used in environments that are dependent on training of the horse. And, being uniquely sensitive to nonverbal cues (the basis of detection of emotion in humans), horses also demand our attention to our own nonverbal presentation, as well as interpreting theirs.

So maybe if we have trouble developing empathy through interaction with the humans around us, we should consider looking to a horse. After all, empathy is second nature for horses.






References:

http://www.wayofthehorse.org/Essays/emp ... seman.html

http://www.horsetalk.co.nz/news/2008/03/028.shtml

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/201 ... d-empathy/

http://www.carolynresnickblog.com/empat ... th-horses/

http://www.equineempathy.com/

http://www.interplayacademy.com/2010/07 ... f-empathy/

Nimer J, Lundahl B. Animal-assisted therapy: a meta-analysis. Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People and Animals. 2007 Sept; 20(3): 225-238.

Best,
Claire Dorotik M.A., author, ON THE BACK OF A HORSE: Harnessing the Healing Power of the Human-Equine Bond
www.clairedorotik.com


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PostPosted: Tue Mar 06, 2012 10:43 am 
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Hi Claire, nice to read from you again! Just a small comment: Some weeks ago we had Tania Singer here for a talk and she spoke about empathy, compassion, differences between both, and the neuronal and behavioural effects of practising compassion.

One of the things that were new to me is that empathy in itself is not that positive concept of feeling for someone - it's just feeling his emotions. This can be negative as well: if you watch someone being scared and therefore you also get scared, that would be empathy as well, according to her definition. What most people call empathy actually is compassion. Or to say it in a simple way: empathy is feeling with someone, and compassion is feeling for someone. I know that many people use the words differently, I just thought that maybe it is of interest for you. :smile:

I think it's a great idea to link interacting with horses to empathy (and perhaps compassion). Would be very interesting to study the mechanisms of this in depth! :)


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PostPosted: Tue Mar 06, 2012 12:42 pm 

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Thanks Claire for this post. It is something that means something to me personally as my youngest child had a terrible time with reading social cues and yet was quite at home around the horses as no speech was required. In my searches to help him become more empathetic to others quite a few ideas came up. Firstly if the child has many issues of their own, they are very much in their own space about their own feelings (especially if they are bothered by sensory/language issues etc) that they literally don't notice how others feel around them as they are so busy trying to cope with what is happening to them. So in essence once you fix the other issues, empathy can then take place. Empathy is extremely important when it comes to stealing or lying. If they don't care how the other person feels, they won't stop doing it. (Prisons are full of people that never learnt to have empathy!) However if it's a person they are close to and they want their approval, it can be helpful for that person to explain how sad and disappointed the loss and feelings are and by seeing this reaction the empathy is felt and they realise what they have done has caused unhappiness in a person they love. Equally having a child experience the same type of loss (taking away a favourite toy), they are able to associate the feelings they have caused.

So in the same thought, if a child wants an animal to approach them and they do something it doesn't like, it will move away from them giving a very clear visual picture of emotion. Only by the child adapting their response will the animal return. People on the other hand may change body position or facial expression but still remain next to the child and the child doesn't notice. So whilst the animal might be a good starting point because it's body language is so clear, I am not sure how this would transfer to person to person empathy unless we adopt the same thinking. I did in fact use this method when my child was small as it was guarenteed to get him to stop whatever he was doing that was inappropriate (after all warnings had been ignored) if he saw me leaving the room and wanted my attention. (In reality I would remove myself so as not to say hurtful things because I was cross!!!).
Romy has a good point about empathy and compassion not being the same. My child has lots of compassion and will often seek out the lonely child and encourage particpation, but empathy we are still working on!!!!!
When he is with the horses through his own trial and error he has learnt to adapt what he does to engage the horse and most times he reads them better than I do :D

The link to oxytocin is a new one to me, but I am fairly sure that seratonin is also involved as without enough the child is not very motivated to feel good about themselves and therfore have little energy to be bothered by what others are feeling? So I think working through the childs issues (anxiety/depression) and increasing self esteem leaves the child free to explore relationships and be able to learn empathy?

I do think for a lot of people with social issues, animals can be extremely beneficial and as we know lots of animal workers are normally quite poor with people skills and this is why they choose to work with animals in the first place.
So can working with horses increase empathy? Yes I think it does help because it gives the child a chance to adapt behaviour to a living organism that is constantly changing. It is clear and simple and may encourage some change. This type of social interaction seems to be linked with a poor executive function which can be improved with practice and very specific learning and practicing in real life situations.

I will follow this thread with interest and see what others may add.......

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Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans. - John Lennon


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PostPosted: Tue Mar 06, 2012 12:55 pm 
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Ah, trust Romy to uncover the problem. I am often annoyed, and certainly bored, when people have serious discussions about empathy and are unaware of what it actually is.

I've even included this issue in lectures I gave over a 20 year period in the mental health field.

Empathy isn't sympathy, and your source is so right that there isn't any emotion that is directly connected.

What the capacity for empathy allows for, however, is to be able to clarify what is going on for someone else, and there lies the motivation for emotions. Knowing what someone else is experiencing.

Most people think they have the ability for empathy, but few actually do. It can be learned with the proper exercises, and doing them and experiencing an empathetic awareness of another will often be very emotional.

Not though because empathy itself is an emotion, but because that sort of awareness of another is so rare a thing and most often such exercises focus on negative emotions.

When I did the exercises I made it a point to help people learn to empathically experience happy or neutral states in their exercise partner - never someone they knew. (I'm sure you can figure out why - LOL).

When I first learned empathy the instructor was not careful about this and many negative emotions surfaced in the training group - all mental health or education professionals at that. Some were more than a little annoyed, as I was and as we should have been.

An ability for empathy is a weighty thing indeed. Sometimes more than someone should take on in fact. It depends on their circumstances, and especially any current mental and emotional issues that are stressful.

And it's too easily sympathy that is being incorrectly identified as empathy, sympathy being the ability to identify with anothers circumstances from one's own personal experiences. I've seen the occasional professional make the same error.

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So say Don, Altea, and Bonnie the Wonder Filly.


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PostPosted: Wed Mar 07, 2012 1:04 pm 
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I often wonder, why it is that certain topics that are on my mind so much come up here in this forum so often at the same time. :)

I just finished a book about cooperation and started another one about empathy. Very interesting stuff!
I think nobody can be blamed for using empathy in the colloquial meaning and not in a scientific context. I agree though, that strictly speaking, empathy is a very interesting concept that goes way beyond what we call compassion.
I would define empathy as the ability (or just the imagination of the ability) to put oneself in the place of another. Feel like the other, act like the other. This happens usually in a certain narrative context. For example you watch a child hit another. Now the question of what kind of emotions you are able to evoke when you watch this scene, is another thing entirely. It's very much depended on your background and of course of the amount of contextual information you get.
Instinctively I would say, I am feeling compassionate for the child being hit, but what if you know that the other child did something very mean to the other before that?
The ability of being empathic just enables you create the contextual narration and put that in relation with your own believe system. It does not per se mean that you are a good person, so to speak. A sadist, torturing another being, is actually using empathy to feel the pain of the other. Schadenfreude (spitefulness) is another empathic accomplishment.

My point is, as Romy and Donald already pointed out, that empathy is not the best term in describing the multitude of social skills that can be improved in animal assisted settings. I definitely agree with you Claire, that there is much potential for healing.
The levels of oxytocin for example that are raised when interacting with horses are a wonderful example.
I can share a bit of knowledge about that substance which I read recently and found most intriguing.

Oxytocin, together with Dopamin and other substances are produced in a brain area called Nucleus accumbens. It is part of the 'mesolimbic pathway' or 'reward pathway'. Among other things, it is responsible for general motivation (including motivation to move) to do something.
This pathway is usually triggered by something which is perceived as beneficial for the organism. Social contact, attention, touching, sex, basically anything that we might want again in the future. So when something has been marked by release of oxytocin before, it will trigger the release of it again when exposed to the same cue. It can also be release just in expectation of the 'good thing'. Like watching a picture if a loved person for example.
Another interesting circumstance when oxytocin is released is social resonance or social contagion - dancing together, making music together, anything that creates harmony and synchrony. (A lot of incidents with my horse come to my mind here).

Now the is 'reward pathway' is basically what happens when we are positively reinforced. Oxytocin is released, makes us feel happy and look forward to the same thing that triggered it all.
Interesting for me is first that the 'reward system' is directly connected with the motivation to move. (Again Mucki comes to mind, when he didn't want to trot at all before). And secondly that with time, the anticipation alone can trigger the pathway, thus paving the way for steep learning curve and a trusting relationship with horses.

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 07, 2012 5:01 pm 
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Though provoking comments, Volker.

A cautionary tale to go with the concept of reward=release of oxytocin.

We see in some few instances children that become addicted (for want of a better word) to approval.

They learn rather quickly to be pleasers to insure they get approval from those around them. On the positive side that is a good trait in that we then tend to care for each other and the group or even couple tend to do better over all. Survival in fact depends on our tendency to care for each other.

The down side? That the person becoming addicted to the oxytocin high can go so far as to be working against their own interests - too self sacrificing, poor critical judgement about human interaction behavior and outcomes.

We all know of times that has happened to us, I think. And we learned to be more discriminating - unless our addiction to feeling good immediately interferes.

A great many patients in psychiatrists and clinical psychologists offices for treatment are of this type. (The selfish mean nasty narcissists type never seek help to change...they like being as they are ...and they get their oxytocin high from their behavior as well - yet another kind of addiction to oxytocin).

Think about child rearing. In fact think about horse training. Both -R and +R (the latter more) create oxytocin release. Some seriously perverse reactions to pressure and pain are an example ... and show many if not all of the characteristics of addiction. Horses are less caught up in this than humans are prone to be.

This brings us, the horse caregiver who completely controls the horse's life, a challenge when we rely on the oxytocin high for control of the horse. But then we'd have the same responsibility for their wellness regardless.

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 08, 2012 5:54 pm 
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Finally I had some time to properly read the posts and reply. :)

Donald Redux wrote:
An ability for empathy is a weighty thing indeed. Sometimes more than someone should take on in fact. It depends on their circumstances, and especially any current mental and emotional issues that are stressful.


From what I know, that depends. If you experience only empathy, it can be quite stressful indeed when you empathize with people's suffering. However, if you add compassion, the whole thing can turn around. Accordingly, neuroimaging studies show that when watching others suffer, people activate brain areas related to the experience of fear, suffering and pain. However, if they actively engage in compassion, reward related areas get activated, despite the fact that they are seeing most horrible images and videos. Tania Singer, Richard Davidson and others have done lots of experiments on this with normal subjects and buddhist monks (with Mathieu Ricard being the most famous example, you can find lots about that in the internet). If anyone is interested, I can direct you to the corresponding articles, or if you prefer a talk, this one might be interesting for example: Richard Davidson: Transform Your Mind, Change Your Brain.

Houyhnhnm wrote:
For example you watch a child hit another. Now the question of what kind of emotions you are able to evoke when you watch this scene, is another thing entirely. It's very much depended on your background and of course of the amount of contextual information you get.
Instinctively I would say, I am feeling compassionate for the child being hit, but what if you know that the other child did something very mean to the other before that?


That's exactly what has been shown experimentally! Even those responses that were considered automatic for a long time turned out not to be that automatic after all. For example people show less empathy, both in terms of brain activation and prosocial behaviour, if they have observed the suffering person act unfairly before.

Volker, it is great that you bring up the topic of oxytocin being directly linked to reward processing. I only knew that it increases trust and prosocial behaviour and that it is linked to pair bonding and empathy as well. As they induce dopamin releases and therefore a rewarding experience, I always saw an indirect connection only. But great to read that oxytocin is linked to reward processing itself, I will certainly try to find out more about the mechanisms of this. :smile:

Concerning the topic of using horses for helping others to develop compassion, for me the main path I try to go is this one: It is easier to feel compassion for ingroup members. Therefore, in my interaction with children and horses I try to help them experience the horses as being similar to us, as part of the family. In that way, the children are highly motivated to understand how the horses are feeling, and even more motivated to influence this for the better. :)


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PostPosted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 10:22 pm 
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Donald Redux wrote:
Though provoking comments, Volker.

A cautionary tale to go with the concept of reward=release of oxytocin.

We see in some few instances children that become addicted (for want of a better word) to approval.

They learn rather quickly to be pleasers to insure they get approval from those around them. On the positive side that is a good trait in that we then tend to care for each other and the group or even couple tend to do better over all. Survival in fact depends on our tendency to care for each other.

The down side? That the person becoming addicted to the oxytocin high can go so far as to be working against their own interests - too self sacrificing, poor critical judgement about human interaction behavior and outcomes.



I do believe I have seen this in some clicker trained horses, they become addicted to the click and food as offering the right answer and it does work against their interests.

However I still believe positive reinforcement is one of the best ways to train horses.

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 20, 2012 11:54 pm 
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I agree that it is the best.

The point a wasn't being very clear about was the moral implications that face the trainer. In some ways there is no harm to the horse that is compliant to +reinforcement, but there is to my conscience if I simply make him compliant as I once did using -R methods - traditional horse training.

I am made extremely uncomfortable witnessing submission given without permission of the one giving it, and a horse actually can make choices, even this one, if I accept, allow, and encourage - just as with a human friend.

When I engage one of my horses, just in the normal course of the day, I can see that they do indeed know when I am being receptive and nurturing, and too, they see when I am not - and their behavior changes accordingly.

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So say Don, Altea, and Bonnie the Wonder Filly.


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