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Empathy is important for understanding the feelings and problems of other, but when do we develop it?

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[♩INTRO ].

You know when you're reading a really good book and something intense happens to one of your favorite characters, so you're also hit with a wave of feelings? You might feel a little silly as you reach for a box of tissues, but it's a normal human thing to understand and relate to other people's feelings — even fictional people.

We call this empathy. Empathy might seem pretty straightforward, but we know from research that it involves a complex network of brain areas that process things like emotion, thought, and understanding social cues. And many of these brain regions aren't fully developed until late adolescence or early adulthood.

So it takes a while for little kids to get it right. To understand the different pieces of the empathy puzzle, scientists often divide it into three components: emotional, motivational, and cognitive. And to figure out how and when empathy develops naturally, researchers study how kids behave in different situations.

The emotional part refers to sharing someone else's feelings. For example, researchers have tested this by monitoring brain activity as adults watched someone else's hand getting poked with a needle. And you are like, mmm, like brain does things.

The brains of the people watching typically show a similar response pattern to the person actually being poked. This suggests that we actually feel something similar when we see someone in pain. And it seems like this kind of empathy may develop pretty quickly.

We think babies as young as 6 to 8 months show early signs of it, when they make sounds or facial expressions that mirror others who are upset. Next up is the motivational component, which is basically the urge to do something for someone else's well-being, like wanting to comfort a friend when they've lost a pet or a family member. And even though children might mirror each other's emotions early on, it takes a few years for this motivational part to kick in.

When they're about 3 to 6 years old, kids might show behaviors like sharing their favorite stuffed animal to make someone else feel better when they seem sad. Now, the third, and maybe most complicated, part of empathy is the cognitive component. In the research world, this is sometimes called Theory of Mind.

It's the ability to take another person's perspective, think about their experience, and understand why it would make them feel the way they do. This requires some mental gymnastics, so it's not a huge surprise that this seems to be the hardest part of empathy for young children to do well, and it's easy to mistake for selfishness or meanness. One of the most well-known ways to study Theory of Mind is called a false belief task.

Like there's the Sally-Anne task, which involves a short scenario that gets played out with dolls. It goes like this: Sally has a basket, and her friend Anne has a box. Sally puts a marble in her basket, and then leaves to go for a walk.

While Sally is gone, Anne takes the marble from the basket and puts it in her own box. Jark move, Anne. After all this, researchers ask children where Sally will look for the marble when she gets back.

Kids under 3 years of age will usually say that Sally will look in Anne's box because they saw the marble move, which sounds a little weird to our adult brains. From other questions, researchers can tell that kids are following the logic of the story, and understand that Sally didn't see the marble move. But it seems like they have trouble understanding or expressing the fact that Sally's perspective is different from their own.

Some researchers think that even if young kids might get that people have different feelings and perspectives, they can't describe it with their cognitive and language abilities. Because the brain systems involved in these abilities become more efficient as connections between neurons develop and change, by the age of 4 to 5, answers start to change. Basically, their brains are more able to process complex information.

So more kids say that Sally would look in her own basket for the marble, because that's where she left it. Now, the jury's still out on exactly how and when full-blown empathy develops. But your first few years of life involve a lot of learning about feelings and thoughts.

Talking with kids about their emotions, suggesting ways they could show empathy, or even reading stories about feelings can help them figure this stuff out. And then, when they get a little older, you can just give them a good book… and also maybe a box of tissues. Also, if you happen to know any little kids and want to share a love of science with them, you can check out our SciShow Kids channel, at

Lots, lots of really great videos there, but don't get ton of views. So check them out and share them around, I think they are really good. [♩OUTRO ].