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Home » Helen Riess: The Power of Empathy at TEDxMiddlebury (Full Transcript)

Helen Riess: The Power of Empathy at TEDxMiddlebury (Full Transcript)

Helen Riess at TEDxMiddlebury

Here is the full transcript of Dr. Helen Riess’ TEDx Talk: The Power of Empathy at TEDxMiddlebury conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: the-power-of-empathy-by-helen-riess-at-tedxmiddlebury


Even before I became a psychiatrist, I have always been fascinated by human connection: What makes us connect with others and what makes us disconnect? All of us at some point have been on a plane when we have just settled into our novel, we’re listening to music or getting our work done when suddenly the air is pierced by the sound of a shrieking baby.

Now I have watched all kinds of reactions to this from the very sympathetic look toward the parents to people who looked mildly annoyed or even frustrated to others literally racing each other to the one empty seat at the front of the plane to get away from this noise.

But on a recent trip to the West Coast, I saw the most amazing reaction of all: a little three-year-old boy wiggled out of his seat, toddled over to that screaming baby and offered him his own pacifier. Wow! I thought — now that little boy really heard and felt that baby’s distress. And isn’t that what all of us want to be seen and heard and to have our needs responded to? That’s the essence of empathy.

So about 10 years ago, a student of mine called me up with a fascinating idea. He wanted to find out whether when there was empathy between people, whether their heart rates and other physiological tracers actually matched up in concordance. And he wanted to recruit many doctor-patient pairs who were willing to have their sessions videotaped and to be hooked up to monitoring during those sessions.

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