13 min read

what can you change about yourself?

First, an adapted extract from Deep Life that I hope will serve to open your mind as to what we can change about ourselves. Second, some directions to look into if you want to improve your IQ or empathetic skillset. And finally, an interview & transcript in which I go into a bit more depth.

Think your IQ is static? Think again. A lot of "fixed" personal attributes are actually a lot more flexible than we once led to believe. Even your IQ is trainable via improving upon your working memory.

Spoiler alert: your IQ can be trained.

We are (still) used to thinking of IQ, or however else you prefer to label processing speed, as something absolute. You discover your IQ by taking the requisite tests. Few people talk about training their IQ (yet).

And compared with many other mental attributes, IQ IS inflexible. Our genetics determine about 70% of our IQ score. But, most people remain significantly off the top of the range that is left to them.

There are training products emerging. From engaging and well-marketed brain training apps, to less stylized and well-demonstrated models like n-Back memory training. I'll stick to the demonstrated end of the spectrum today.

Training your working memory

n-Back training involves being shown a sequence of things (images, letters, emotions). The aim is to respond whenever a presented thing matches what was shown 'n' previously.

Dozens of studies have shown that this improves working memory which in turn increases IQ. Most people could improve their IQ by at least a standard deviation. That means going from the "middle of the road" of 100 to the top-20% IQ of 115. Which is not just an improvement on a test, it's internally perceptible.

Our working memories as a society are terrible (what was 7±2 a generation gain is 4±1 today). This is why they are the easiest place for most to make rapid processing-speed gains. That's the best demonstrated area for improving IQ, but far from the only one.

So if your IQ, a base-level capability of your brain, can be trained. What else can?

You can train your empathy

Ever had trouble working out how someone else is feeling? Or not even noticed their emotions until it's too late? That's ok. Most people today are awful at empathy too.

What you might not know is that empathy comes with rewards for you, too...

What is empathy?

Empathy, which you can think of as the ability to step into the feelings of another person, is a skill. It's something you can improve with the right practices. And something with only a small genetic component (maybe 30%).

Right now, though, very few people are 'good' at empathy. As a society we are significantly less empathetic than even a single generation ago. This is a measured reality, across every country that has data, whichever proxies you use.

If you wanted to design a system to break empathy, you could scarcely do better than the society we've created. – Jamil Zaki

The environment most people reading this subject themselves to acts to suppress empathy. As a result, most people are in the bottom quartile of their empathetic range.

The scale for improvement here is immense. As are the rewards for those who decide to train it.

Benefits of Empathy

The skill of empathy has many uses. Whether for developing deep social relationships, or evaluating how people feel quickly. For regulating your own emotions, or collaborating well with others. For work, and for life.

Empathetic people also have better mental health (for instance, lower anxiety). And are in better physical shape (for instance, stronger immune systems). The causation is from empathy to health.

Empathy is good for you. Yours is likely substandard. And it is trainable.

Q & A Interview

Adapted Transcript below if you prefer to skim/read

Our current society is not empathetic

Empathy is measured using a questionnaire that examines how we respond to our feelings for the people around us. They've been running a similar questionnaire  for decades now, and it's quite an alarming rate of decline that has accelerated over time.

Most people link the decrease of empathy to increased isolation, which is quite funny, given that more of us live in cities now. However, most people who live in cities do so in a way that doesn't give the sense of 'community belonging' in a local sense. They hardly physically see the same people, interact with them, or have the opportunity to spend time relatively at peace with other people around them as opposed to either working with others or doing things increasingly online at the same time.

People are spending more and more off time online looking at a screen.

While 'social media' might seem social in nature, it doesn't trigger our empathy in the same way. It's a lot more momentary empathy: a kind of feeling that is felt for a second when we see something, and it's a lot more extreme because that's what gets promoted by the algorithms.

It's a lot more wonderful or terrible because we click more when there's wonderful or terrible things in front of us than we do when there's 'meh'. Funnily enough, it's meh that triggers empathy. That's when you have the space in your head to empathize with the person in front of you and to feel, to think, and to put yourself in their shoes.

We do that better face to face. Nearly every study has shown the same thing. Hence, increasing the use of technology comes with the increased isolation of people. The opportunities for empathy have decreased in our everyday lives; and like any skill, the less you use it, the worse you get at it. Combine that with the fact that children (when they should be learning empathy) are learning an increasing range of things that aren't empathy and that often conflict with empathy.

For example, when you're teaching children to be successful in a job, you're also teaching them competition and opposition to other people as opposed to collaboration with other people. Opposition to other people doesn't inculcate empathy whereas collaboration would do. With children being increasingly busy and increasingly screen oriented, they're not having the time to learn empathy in the passive way that children have always learnt empathy: by being around people.

If your children are around people and not actively trying to do something else, they can learn to be empathetic in a much more coherent way than if they're constantly busy with other things or entertained in front of a screen. That ranges of different things - particularly for children, but also for adults as it has slowly degraded everybody's empathetic capabilities compared to where they used to be and where they could be.

Empathy during the pandemic

The pandemic has been a real test of empathy for a lot of people because they've been away from that face-to-face contact which allows you to practice empathy.

But interestingly in some situations, people's isolation and the increased amounts of free time that they've had (when that time hasn't been spent scrolling or consuming media), people who've spent free time alone and doing fairly restful things increase their empathy because your body is naturally quite empathetic.

The pandemic is not all bad for our skill of empathy as a society. We've also had cases where nearly all of us know somebody who has suffered or know of somebody who has suffered fairly closely. That probably has had an impact on empathy as well.

Thus, the increase in isolation, online learning, online communication of all kinds, and remote working can have the same effect too for people who would normally have an office-based relationship.

The pandemic is a complicated situation. I don't think it will actually have much of an impact on people's empathy as a society, but for individuals, it's had a huge impact. Individuals who are used to a very collaborative team environment and have been stripped away from that to an online one, won't have the same kind of empathetic day-to-day experience of life than they might've done.

Whereas for individuals who have taken the opportunity of the free time offered by isolation in many ways, instead of a commute, they're probably in a better situation now as far as their empathy is concerned than they were pre pandemic. It'll be different for everybody. It's a complicated.

Concern for how we act around people vs. our own empathy

Those two things can go together as well: empathy and the concern for how you're acting around other people. Those two things are related until you get to a certain level of confidence in your empathetic capabilities, because then you'll know how people are feeling with a bit more certainty and feel more comfortable in your own response to their emotions because you know where you are with them.

But it's a difficult road for some people. "People having more free time to reflect on their conversations and think about other people", that's an experience that will be common for many people and largely positive even if it feels difficult at the time. Thinking about this is positive for you as a developing human being.

How can empathy help in regulating your own emotions?

Empathy itself can help in regulating your own emotions in the sense that you know about all of the things that are triggering your emotions in other people. If you see a look of fear on somebody else's face, it can invite a fear response in your body -- a physiological response, even if you don't consciously recognize it as fear.

That happens on a much more subtle level, too. If you consciously know how the people around you are feeling, then you can allow that a little bit in your own decision-making because all of their emotions are affecting how you feel too. It becomes a lot easier to self-regulate in emotional contexts.

If everybody around you is excited, it's easier to take a step back because you know everybody around you is excited; and you know that will affect you as well. When everybody else around you is sad, fearful, and worried, you can take a step back and take a more positive look at things, because again, you know what's going on around you. You're aware of the fact that others can impact your own emotional state too.

The kind of road for developing empathy is where most people are starting from. It begins with an increasing worry about how other people are feeling. Once you reach a level of confidence in your empathetic capabilities, it becomes a hugely positive part of life that allows you to help other people more, deal better with everything yourself as well, and kind of see yourself in relation to other people in a more open and honest way.

So it helps with everything to do with self regulation. Most of the things that you would do to develop your empathy and most of the kinds of results of an increased, broader empathetic skillset, help with self regulation as well.

Emotional distress

But the kind of caveat is empathetic. Distress is a real thing. People can be upset by their understanding for other people's emotions. This is a study particularly around things like trauma nursing.

What those studies have shown is you can, with the right training and the right kind of mindset, distinguish between empathetic concern where you understand the other people around you. This includes cognitive empathy and empathetic distress, where you take home their suffering and reflect it back on yourself.

Obviously in traumatic situations, that distinction and the skill of choosing concern over distress is a difficult thing but one that's essential for people in some situations. Many people who have trauma around them that isn't personal but kind of around them would slowly (if they're helped develop that skillset) have it very useful for their own lives.

Empathy helps you to relate to the people around you. One of the most important things for people's mental health is a solid sense of themselves in the context of the other people who are around them. So understanding how other people are feeling helps you to kind of situate yourself in that context more comfortably.

Once it's developed to a certain point, it helps to reduce the anxiety related with thinking: "I wonder how they're feeling now". When I'm physically with somebody, it's not very often I have that worrying of how somebody is feeling because I tend to know. I personally have a reasonable level of empathetic skill and the same can be true for most people.

There is a genetic kind of predisposition to having your empathy somewhere on the scale but with training, most people can develop to the point. They can physically understand how people around them are feeling. More difficult digitally in many cases, but physically - you can frame it.

It also gives you a much more comfortable sense of being in the social world which should be an important part of all of our lives. That's really what the skill of empathy does as far as mental health is concerned. It helps you situate yourself, socially. People who develop the skill of understanding how other people are feeling tend to also develop an understanding of how they feel, which is important for everything to do with mental health.

Understanding how you feel is one of the first steps that you need to take to take control.

Physical benefits of empathy

So the physical benefits of empathy are difficult to disentangle from the physical benefits of anything to do with increasing your free time, your comfort, and reducing your anxiety levels. An increased empathetic skillset tends to result in less anxiety around other people.

So what you're doing is you're reducing your body's stress levels and allowing your body to self-regulate around kind of everything that you do in life. That self-regulation has a huge variety of physical health benefits.

Empathy's correlation with causation is difficult because empathy correlates with pretty much everything that's good for you in terms of longevity. Particularly, there's a correlation between empathy and reduced neurodegeneration as age goes on. People who are highly empathetic are far less likely to get things like Alzheimer's or the symptoms of Alzheimer's. They have all the biochemical markers, but they don't actually get any symptoms. They carry on feeling fine.

Empathy correlates with all of those things and there are some indicative studies that suggest there's a causation link there too. For me, it's probably that most of the things that are good for empathy are good for you in other ways as well, rather than a direct link that empathy makes you healthier.

It's more, the stuff that makes you empathetic also makes you healthier. It's kind of a roundabout route. But the links are incredibly clear when you look at the correlations. So the practices that are involved in building your empathetic skillset and becoming more empathetic clearly do make you more healthy, physically.

What is working memory?

Your working memory is the number of different things you can hold in your head at any one time to play with. Think of it as the number of digits in a phone number you can memorize. The example is not quite right because what people tend to do is break them down into fours or threes or fives depending on where they live and how their numbers are there.

But it's the number of things in a sequence that you can hold in your head at any one time, the number of chunks of information. So as you learn more about a topic, what you're actually able to do is hold a bigger chunk. But it's still only one chunk and you only have so many chunks of memory.

A generation ago, most people had about seven chunks in their head, plus or minus two depending on the study. Now it's four plus or minus one. Even some of the more recent studies among young people suggest that actually, it's near a three because people are increasingly not trying to hold information in their head because they assume it's at the tip of their finger or on the screen.

"I feel like my own working memory has decreased"

It's nearly everybody. It's like empathy. IQ is something that has declined hugely over the course of the last generation for a variety of reasons, from the way that we're schooled which increasingly isn't about holding multiple things in your head at one time. I guess it's partly down to technology.

So in some cases, we just don't know memory in the same way that we used to because we can just jot things down and record them on our phones. It's a complicated thing, but the advantages of working memory in everything you do are huge because it allows you to hold more pieces of information in your head at one time.

That applies to anything you do analytically, and it also increases your processing speed. It allows you to do things faster because you can hold it all in your head and just do it rather than have to go and check each step.

You can change your IQ and empathy - what's next?

The reason that I'm talking about IQ and empathy in relation to making the point that you can change is twofold. Firstly, most people think of IQ as something you discover. They think that you find out your IQ by taking a test and that is your IQ. It doesn't change. Maybe it declines over time, but it doesn't really change and it can't be trained. This is wrong.

I would like to make it very clear and kind of unsettle that assumption because if people are open to the idea that something they thought was completely fixed about themselves can change, then maybe they'll realize they can change a lot of other things too.

Growing empathy and IQ is also both very well-proven, that's the second reason. The second reason is that for IQ and empathy (unlike many other areas of our character), the scientific evidence is completely incontrovertible. These things can change by training and by change in circumstances as well.

It's fairly long lived in both cases, too. These are things that have been studied for a long time in different contexts, in different countries, among different people and their problems today.

That's kind of a third reason I guess, is that I choose these two topics because this is something I work on with my clients. These things are so suppressed in most people as their baseline starting point that even an incremental improvement changes your life.

Changing your IQ even by 10 or 15 points actually makes everything easier. It's kind of a capability changing moment and changing your empathy significantly (which isn't that difficult for most people because they're starting from such a low base) has the same effect on your general wellbeing and your ability to build and deepen relationships with other people.

These are transformative changes because people are starting from so low. And because the starting point is so low, my sharing hopefully provides evidence to people that they can change. The same principles apply to everything in your life.

You can change everything about your character, your belief set, and your mental states. Our brains are phenomenally flexible and that's the real kind of message that I want to try and put out.