Student’s empathy study may help caregivers

Photo by Psychology Today

Jessica Wade

University of Nebraska at Omaha senior and neuroscience major Abi Heller has been a part of a research team that, for three years, has been studying empathy.

The word “empathy” stems from the German word “Einfühlung,” which roughly translates to “feeling into.” The word is only a century or so old, but empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is one of the most important pillars of emotional intelligence. Empathy allows an individual to connect with others.

“Understanding what another is going through is key to providing compassionate and kind care for both workers of healthcare and family or volunteer caregivers,” Heller said.

Heller is a part of the “aging brain and emotion” lab housed in the Department of Gerontology and is also a part of a team studying how aging effects cognition, memory and how our emotional intelligence can change over the span of the life course—specifically pertaining to empathy.

“As far as empathy goes, if we understand how it changes as we age we can possibly adjust the programs offered to older adults, especially those offering support for caregivers. We’re finding that a lot of caregivers have empathy fatigue and burn out from caregiving for a spouse or a loved one who has dementia or a similar illness. We are trying to understand the way their emotions change and the way their empathy changes throughout a lifetime, we can hopefully provide better services for them and we’ll have better mental health care and resources for everybody.”

Heller hopes her research could someday provide revelations and solutions to real life problems. She is currently working on a publication concerning loneliness and how loneliness changes the cognitively of the brain.

“We’re wrapping up the empathy project currently, and I’m just getting started on a grant for NASA right now,” Heller said. “We’re going to look at how empathy can change the way we communicate and how that could possibly impact mission success if we do, say, send a mission to Mars.”

Due to monetary limitations Heller occasionally runs into, she often has to fund herself when attending a conference.

“I would say it’s definitely worth it because these conferences are a chance to go out there and share what we’ve found, which is really important,” Heller said. “That’s one of the most important parts of research, getting those results out there and sharing them with the rest of the scientific community.”

Heller said the experiences she has had throughout her research projects have been incredibly beneficial and have helped her to discover what she wants to do with her life.

“It’s a huge growing and learning process. I’ve become a better writer, I’ve become a better critical reader, I’ve become a better listener, a more critical thinker and problem solver,” Heller said. “There’s just so many benefits. I feel like a lot more can get done when a lot of students are involved. Fostering that collaboration among individuals is a really big thing, too. Just learning how to work on a team that’s headed for the goal of making this world a better place for everyone.”