| by Christopher Donohue

Portrait of Helen Riess

Helen Riess is the Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Empathetics, Inc., an organization working with medical professionals to develop greater interpersonal skills and teach the “neuroscience of emotion.” Empathetics Inc. has extended its resources all around the world, including into South Africa, Europe, Australia and Canada. 

Riess initially wanted to become a doctor because of familial experiences, as her parents were both deeply affected by World War II. Growing up, she longed to provide a “healing experience” to those suffering, knowing she wanted to become a doctor at a young age. After receiving her bachelor’s on the pre-med track, she began her studies at Boston University School of Medicine. 

It was only within the first month of classes that she knew she wanted to be a psychiatrist, as she discovered her deep interest in “understanding people’s minds and experiences.” After receiving her MD, she pursued a Psychiatry Residency Program at Harvard Medical School. 

In her career as a psychiatrist, Helen mentions that she felt a distinct, “steady drumbeat of patients feeling that nobody was really listening to them,” and that they had “no connection with their healthcare provider.” Riess explains that while these patients had the ambition to improve certain medical conditions, they felt as though they went unheard. This perpetual patient frustration led to a significant question that would frame Riess’s research for years to come: “is it possible to teach empathy?” We have vast understanding that it is possible to “beat it out of people,” she remarked, but there had been no research on the capabilities of systematically reintroducing the ability to empathize – particularly in the field of medicine. 

Riess set out on years of research and testing in order to come up with a “validated approach,” that could be translated into a global health setting. She realized that once she had strong data, she could go from the “one-on-one impact” in a particular hospital, to the opportunity to impact “healthcare organizations around the world.” This led to the development of Empathetics, Inc., with inspiration and help from a Middlebury connection. 

Riess conveys her gratitude to Charlie MacCormack ‘63, former CEO of Save the Children, an international NGO that focuses on promoting protection and health promotion for children. Riess relayed how MacCormack, after attending one of her empathy workshops at MiddCORE, was in awe at her success at teaching empathy. 

Charlie MacCormack ‘63 on Empathetics

 “Tribal instincts run deep in the human personality. For millennia hunting bands vied with their neighbors over resources and territory. But physical distance generally limited the damage done by these rivalries. Unfortunately this is no longer the case. Technology has knit billions of people together ever more closely. Disdain for ‘the other’ is a trait we can no longer afford. Fortunately social science now provides us with tools through which people can appreciate the values and behaviors of others. The work of Empathetics is already expanding interculturally in hospitals in South Africa and the United States. Given the rise of ethnic hostility throughout the world, this may well be the most important future frontier for Empathetics.”

MacCormack’s strong belief in Riess’s work, which he called a “huge idea,” led him to connect Riess with the initial investors of Empathetics Inc. She refers to MacCormack as an “Empathetics Champion.” 

Riess describes the impact of Middlebury, and its opportunities for connection, on her career trajectory. In 2013, for example, Riess presented her findings on empathy on the TEDxMiddlebury stage, reaching an audience of over six-hundred and fifty thousand YouTube viewers. “Without the TedTalk and without Charlie,” she noted, “I don’t think we would have Empathetics.” She went on to laud the power of MiddCORE, calling it part of the “magic of Middlebury,” where students are introduced to incredible minds from all over the globe, “creating all kinds of new possibilities.” 

Riess’s work may be more important than ever, given the strain that COVID-19 is placing on health care systems against a backdrop of increasing social divisions. More power to you, Helen Riess and Empathetics!

The power of empathy: Helen Riess at TEDxMiddlebury

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This article was featured in the Winter 2022 Global Health Newsletter.

  • Sam Byrne: Professor Spotlight

    | by Christopher Donohue

    When asked about his time at Middlebury thus far, Sam Byrne grinned widely, and, with enthusiasm, relayed it has been a “joy” to have the opportunity to teach public health at the undergraduate level. Byrne is an assistant professor of biology and global health, entering the Middlebury community this fall as one of nine new tenure-track faculty members.