Empathy is the basis of intimacy and the closest connection. Without it, our relationships would be superficial from the emotional point of view and will be more like commercial barters. Without empathy we could pass every day next to a person and know so little about his feelings that he would remain a stranger to us. Therefore, empathy is a powerful “social glue”.
However, it is not only the engine of closeness but also serves as a brake when we behave badly and realize the pain we are causing. When a person does not have that brake and always acts in his own interest, he ends up devastating those around him. Therefore, it is essential to understand what empathy is and what it means to be empathetic.
What is not empathy?
– Empathy is not the same as sympathy
We often use the words empathy and sympathy interchangeably, but they are actually different processes. When we feel sympathy for someone, it means that we identify with the situation in which that person is. We can feel sympathy for strangers and even for problems that we have never personally experienced.
However, experiencing sympathy does not necessarily imply that we connect emotionally to what a person feels. We can sympathize with the situation that someone is going through without having any idea of his feelings and thoughts. Therefore, sympathy almost never dynamizes our behavior, does not encourage us to take action. Sympathy does not create connection.
Empathy goes a step further because it involves identifying with what someone is feeling and experiencing those feelings in first person. Therefore, sympathy is feeling something for someone; empathy implies feeling with that someone.
– Empathy is not limited to intuition
Most people consider that empathy is intuitive, that it is more a visceral reaction than a thinking function. However, empathy is not limited only to the exchange of emotions, a process that normally occurs below our threshold of consciousness, but it is also necessary that intervene the executive control functions so that we can modulate that experience.
Researches shows that mimicry is an important part of human interaction, and occurs at an unconscious level; that is, we imitate the facial expressions of the people with whom we interact, along with their vocalizations, postures and movements. If we talk to someone who frowns, we will probably also end up frowning. It is probable that this unconscious mimicry has helped the first human beings to communicate and feel affinity. In fact, the Neurosciences have confirmed that when we see someone with pain, the areas that register pain are activated in our brain. Mimicry is the component that precedes empathy.
However, empathy also demands that we are able to take on another person’s perspective, which is a cognitive function. In addition, it is imperative that we are able to modulate those emotions generated by empathy. Since moods can be “contagious”, self-regulation prevents us from experiencing such emotions so intensely that we cannot help the other person.
What is empathy?
When we ask ourselves what empathy is, the first definition that comes to our mind is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. However, empathy goes much further, usually is not just an intellectual act but something deeply emotional.
There are different meanings of empathy, one of the most complete indicates that it is “the experience of understanding the condition of another person from his perspective”. This means putting yourself into his skin and feeling what that person is experiencing. It is an affective participation in someone’s reality, making ours his emotional world.
This wonderful short video explains what empathy is, and also what it is not, as well as its enormous power.
Empathy is a matter of two: The dyadic approach
From the anthropological point of view, the meaning of empathy from the individual point of view implies limiting it. A research conducted at the University of Amsterdam suggests that empathy also depends on “what others want or can say about themselves.” In this way, empathy acquires a dyadic dimension, which means that the person who feels empathy is as important as the person who awakens that feeling. In fact, we are not equally empathetic with everyone.
Empathy is also mediated by cultural and social norms. In that same study, it was appreciated that children were more empathetic when a teacher reminded them that they should be good classmates, but that empathy decreased when choosing a side for a game. Friends who were elected last and were annoyed by it, received consolation but the mere classmates who felt the same way were labeled “weepers”.
This means that the context, the social conventions and the person object of the empathy are also determining factors, independently of the individual capacity to feel empathy.
The three types of empathy
There are different classifications of empathy. The psychologist Mark Davis suggested that there are 3 types of empathy.
– Cognitive empathy. It is a “limited” empathy since we only adopt the perspective of the other. This empathy implies that we are able to understand and take his points of view and put ourselves in his shoes. It is an empathy that is born from intellectual understanding.
– Personal distress. It is about feeling, literally, the feelings of the other. This empathy comes into play when we see someone suffer and we suffer at his side. It is due to an emotional contagion; that is, the other person has “infected” us with his emotions. Some people are so prone to manifest this kind of empathy that their feelings overwhelm them, subjecting them to great stress, it is what we know as “Hyper-Empathy-Syndrome“.
– Empathic concern. This pattern matches better our definition of empathy. It is the ability to recognize the emotional states of the others, feel connected emotionally and, although we can experience a degree of personal distress, be able to manage that discomfort and show an authentic concern. Unlike distress, the person who experiences this type of empathy moves on to help and comfort, is not paralyzed by feelings.
Empathy is learned
Many people think that we are born being empathic, but in reality empathy is a behavior that is learned. Babies learn to identify and regulate their emotions through interactions with adults, primarily with their parents. When adults respond to the emotional states of children, they not only create the basis for the differentiation of the “ego”, but also to develop the sense of the other. Over time, that seed becomes empathy.
It has been appreciated that children who do not experience these types of interactions have a diminished sense of their “ego”, suffer from difficulties in managing and regulating their emotions and often show limited empathy. When an avoidant attachment style develops, for example, the person does not feel comfortable in intimate settings and faces problems in recognizing his own emotions and those of others. When an anxious attachment style develops, the person often lacks the ability to moderate his emotions, so he may end up being dragged by another person’s emotions. That is not empathy.
Therefore, while it is true that our brain is wired to experience empathy, it is necessary that this skill develops throughout life, especially in the early years.
What does it mean to be empathetic? The basic conditions of empathy
For a person to experience empathy, it is necessary that there are certain basic conditions.
1. Motor and neuronal imitation. Empathy is affected in people who suffer some neurological alterations. In fact, in order to be empathic it is necessary that our mirror neurons are set in motion, that a bodily and facial mimicry takes place, which helps us to put ourselves in the place of the other.
2. Know the internal state of the other person, including his thoughts and emotions. Only then we can be aware of what the other thinks or feels and identify with his point of view, situation and/or emotional state. This condition allows us to create a more or less clear representation of what the other person is experiencing, of the situation that is going through and his affective state.
3. Emotional resonance. To experience affective empathy, it is necessary that the emotional state of the other person resonates within us. We must act like a tuning fork, so that the problems and/or feelings of the other, make echo in our interior.
4. Projecting oneself into the other. In order to feel empathy, it is essential to be able to leave our position for a moment to identify ourselves with the situation of the other. If we are not able to leave our coordinates, we can hardly put ourselves in that person’s place. Once we do that act of projection, we can return to our “ego” and recreate in our mind how we would feel if it happened to us. In fact, empathy implies an unfolding, a continuous going back and forth between the other and our “ego”.
5. Emotional self-regulation. Staying in distress is not beneficial for us or for the person who suffers. It is necessary to go a step further and move to empathetic kindness, which consists in understanding that we feel bad for the other, and overcome those feelings in order to help him. It is about managing our emotional reactions in order to help the other.
The neurological bases of empathy
Empathy is not merely a feeling or a state of mind, but is rooted in concrete, measurable physical phenomena that are part of our nature. Empathy has a deep neurological basis.
When we witness what happens to others, it is not only the visual cortex that is activated. Zones related to our own actions are also activated, as if we were acting similarly to the person we are seeing. In addition, the areas related to emotions and sensations are activated, as if we felt the same.
That means that empathy involves an activation of different areas of the brain that act in a coordinated and complex way so that we can put ourselves in the other’s place. Witnessing someone else’s action, pain, or affection can activate the same neural networks responsible for executing those actions or experiencing those feelings firsthand. In other words, our brain responds quite similarly to the other person’s, though not identically.
A study conducted at the University of Groningen found that when our mirror neurons are inhibited, which makes it easier for us to put ourselves in the shoes of the others, our ability to detect the level of confidence of the others and their feelings is affected. What are known as “indirect states” are interrupted, which are those that allow us to mentalize the experiences of the others in order to help those who are in trouble.
In fact, witnessing the pain of the others causes an increase in activity in the insula, which contributes to self-awareness since it integrates sensory information, as well as the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with decision-making, the impulse control and socially generated fear.
This means that when we see the pain of the others, we transfer it to our mind and try to give it meaning in our own pain system and experiences, as verified by a study carried out at the University of Vienna. In other words, our emotions and experiences always qualify our perception of the affection or pain of other people.
Our brain imitates the responses we see in the others, but is able to maintain the separation between its own pain and that of the others. In fact, empathy requires not only a mechanism to share emotions, but also to keep them separate. If it were not so, we would not connect emotionally, we would only be distressed. And that would not be an adaptive response.
In this sense, another very interesting experiment carried out at the University of Groningen proved that no matter how empathetic we are, we cannot form a complete idea of how much the other person is suffering. When participants had the opportunity to pay to reduce the intensity of the electric shocks a person was about to receive, on average they only paid enough to reduce pain by 50%.
This phenomenon is known as emotional egocentricity bias and is linked to the right supramarginal gyrus, a region of the brain associated with language processing, which could be responsible for maintaining a division between one’s emotions and those of the others.
Interestingly, this structure is less active in childhood, adolescence and the elderly, as a study by the University of Trieste revealed, as it reaches full maturity in late adolescence and is disorganized relatively early in life.
Lamm, C. & Riečanský, I. (2019) The Role of Sensorimotor Processes in Pain Empathy. Brain Topogr; 32(6): 965–976.
Riva, F. et. Al. (2016) Emotional Egocentricity Bias Across the Life-Span. Front Aging Neurosci; 8: 74.
Roerig, S. et. Al. (2015) Researching children’s individual empathic abilities in the context of their daily lives: The importance of mixed methods. Frontiers in Neuroscience; 9(261): 1-6.
Keysers, C. & Gazzola, V. (2014) Dissociating the Ability and Propensity for Empathy. Trends Cogn Sci; 18(4): 163-166.
Wölfer, R. et. Al. (2012) Embeddedness and empathy: How the social network shapes adolescents’ social understanding. Journal of Adolescence; 35: 1295-1305.
Bernhardt, B. et. Al. (2012) The Neural Basis of Empathy. Annual Review of Neuroscience; 35 (1): 1-23.
Singer, T & Lamm, C. (2011) The social neuroscience of empathy. Ann N Y Acad Sci; 1156: 81-96.
Keysers, C. & Gazzola, V. (2006) Towards a unifying neural theory of social cognition. Prog. Brain Res; 156: 379-401.
Davis, M. (1980) A Multidimensional Approach to Individual Differences in Empathy. JSAS Catalog of Selected Documents in Psychology; 10: 2-19.