Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is going through from their perspective.
It is the ability to put oneself in another’s position.
In this blog piece, we will discuss the concept of empathy and how it is different from sympathy and compassion.
We will also discuss how empathy might work in the brain.
What is empathy?
Have you ever seen someone in distress and immediately rush to help them?
Let’s say someone fell down on the sidewalk and was having trouble standing up.
In that moment you weren’t thinking of yourself; you were imagining what that person was going through in the moment and vicariously experienced his or her pain.
You help the person up, walk them to their destination, and go about the rest of your day.
The action you just performed is considered an act of empathy.
Empathy is the experience of another person’s thoughts and feelings from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own.
Empathy facilitates prosocial, or helping behaviors, that come from within a person.
Empathetic behaviors are not forced, thus when people partake in these behaviors they are behaving in a more compassionate manner.
Interestingly, research has found than women score higher on empathy tests compared to men.
What are the benefits of empathy?
Empathy enables us to respond appropriately in social situations, and thus allows us to build and maintain connections with others.
Empathizing with others also helps us learn to regulate our own emotions.
This is an extremely important skill that helps us manage how we are feeling during good times, as well as times of stress.
Importantly, empathy promotes helping, or prosocial behaviors.
We are more likely to engage in helpful behaviors when we feel empathy for others, but also other people are more likely to help us when they experience empathy.
What are the different types of empathy?
Contemporary research has divided the concept of empathy into three broad categories. “Affective empathy” refers to the feeling we get in response to the emotions of other people.
This can include mirroring what that person is feeling or feeling stressed or anxious when we detect this emotion in others.
“Cognitive empathy”, on the other hand, is our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions. Lastly, “Somatic Empathy” involves having a physical reaction in response to what someone else is feeling or experiencing.
For example, if your sister is in an embarrassing situation, you may also blush or get an upset stomach.
How might empathy work in the brain?
Empathy has been a big part of evolutionary history. Non-human primates (monkeys), dogs, and rats show empathy.
Brain regions that play a role in empathy are the anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula.
In addition, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have indicated that an area called the inferior frontal gyrus is extremely important for the experience of empathy.
People who have damage to this area of the brain often have difficulty recognizing and understanding emotions conveyed through facial expressions.
Neuroscientists have discovered mirror neurons in the brain, which are neurons have been shown to fire when people are mimicking other’s emotional signals through facial expression and other forms of body language.
These neurons also fire when we observe someone else perform an action in the same way that they would fire if we were performing the action ourselves.
Mirror neurons have been hypothesized to help people share emotional experiences and become more empathetic toward other individuals.
What is the difference between sympathy, compassion, and empathy?
Sympathy is the ability to cognitively understand what a person is going through without an emotional component.
Compassion is also different from empathy, even those these terms are often used interchangeably.
Compassion involves empathy, as it is an empathetic understanding of a person’s experience and also involves a desire to act in ways that will help the person.
What kind of people lack empathy?
Psychopaths are capable of correctly inferring what someone is experiencing and his or her thoughts and feelings.
A true psychopath does not feel any empathy.
What is the difference between empathy and altruism?
Empathy-altruism is a subcategory of altruism based on concern for others.
The social exchange theory states that altruism is possible only if the benefits to the helper outweigh the costs.
Some psychologists propose that people help others out of genuine concern for their well-being.
For more information on altruism, click here.
Can you be too empathetic or not empathetic enough?
Yes, it is possible to be too empathetic. This is called empathy fatigue, or compassion fatigue.
Empathy fatigue can be detrimental to a person’s well-being and interfere with decision making. For example, imagine you are in a toxic relationship with a colleague at work.
This person has continuously tried to manipulate you and gaslight you, i.e., make you doubt yourself. Instead of seeing how this person is wrong, you hyper-empathize with them person by thinking “well maybe they are having trouble at home” or “maybe they are just really stressed.”
These thoughts are unhealthy because they stray you away from making decisions about which actions to take the protect yourself.
It is also possible to increase empathy by meditating. This has been shown to engage certain brain areas that enhance empathetic behaviors.
In addition, compassion training has been shown to increase connectivity between brain regions involved in emotion regulation and positive emotions.
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Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about empathy:
1. What are the three types of empathy?
The three types of empathy are cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empathy.
2. What is the difference between sympathy and empathy?
Sympathy is when you share the feelings of another, but empathy is when.
You understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them.
3. What does it mean to have empathy?
Empathy has been defined by emotion researchers as the ability to feel other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.
Cognitive empathy, sometimes referred to as perspective taking, refers to our ability to understand and identify other people’s emotions.
4. What are some examples of empathy?
An example of empathy is sharing the joy at a friend’s birthday party or wedding, or feeling the same amount of excitement as a friend when they tell you they are getting married.
It is defined as the ability to understand the emotions of another person.
5. What causes lack of empathy?
Sometimes people can lack normal empathy.
Lack of empathy usually results from a problem in the brain.
This can result from a genetic defect, physical damage due to head trauma, or a response to the environment.
6. Why is empathy so important?
Empathy is extremely important because it helps us respond appropriately to situations.
Understanding what someone is feeling enables us to act in ways that are fitting to the situation at hand.
Researchers have shown that greater empathy leads to more helping behavior.
7. How do you show empathy?
There are many ways to show empathy and to connect to others through empathy. These include the following:
-Listening. This is one of the most effective ways that you can demonstrate empathy to other people
-Opening up. It is important to reveal things about yourself to another person; just listening is not going to forge a strong connection between two people
-Offering physical affection such as hugging
-Focusing your attention outwards
8. Why is empathy so powerful?
Empathy is so powerful because it helps us to communicate our thoughts, feelings, and ideas in a way that makes sense to others and it helps us understand people when they communicate with us.
Empathy is one of the foundational building blocks of positive social interaction, and is thus extremely powerful.
9. Is empathy a good quality?
Empathy is definitely a good personal quality to have.
It is believed to improve our personal relationships, motivate charitable activities, and encourage pro-social behavior.
It is part of general knowledge that having empathy is a main component of being a good person.
Can empathy be taught?
Yes, research has shown that empathy is not innate, but can be taught.
For example, it has been shown that medical training can diminish empathy, but physicians can be taught to be more empathetic to their patients.
What is the opposite of empathy?
Apathy is the opposite of empathy.
Apathy is defined as the lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern for what another person is experiencing.
12. Is empathy a choice?
Yes, empathy is a choice.
13. What activity is an example of empathy in everyday life?
An example of empathy in everyday life is helping an elderly person cross the street.
Want to learn more about empathy? Try these books!
EMPATH: A Self-Discovery Journey for Highly Sensitive People to Gain Control over Emotions, overcome Negative Mindsets and develop Self-Confidence
This book by David Larson helps people gain control over their over-empathetic personalities.
If you are tired of feeling everyone else’s stress, anxiety, and tension, then this book is for you.
Being so attuned to other people’s feelings and emotions can be a huge overload for you and can take away the focus you need to have on yourself.
Empathy is extremely powerful and it allows you to deeply understand and help people, however, it is not healthy to be too empathetic.
This book will help you deal with these emotions and better channel your energy so you can reach your full potential.
The Empathy Effect: Seven Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences
Dr. Helen Riess eloquently describes in this book that the capacity for empathy is not only innate—we can actually learn and expand our empathy as we can any other skill.
This book employs a powerful seven-step system for understanding and increasing our empathy, starting with eye contact and ending with how we can respond to others.
It also goes into detail on how empathy works from neuroscience, sociology, developmental psychology, and evolutionary perspectives.
Dr. Riess also emphasizes how we can maintain authentic connections in the modern-day digital age.
The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill
This book by Karla McLaren is a must-have if you want to improve your relationships and your general emotional well-being.
In The Art of Empathy, McLaren explains that empathy can help us connect with people more deeply and effectively.
She explains many concepts and gives in-depth advice regarding topics such as how to identify and regulate our emotions and boundaries, and how to provide support for people in a healthy and sensitive way.
From this blog piece, you should now have a thorough understanding of the concept of empathy and how it is an essential skill to build effective relationships with others.
Have more questions or comments about empathy? Post below!
Empathy.Psychology Today. 2019.
Importance and Benefits of Empathy.Very Well Mind. November 27th, 2019.