Empathy plays a critical interpersonal and societal role, enabling the sharing of experiences, needs, and desires between individuals and providing a bridge between the emotions of one person and another. It also promotes pro-social behavior. This capacity, that requires the exquisite interplay of neural networks, enables us to perceive the emotions of others, to resonate with them emotionally and cognitively, to take in the perspective of others, and to distinguish between our own and others’ distress.
Why is the human brain designed for this complex, intricate task? If human existence were simply the result of “survival of the fittest,” we would be wired solely to dominate others, not to respond to their suffering. Our capacity to perceive and resonate with others’ suffering allows us to feel and understand their pain. The personal distress experienced by observing others’ pain motivates us to respond with compassion. The survival of our species depends upon mutual aid, and providing it reduces our own distress. Mutual aid exists in the earliest reports of tribal behavior and remains a powerful force in today’s world, where thousands of organizations and millions of people work to relieve global suffering.
The concept of empathy was first introduced by aestheticians in the mid-nineteenth century. They used the German word “einfühlung” to describe the emotional “knowing” of a work of art from within, by feeling an emotional resonance with the work of art. At the end of the nineteenth century, the psychologist Theodore Lipps expanded this concept to mean “feeling one’s way into the experience of another” by theorizing that inner imitation of the actions of others played a critical role in eliciting empathy. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber added deeper texture to the concept of empathy by describing the empathic relationship as “I and Thou” versus unempathic disrespect, as “I and It.” In this powerful description, humane respect and concern for the other is contrasted with objectification and dehumanization of another person.
The theory of inner imitation of the actions of others in the observer has been supported by brain research. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) now supports the existence of a neural relay mechanism that allows empathic individuals to exhibit unconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions of others to a greater degree than individuals
who are unempathic. Subjects unconsciously mimic the actions and facial expressions of others through brain mechanisms that mirror these actions by stimulating the same motor and sensory areas in the observers’ brains as the person they are observing. This mirroring capacity has been demonstrated at the level of single muscle fibers. If an individual’s hand muscle is pricked by a fine needle, the same motor and sensory areas are activated in the brain of an observer. Studies also demonstrate that while subjects are either imitating or simply observing emotional facial expressions, activation of a similar network of brain areas occurs in the observer. Within this network, there is activity during the simple observation of emotional faces, and greater activity during the imitation of emotions. In addition to inner representations of others’ facial displays, shared neural circuits have also been demonstrated for tone of voice, touch, disgust, and pain. Scientists conclude that observers feel what others feel by a mechanism of neural action representation that allows for empathy and modulates the observers’ own emotional content. Differences in these neural processes may account for different individual capacities for empathy.
A novel study showed that the expression, “I feel your pain,” is much more than just a figure of speech. Sixteen female volunteers had brain scans performed while they received painful electric shocks to their hands. While they received the shock, a well-defined “pain matrix” was activated in their brains. Afterward, they received a signal that their spouses were receiving similar shocks. This activated a similar (but not entire) pain matrix in the females’ brains. This is the first neuroimaging study to demonstrate that we actually do feel the pain of others, but only in an attenuated form. This attenuation makes it possible to empathize, while not becoming overwhelmed with another’s personal distress. Our own distress would likely render us less helpful.
Empathy is a factor that draws individuals to the helping professions and plays a critical role in understanding the nuances of others’ experiences. The Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital is a research program that informs the clinical practice of empathy with evidence-based research. The program also offers teaching, training, and clinical consultations. Our approach for enhancing empathy includes raising greater awareness of nonverbal displays of emotion — for example, enhancing engagement by making meaningful eye contact, noticing emotional facial expressions and postures, hearing the words and also the silences of others, and being fully present with mindful attention. Empathy is a complex capability that enables individuals to understand and feel the emotional states of others, resulting in compassionate behavior and moral agency. Empathy includes cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and moral capacities to understand the suffering of others. Self-empathy is necessary to ensure that we have the necessary resources to remain empathic to others. Science shows that our capacity for empathy is hard-wired, but it is also mutable. Human beings have intricate, shared neural circuits in motor, sensory, and emotional (or limbic) areas of the brain to help them understand the experience of others, leading to helping behaviors. However, if humans become emotionally overloaded, overwhelmed, or burned out, the capacity for empathy may decline as a result, due to the emotional labor involved. Therefore, it is critical that caregivers exercise self-care in order to maintain healthy levels of empathy. Self-empathy leads to the replenishment and renewal necessary to sustain this vital human capacity. As we move toward a more compassionate world, it is clear that working to enhance our native capacities to empathize is critical to strengthening individual, national, and international bonds.email print