The science of empathy

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In this moment, right now, I’m with you and I’m sharing your pain.”

This is empathy.

Scientific studies lend support to it. In one study, a person lay inside an MRI scanner while watching a live video of their partner sitting in another room. Soon, the partner was given a painful electric shock to their hand, but at that precise moment, the brain of the person in the MRI scanner registered it too. 

The hand region of their brain was activated in a region known as the sensory cortex, together with a region that processed the emotional experience of the pain. The electric shock to the hand was very much a shared experience between the two of them.

And the degree of shared experience in these sorts of studies turns out to correlate with a person’s level of empathy. The higher a person is in empathy, the greater their brain is activated when they see someone suffering.

Similar studies where people were shown photos of a knife cutting a person’s hand, a foot being jammed in a door, or even a video of acupuncture needles being inserted into a person’s mouth, hands, and feet showed the same thing. In each case, the sensory regions of the brain light up, together with emotional regions, as if the brain was saying in each instance, “I see you! And I’m sharing this experience with you.”

Although the people in these studies didn’t feel the actual physical pain that their partner’s felt, it is surprisingly common for people to feel at least something when they see or know of someone experiencing some types of pain.

Sometimes, when I see someone take a fall, I feel a sudden physical tingling sensation, like a small electric shock, that usually runs from my pelvic region right up my back and over my shoulders or sometimes down my leg. 

It often happens when I see a particularly painful looking fall while watching the UK video show, ‘You’ve Been Framed’, where members of the public have collected camera calamities of accidents, slips, falls, pranks, and other mishaps.

Then there’s sympathy pain, where a man experiences some pregnancy symptoms, like stomach cramps, when his partner is pregnant or giving birth. It affects anywhere between 25% – 72% of fathers depending on their culture.

But outside of sympathy pain, the brain can truly give us the physical sensation of someone’s pain.

It’s due in part to over activation of the mirror neuron system (MNS) in the brain. The MNS is responsible for the phenomenon of emotional contagion, where we catch the emotions of others. 

Seeing someone smile, for instance, activates your MNS, which then mirrors the smile by stimulating your own brain regions to pull your lips into a smile. At the same time, it stimulates your brain’s emotional regions so that you feel the emotion that corresponds to the smile. 

So being in the presence of someone who is happy and smiling will often result in you smiling and feeling a little happier too. In the same sort of way, we just as readily ‘catch’ negative emotions from people too.

But over activity of the MNS can bring us more than just catching emotions. A study at University College London reported about a girl who had mirror-touch synaesthesia, where the MNS is hyped up. She could feel what others feel, but not just emotionally. She experienced their physical sensations too. She would feel her hand being stroked, for example, if she saw someone else’s hand being stroked.

Interestingly, if she was facing someone who had the right side of their face touched, she would feel it on her left side because when facing someone, her left side matches up with their right side, like looking in a mirror.

It was almost as if her mind extended beyond her own self. In a sense, she could experience some of the world through others’ experiences.

And unsurprisingly, she assumed that everyone had these same experiences. I say unsurprisingly because many people with forms of synaesthesia (it’s where usually unconnected brain regions become connected, allowing some people to taste music or smell art, for instance, or always see letters and numbers in colour) often don’t realise until adulthood that not everyone sees that way.

Many similar mirror-touch ‘synaesthetes’, as they are known as, can’t watch horror films or any sort of physical violence on TV. Some feel a punch if they witness someone being punched. Some think of it as a blessing because it helps them to better understand people’s feelings and experiences.

Research show that mirror-touch synaesthetes are very high in empathy, which is usually the case with a highly active MNS.

Studies also suggest that we can learn empathy by simply spending more time considering what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. Even meditation practices like the Buddhists’ Loving Kindness meditation (metta), which invites us to wish people happiness and freedom from suffering, can help us develop our empathy. Regular acts of kindness can too, especially when you witness the experiences of those you help.

Empathy is learnable because brain circuits can grow and change. I recall experiencing a sizeable shift in my typical empathy levels over a period of 6 months while caring for my sick dog a few years ago. He was dying of bone cancer, and we did everything we could for him until he passed away, even sleeping on the floor on a blanket beside him each night, which he loved.

Since then, not only do I cry when watching a sad movie, but I often cry when I see or learn of someone having something significantly positive happen for them.

I sometimes think of empathy as a kind of currency, but not like pounds, dollars, euros, rubles, or yuan, but a communication currency. Empathy helps us understand and relate with one another.

Perhaps, in the future, as the world becomes increasingly more complex, the currency of empathy will turn out be our most important.

7 Comments

  1. Bronwyn Bain on February 11, 2022 at 8:37 pm

    A long time ago I was at a Fun Park with my children. My youngest aged ten wanted to sit up front on a roller coaster ride that turned upside down when they were high up. As she sat there being strapped in I had a dreadful feeling something awful was going to happen, but it was too late to stop her going on the ride. The ride finished and all was OK. We were in Brisbane on holiday, and we lived in Melbourne.
    When I arrived home, I found out that at exactly the same time she was getting onto the ride, 2000 klms away near Melbourne, my ex-husband was being swept out to sea. He had been scuba diving between Phillip Island and Flinders, and when the tide turns it is extremely dangerous, and he and his friend were swept 6 klms out to sea. They survived.
    PS. David I have been reading about your work for years.It is fascinating. Have you ever spoken to James French from The Trust Technique. He works with animal communication…… amazing work. https://trust-technique.com/

  2. Donna Dickson on February 11, 2022 at 9:16 pm

    Thank you David for this article on empathy, I am very empathic I can’t watch anything negative or horror films even people speaking about sad things or operations I can pick it up as if its happening to me, I can’t be around negative people or doom and gloom because I pick it up and I feel all my energy draining from me, it happens more with family members. , and I find it very hard to switch it off, I wanted to be a counsellor but because I was so empathic I couldn’t detach and it was very painful, so thanks again for that article x

  3. Michelle on February 12, 2022 at 7:27 am

    That’s a wonderful explanation of empathy. I am an empath, whilst I understand the gift I also struggle daily to protect myself

  4. Ann Ayton on February 12, 2022 at 8:02 am

    Beautiful insights beautifully voiced David. Another yellow badge to you and thank you. XXX

  5. Lola on February 12, 2022 at 12:40 pm

    Thank you David. I’d love to get your thoughts on reducing one’s excessive levels of empathy where it becomes dangerous – ie attraction to relationships with people who don’t have empathy. Too much empathy can make people targets for people with personality disorders who can cause harm in relationships. Any thoughts would be great. Thank you!

  6. Maria Hocking on February 12, 2022 at 7:27 pm

    This has always been a super interesting topic for me. I regularly experience involuntary muscle movements, usually in my arms, shoulders or legs when watching something that captivates me, my shoulder, arm or leg will visibly move mirroring the person that I am watching. It’s common for me to experience this watching TV or a theatre show. It could be a shoulder shrug for example. I always thought that everyone experienced these involuntary movements but having asked around, it appears not to be the case. I’ve been trying to connect with researchers or scientists for a long time as I’m really curious as to why I do this. I understand that it’s prob down to the MNS but I’d love to know what’s different in my brain that makes these signals so strong that they are visible with regards to muscle movements. If anyone can connect me with anyone who may be able to shed more light on this, it would be appreciated! I’m fascinated by it!

  7. Maggie La Tourelle on February 13, 2022 at 10:11 am

    Thank you David for writing about this. I find it reassuring. I experience emotional contagion and sysnaesthesia in my work as a therapist and in my personal life. Sometimes the synaesthesia is mirror-touch and other times it isn’t mirrored and I’ve been puzzled by this. According to your research I’m likely to have a highly active MNS. I can say that although having this facility can be painful, feeling this level of connection with another human being is deeply rewarding and a reminder that we are one.

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