The Science of Empathy

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.

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