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Understanding Others

What is behind the brain’s ability to empathize?

Key points

  • The human ability to empathize is the building block of our sociality and our morality.
  • Humans and other related animals are neurobiologically endowed with the capacity to mutually understand and feel each other's emotions.
  • Empathy has been demonstrated to promote leadership, foster close relationships, and improve individual well-being.
Alejandro J. de Parga/Shutterstock
Source: Alejandro J. de Parga/Shutterstock

Some of the defining memories of my childhood revolve around the phrase tsaved tanem. This cumbersome little idiom doesn't exactly glide off the tongue (especially among non-Armenian speakers) and it has an equally weighty meaning: Let me take away your pain.

As far back as I can remember, people were eager to take away my pain, sometimes multiple times a day. Whether or not I was in actual pain was of no importance. Tsaved tanem was an all-weather term of endearment, and it was spoken with equal gusto when I came home with a scraped knee or when I earned a good grade. It still remains one of my favorite cultural slogans, because, despite all of its theatrics, it's rooted in empathy.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is a complex, multifaceted construct that refers to the “emotional and/or intellectual identification with another person” (Guralnik, 1992, and Berrol, 2006). The human ability to empathize has been called the “building block of our sociality and morality” (Iacobini, 2009). According to Freud (1926), only through empathy are we able to understand another person's psychic life. Empathy reduces the distance between us and others, and facilitates social connectedness and coherence. As a measure of emotional intelligence, it is an ingredient that makes for better leaders, physicians, and conversation partners. Empathy fosters emotional bonding between parents and infants, between partners and friends, and between members of society as a whole.

Brigitte Brand-Wilhelmy, a German psychotherapist who has worked with torture victims for 32 years, says empathy allows her to connect with clients from all over the world. It starts from the first moments of encounter, before anybody says a word.

“Empathy to me means being able to see the whole person, and give them time and space to just be, without any judgment or my own cultural opinions,” she says. “It means asking questions to help me understand them, instead of telling them what to do. It’s a way of coming closer to their emotions, to their soul.”

How Our Brains Help Us Empathize

The affective and cognitive resonance that is inherent to empathy is already present in early childhood, and it has a direct impact on our neural mechanisms. In the 1990s, a group of Italian researchers serendipitously discovered that the same brain cells fired when a monkey watched a person grasp a raisin, as when it grasped the raisin itself.

Since then, various neuroscience studies have investigated how empathy is engraved in the brain’s architecture. Humans are neurobiologically endowed with the capacity to mutually understand and feel each other. A big part of this happens with the help of mirror neurons, a class of cells in the brain’s premotor cortex, parietal lobe, and visual cortex that simultaneously contribute to observing the environment and acting upon it. The importance of mirroring starts in infancy, when babies gaze at the faces of their caregivers, who—with their gestures and facial expressions—provide a shared scheme for interpreting the world around them. The infants imitate the adults and this attunement imparts the basis of empathic relatedness and emotional attachment.

The activation of the same mirror neurons when observing others perform various behaviors and experience emotions is also widely documented. For instance, this co-activation was shown when watching someone grab peanuts, eat ice cream, or kick a ball, as well as when observing others express disgust or be touched, or when seeing a loved one in pain.

The person doesn't even have to be a loved one: The same cells fire when we watch strangers experience pain (such as seeing a needle piercing the back of their hands) as when we experience pain ourselves. According to some theorists, these mirroring properties provide an explanation for the mechanisms behind social cognition, emotional attunement, and certain aspects of empathy.

Empathy is a particularly important tool for expatriates, one that is often born out of need, because it crosses cultural and linguistic boundaries. “Ex-pats arrive at their new destinations culturally naked,” says Chris O’Shaughnessy, an ex-pat since childhood and a speaker who has traveled to more than 100 countries. “There is an obvious need to be able to read and understand others. Expats use empathy to create their cultural clothing.”

During his work on character development and anti-bullying in international schools, O’Shaughnessy found parallels between traits of empathic people and competencies for better adjustment as ex-pats: "The expatriate lifestyle encourages the development of empathy. The vulnerability that ex-pats face after they move causes action. The only way to adjust to a new life in a new culture is to pick up on other people’s feelings, become an active observer, and to put themselves in the position of those around them.”

That empathy can act as social glue by facilitating communication, fostering compassion, and motivating pro-social behavior is somewhat expected. What’s more, empathy can increase our subjective well-being and improve our interpersonal relationships. There are different ways of harnessing empathy, including having positive experiences together, reading literary fiction, and meditating. But sculpting our empathic muscles may also require a certain degree of self-awareness.

“If you don't know your own feelings, you cannot see them in others,” says Brand-Wilhelmy. “Be open, not only to the other person, but also to yourself.”

Empathy is a bridge between our narratives. A bridge that allows emotions to walk freely among us, tending to something in the "other" that we recognize in our "self." A bridge that with a reach of a hand secures our own place in the human family. It is among the foundations for our “development and being” (Gallese, 2009) and among our most valuable currencies without which, Brand-Wilhelmy and O’Shaughnessy agree, we cannot survive.

“If we aren’t able to be moved by the feelings of others, that is ultimate loneliness,” says O’Shaughnessy. “And that is not the way we were built to be.”

Perhaps that’s where lies the charm of tsaved tanem: It makes us feel like we are not alone; not in our pain, and not in our joy.

Many thanks to Brigitte Brand-Wilhelmy and Chris O’Shaughnessy for being generous with their time and insights. Brigitte Brand-Wilhelmy is the head of the Therapy Center for Torture Victims at Caritas in Cologne, Germany. Christopher O’Shaughnessy is an international speaker and the author of Arrivals, Departures, and the Adventures In-Between. Learn more at

LinkedIn image: Jakub Zak/Shutterstock


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