What Is Empathy?

Empathy is the visceral 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, rather than being forced, so that people behave in a more compassionate manner. Empathy stands in contrast to sympathy which is the ability to cognitively understand a person's point of view or experience, without the emotional overlay. It should also be distinguished from compassion, even though the terms are often used interchangeably. Compassion is an empathic understanding of a person's feelings plus a desire to act on that person's behalf.

There are individual differences in empathy between individuals, and there are certain conditions in which empathy is blunted or altogether absent. Psychopaths are capable of empathic accuracy, or correctly inferring thoughts and feelings, but they have no experiential referent: a true psychopath does not feel empathy.

In recent years neuroscientists have advanced the concept of "mirror neurons," which are believed to enhance the capacity to display, read, and mimic emotional signals through facial expressions and other forms of body language. Mirror neurons are sometimes said to help individuals share emotional experiences and become more empathic toward others. Whether or not mirror neurons actually operate in humans is a subject of longstanding scientific debate.

Can You Be Too Empathic—Or Not Empathic Enough?

Too much empathy, sometimes known as empathy fatigue or compassion fatigue, can be detrimental to one's well-being and can interfere with rational decision-making, causing people to lead with their hearts rather than their heads and lose a broader perspective or ignore potential long-term consequences of overly empathic behavior.

When it comes to increasing empathy, meditation has been shown to help cultivate brain states that increase empathy. Compassion training has been shown to activity and connectivity between brain regions involved in emotion regulation and positive emotions.


Compassion Fatigue

Recent Posts