The Two Channels of Empathy

Primatologist Frans de Waal has a simple way of describing empathic behavior.

Posted Dec 02, 2017

iStock/Lordn
Source: iStock/Lordn

Empathy is a hot topic — and an important one. Some argue that empathy is an answer to the political divisiveness currently afflicting so many parts of the world. Businesses and organizations offer training sessions to try to cultivate empathy. On the other hand, Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom published a book last year called Against Empathy, which argued that we’d be better off without this emotion. So, what is empathy exactly? And is it powerful or problematic?

Primatologist Frans de Waal is a good person to ask. The author of the book The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society, he’s been studying empathy for much of the last two decades, ever since he first caused a stir when he declared that he had found empathy in the chimpanzees he studied — something many social scientists didn’t think was possible. Earlier this week, while speaking at the 50th anniversary meeting of the Primate Society of Great Britain, de Waal laid out his latest thinking about the best way to understand empathy.

“The dictionary definition,” he says, “[is] the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” But there are layers of responses. Scientists like de Waal now think of empathy as an umbrella term for a range of reactions. There’s a physical sharing of sensation — the butterflies in your stomach as you watch someone else walk on a tightrope, for instance. Then there’s the ability to understand what someone else is feeling. And, finally, there’s the motivation to do something about it.

iStock/AlexD75
Hugging is one way to show empathy.
Source: iStock/AlexD75

A simple way to think about it, says de Waal, is that empathy occurs in two channels: a body channel and a cognitive channel. In other words, the empathy of sharing feelings and the empathy of understanding them are different. One is instinctive, and one requires thought and sometimes judgment.

The instinctive version of empathy is the most basic, and it’s shared across species. “You talk with a sad person, you will have a sad expression on your face,” says de Waal. “You talk with a laughing, happy person, you will be laughing and look happy at least. That’s the body channel. It starts on day one of life.” Have you ever noticed, for example, that a baby will cry if he hears other babies crying? “People have tested it. They respond only to the crying,” says de Waal. “You can do a lot of sounds, like a vacuum cleaner, or screaming chimps, no. It’s specific to the baby crying. That’s emotional contagion. The body channel is the basis of empathy.”

One way De Waal and others study this body channel of empathy is by investigating yawn contagion. All vertebrates yawn, although no one knows why. Show a chimpanzee an iPod on which familiar chimps are yawning, and the chimpanzee holding the iPod will start to yawn, too. An Italian researcher watched people waiting in train stations. If their companions yawned, they did, too.

But yawn contagion alone is just a building block of another form of empathy — the version de Waal calls the cognitive channel. “Something much more sophisticated kicks in,” he says, where you make a distinction between yourself and another individual and understand that their situation isn’t necessarily your situation. He explains, “Instead of fusing with the other, you now need to set yourself apart in order to understand the situation of the other.”

This more complex ability to take someone else’s perspective appears in human children after the age of two or so. The first studies of it in children were done by psychologist Carolyn Zahn-Waxler in the 1980s. She asked a family member to cry, and then she would observe how very young children responded. The children approached the crying adults, touched them, and stroked their faces. Zahn-Waxler called what they were demonstrating empathic concern.

These children aren’t just understanding that the adults are upset; they’re attempting to console them. Consolation, the capacity and urge to respond to a distressed individual, can be thought of as the ultimate version of empathy, because you’re motivated to act — you have compassion.

You might think that consolation is so sophisticated that it only shows up in humans, but chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates do it. And earlier this year, Emory University neuroscientist James Burkett, working with de Waal and others, showed that rodents are capable of consoling each other. Burkett separated prairie vole, a species known for the strength of their monogamous relationships, for short periods. Sometimes the vole that was taken away simply sat in another room; in other trials, the vole received stressful tail shocks. When the returning vole was stressed, the waiting vole responded much differently — grooming its mate more and showing physiological signs of stress itself.

Being attuned to others in this way sounds like a good thing. What’s the catch? One problem is that it may cause us to respond with more emotion than reasoning. Another problem is that empathy — from yawn contagion all the way to consolation — comes with a built-in bias. “This bias is almost the biggest characteristic of empathy,” said de Waal. “Empathy is aroused most easily by those who are similar and familiar. And we have trouble finding empathy for others who are unlike us or who are strangers.”

Those negatives are what led Bloom to argue against empathy — it’s the emotional kind he most dislikes. But the fact that empathy exists across so many species indicates that it has strong biological roots that we couldn’t rid ourselves of, even if we wanted to. The goal for scientists like de Waal is to understand empathy better: when it works for us, and when it works against us.

To learn more about the neuroscience of empathy, see my article in the December 2017 issue of Scientific American.

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