Empathy is understanding other people by using your imagination to feel something like what they are feeling, such as pain, sorrow, and other emotions. Empathic understanding is important in many social situations, from friendships to psychotherapy. But how do people do it?
In my early work on empathy with Allison Barnes, we considered empathy as a kind of emotional analogy in which people consciously recognize systematic similarities between the situations of others and their own past experiences. For example, if your friend Alice loses her job, you can think about how you felt when you had a career setback and map that experience to Alice’s situation and get some sense of how she is feeling. You felt sad and regretful in your own remembered episode, so you analogically infer that she also feels sad and regretful. However, this is only one way to empathize with other people, which I will call the analogy mode.
A more direct and physical way to feel empathy is via mirror neurons, a process first discovered in monkeys. When a monkey sees another monkey raise its arm, there are neurons firing in the perceiving monkey’s brain that are the same neurons that fire when it raises its own arm. The monkey, therefore, experiences arm raising just by watching another monkey raise its arm. Similarly, people have neural activity in brain areas associated with pain, just by observing another person in pain. For example, if you see a running child fall down or a soccer player take a ball in the head, you may have a visceral experience that is like what happens when you fall down or get hit in the head. Your empathy does not require a verbal process of analogical comparison, just the perceptual stimulation of mirror neurons. This process is the mirroring mode of empathy.
I recently realized that there is a third mode of empathy that is just as important as the other two. The realization resulted from reflection on the theory of close relationships developed by Sandra Murray and Richard Holmes in their insightful 2011 book, Interdependent Minds. They describe how relationships such as marriages can have difficulties because people work with unconscious rules about how to interact in ways that build trust and commitment as opposed to mistrust and disillusionment. They describe rules such as: If partner sacrifices, then trust. Because Murray and Holmes express these rules in language, it is puzzling why people cannot easily recognize their own rules and the rules used by others.
The explanation lies in recognizing that the rules people use are not just verbal but depend heavily on perceptual and emotional representations. For example, the rule IF rejected THEN withdraw is laden with perceptual and emotional content, for example, the emotional pain of being rejected and the physical movement of withdrawing. It would therefore be better to express this rule as <rejected> -> <withdraw>, where the brackets indicate that the rejection and withdrawal are perceptually and emotionally embodied, not just verbally represented. The arrow indicates a causal relation, not just the verbal if-then.
The third mode of empathy consists of figuring out what others are feeling by using your non-verbal unconscious rules to simulate them. This process is more dynamic than simply recognizing their situations by neural mirroring or analogical inference because you can use a chain of embodied rules to make inferences about their ongoing experiences. For example, if you also have the embodied rule <withdraw> -> <relief>, then you can chain it with the rule <rejected> -> <withdraw> to feel something like relief. This process is the embodied simulation mode of empathy.
The analogy, mirroring, and simulation modes of empathy can be complementary because a good friend or skilled psychotherapist can use all of them to develop a rich understanding of another person. You can feel someone else’s pain by reasoning about it, perceiving it, or by using your unconscious embodied rules to simulate it. These deliberate, automatic, and dynamic modes of empathy can all help you to understand other people by putting yourself in their shoes.