Empathy Is More Than “I Hear You”

There is no one place in the brain where empathy happens.

Posted Aug 02, 2018

E. A. Segal
Source: E. A. Segal

When we think of empathy we are likely to think “I hear you” or imagine “walking a mile in another’s shoes.” Or we might view empathy as feeling what another person is feeling, or understanding what he or she is thinking. It’s true that if we step into the place of another or imagine what that person is feeling or thinking we might feel empathy, but not necessarily. 

Being sad with another person might elicit sympathy or pity, but not necessarily feelings of empathy. What is the difference? When we see someone suffering—say, crying because a beloved parent died—we may feel for the person; that is, compassion and sympathy for such a painful loss. But we may not feel with the person; that is, understand what the other person’s sadness feels like. Or, we might share their sad feelings, but then interpret them from our own perspective. We might think about how we would feel after such a personal loss, not how the other person is actually feeling. 

I love the differentiation that Amy Coplan, professor of philosophy at Cal State Fullerton makes, describing this as “self-oriented perspective-taking” as opposed to “other-oriented perspective-taking.”1 What does this difference look like? Other-oriented means that I imagine I am you in your situation, not me in your situation. And because we are different people, I may need help to understand how you are feeling because imagining what your life is like is not the same as actually experiencing what your life is like. 

Being fully empathic includes interpersonal and social empathy.

I regard empathy as an umbrella term that can be broken down into two levels—interpersonal empathy and social empathy. Interpersonal empathy is concerned with improving relationships between individuals, while social empathy is concerned with improving the relationships and rules of behavior between different groups and cultures. 

For the full array of empathy to occur, we need to have dialogue and other indicators to help us understand each other. We may need to check in and ask if we are correct in our interpretation of the other person’s feelings. We may need to analyze the broader situation, taking in the context—what is going on outside the person. For empathic understanding of other groups, which is social empathy, we need to broaden the context to understand the historical experiences that have contributed to group members’ lives.

Empathy involves many parts of our brains.

Thanks to cognitive neuroscience, we now know that getting to a place of imagining what it is like to be someone else involves extensive brain activities. These include unconscious responses and learned behaviors. There is no one place in our brains where empathy happens—rather, empathy involves neurological actions that are spread across our brains.2 Sophisticated brain imaging techniques identify a dozen brain parts and regions that are involved in the full expression of empathy.3 

Empathy is complex.

Experiencing the full array of empathy—interpersonal and social empathy—includes sharing physical and emotional feelings while knowing that those feelings belong to the other person; imagining what the experience of the other person is without imposing our own interpretations; not becoming overwhelmed while experiencing those feelings; taking in the context of other people’s lives, including their group membership histories; and doing all this in a matter of seconds or maybe minutes. What a task. Empathy is a complex state, and takes a lot of abilities to bring it together. Don’t be discouraged by this complexity: Becoming more empathic is a process that can be beneficial in our relationships, even when we are only engaging in some of the components some of the time. What is helpful is to be aware of those components and learn how to improve our abilities to engage those components and thus become more empathic. 

My goal in starting this blog is to share knowledge about the complexity of empathy, to teach about the components that make up empathy, to show how we can engage in better levels of interpersonal and social empathy, and to explain why we would want to do that. With greater levels of interpersonal and social empathy, we can relate better to one another individually and in groups, and create public policies that address societal concerns. Although empathy is complex and it takes effort to fully learn how to be empathic, the reward for doing so is great, for us and our communities. I look forward to sharing more about what I have learned over the years.

LinkedIn Image Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock


1. Coplan, A. (2011). Understanding empathy: Its features and effects. In A. Coplan & P. Goldie (Eds.), Empathy: Philosophical and psychological perspectives (pp. 3–18). New York: Oxford University Press. See page 10.

2. Decety, J. (2015). The neural pathways, development and functions of empathy. Current Opinion in Behavioral Science, 3, pp. 1-6.

Decety, J. (2011). Dissecting the neural mechanisms mediating empathy. Emotion Review, 3,1, 92–108.

Lamm, C., Bukowski, H. & Silani, G. (2016). From shared to distinct self-other representations in empathy: Evidence from neurotypical function and socio-cognitive disorders. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 371:20150083.

Mathur, V. A., Harada, T., Lipke, t., & Chiao, J. Y. (2010). Neural basis of extraordinary empathy and altruistic motivation. NeuroImage, 51(4), 1468–1475.

McCall, C. & Singer, T. (2013). Empathy and the brain. In S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, & M.V. Lombardo (Eds.) Understanding other minds: Perspectives from developmental social neuroscience, pp. 195-213. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2011). The neural bases for empathy. The Neuroscientist, 17(1), 18–24.

Tousignant, B., Eugène, F. & Jackson, P.L. (2017). A developmental perspective on the neural bases of human empathy. Infant Behavior and Development, 48(A), 5-12.

3. Segal, E.A., Gerdes, K.E., Lietz, C.A., Wagaman, M.A. & Geiger, J.M. (2017) Assessing empathy. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 37.