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Science of Empathy

Updated on September 17, 2016

Every one of us is unique in many respects from others, hardly resembling them in certain ones. On account of this individual uniqueness, we sometimes fail to understand others fully, as result of which we have to face disappointments in day-to-day interactions. We cannot understand someone unless we understand their viewpoint. The characteristic that motivates us to do so is called empathy. This helps us understand the feelings, beliefs, hopes and experiences of others that make up their view of the world.

'You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.'

- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Empathy has become a popular concept these days as more and more people are realizing its importance in the success of day-to-day life. Our selfish inner drives exist side by side with our empathic other half. But we must learn to nurture our empathetic nature so as to succeed in our personal, professional and social life.

Some areas of brain associated with processing of empathy
Some areas of brain associated with processing of empathy

Scientific basis of empathy –

Researchers suggest that we are hardwired to empathize because we closely associate with people, who are close to us: friends, spouses, lovers. But, in essence, not every individual responds equally and uniformly to various circumstances.

Neuroscience has allowed us to understand the neural basis of mind’s ability to understand and process human emotions. The parts of brain that actively affect empathic behavior in an individual are enumerated below:

Areas of brain involved in general empathy -

  • The area of the brain, called right supramarginal gyrus, helps us to distinguish our emotional state from that of other people and is responsible for empathy and compassion. The supramarginal gyrus is a part of the cerebral cortex, which is approximately situated at the junction of the parietal, temporal and frontal lobe, located more towards the front of the brain. When assessing the world around us, we use ourselves as a yardstick and tend to project our own emotional state onto others. Our own emotional state can distort our understanding of other people's emotions, in particular if these are completely different from our own. This emotional egocentricity prevents us from developing empathy and compassion. The right supramarginal gyrus ensures that we can decouple our perception of ourselves from that of others. It has been found that if the neurons in this part of the brain are disrupted in the individuals, they found it difficult to stop from projecting their own feelings and circumstances onto others.
  • The activation of specific mirror neurons attempts to explain the basic processes of empathy. The mirror neurons are specific neurons that fire when one acts and when one observes the same action being performed by another. Neuroscientists have discovered that people scoring high on empathy tests have especially busy mirror neuron systems in their brain. Brain imaging experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have shown that the inferior frontal cortex and superior parietal lobe of brain are active, when the person performs an action and also when the person sees another individual performing the same action. It has been suggested that these brain regions contain mirror neurons, and they have been defined as the human mirror neuron system.

Areas of brain involved in empathy for pain -

  • Several brain regions including the bilateral anterior insula (AI), rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), brainstem, and cerebellum are found to be activated both in instances of first person painful experience and observed painful experience. The bilateral anterior insula (AI) and rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) are, therefore, hypothesized to take part in the emotional reaction evoked from witnessing another in pain.

Areas of brain involved in empathy for pain in psychopaths -

  • It has been found that when individuals with psychopathy imagine others in pain, brain areas necessary for feeling empathy and concern for others fail to become active and remain connected to other important regions involved in processing of decision making of other actions. When highly psychopathic individuals imagined pain to themselves, they showed a typical neural response within the brain regions involved in empathy for pain, including the anterior insula, the anterior midcingulate cortex, brain stem and cerebellum.
  • When highly psychopathic individuals imagined pain to others, the above regions failed to become active. Moreover, psychopaths showed an increased response in the ventral striatum and amygdala, areas known to be involved in pleasure, when imagining others in pain.

Empathy is a spontaneous sharing of affective response, provoked by witnessing and sympathizing with another’s emotional state. We mirror or mimic the emotional response that we would expect to feel in that condition or context much like sympathy. Sympathetic feelings for another will trigger emotions of kindness and forgiveness.

The data suggest that females recruit areas containing mirror neurons to a higher degree than males during both self and other-related empathic face-to-face interactions.

The bottom line –

The fact is that empathy is a human quality that differentiates a person, who is mentally and emotionally healthy from one who isn’t. Though present in all of us to a varying extent, it plays a significant role in the success of our personal, professional and social life. Nonetheless, an empathetic person contributes to spread happiness in oneself and in others around. On the contrary, this becomes all the more obvious when we come across a psychopathic personality.

Neuroscientists have succeeded in understanding and determining how certain areas of human brain are involved in processing various emotions including empathy and compassion. However, it is significant to know that empathic behavior can be learned, despite the fact that genetics and some other factors play a significant role in its development.

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