What Does Empathy Mean: 5 Brilliant Scientists Explore It

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what does empathy mean after all

What does empathy mean, after all?

Empathy is understanding and experiencing the feelings of another person from their position. Empathy means you understand how they feel. Empathy means you feel their pain the way they feel it.

Carl Rogers, the American psychologist on whose works we base much of our modern understanding of empathy, defined empathy as “to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it.” And Theodor Lipps explained it beautifully with,

When I observe a circus performer on a hanging wire, I feel I am inside him.

The Origin of Empathy

As a word, empathy has a history of just about 140 years. Robert Vischer, German philosopher, was the first to use the word “einfühlung” to explain how we “feel into”, in 1873.

The English psychologist Edward Titchener coined the word “empathy” as we know today, in 1909, as a translated version of the German word einfühlung.

In comparison, the word sympathy is a very old word — it has existed since almost 300 years before the word empathy’s first written record.

Theodor Lipps, in his Aesthetik, was first to scrutinize empathy as a central concept in analyzing our aesthetic experiences.

Carl Rogers,  in 1975 wrote Empathic – An Unappreciated Way of Being. In that, he proposed that empathy is a process, and not a state.

Empathy is the understanding and experiencing of the feelings of another person from their position. Click To Tweet

Types of Empathy

Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the field of emotions and micro-expressions, classifies empathy into three types:

  1. Cognitive empathy or ‘perspective taking’ – the recognizing and understanding of another’s thoughts and feelings. Cognitive empathy is feeling by thinking. It is the form of empathy that psychopaths have lots of – they understand what causes you the most pain, and torture you with exactly that – with zero sympathy towards you. A true psychopath never feels empathy.
  2. Emotional empathy or ‘affective empathy’ – the vicarious sharing of feelings after an emotional interaction. In this, you understand as well as feel how the shoe pinches the other person. The people in the medical care profession usually have this type of empathy; they understand and feel your pain.
  3. Compassionate empathy or ’empathic concern’ – the action part of the previous two types, or an impulse to act after understanding and feeling another’s experience. In this, after you understand and feel the other person’s woe, you take action to resolve it for them. Compassion comes with a wish to act.

What Does Empathy Mean: As 5 Scientists Explore

We bring to you five incredible insights on empathy by five outstanding scientists.

  1. Empathy And Mirror Neurons – V S Ramachandran
  2. Empathy Vs Sympathy –  Brené Brown
  3. Empathy Endangered –  Bruce Perry
  4. Empathy And Bullying – Izabela Zych
  5. Empathy Advice – Stephen Hawking

1. Empathy And Mirror Neurons: V S Ramachandran

Do mirror neurons make us feel empathy?

V-S-Ramachandran

V S Ramachandran

In an interview, one of the world’s most influential neuroscientists, and the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, V S Ramachandran talked of the relationship between empathy and our brain cells — the mirror neurons.

The concept of mirror neurons first came to light in the 1990s. Some Italian researchers saw certain brain cells that got active when a monkey did an action, also got active when that monkey watched another monkey carry out the same action.

Prof Ramachandran has been a passionate flag-bearer for mirror neurons. His NYT bestseller book — The Tell-Tale Brain — walks us through his argument why mirror neurons might have been crucial in helping humans go leaps beyond the apes in developing self-awareness, humor and complex thinking.

He famously said, “… mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology.” As of this writing, his popular TED talk totals a viewership of 1,717,194.

Asked to introduce mirror neurons, he replied,

These are neurons which fire… when I simply watch another person—watch you reach out and do exactly the same action. So these neurons are performing a virtual reality simulation of your mind, your brain.

Therefore, they’re constructing a theory of your mind—of your intention—which is important for all kinds of social interaction.

Relating these to empathy, he said, “…These [mirror] neurons are probably involved in empathy for pain. If I really and truly empathize with your pain, I need to experience it myself. That’s what the mirror neurons are doing, allowing me to empathize with your pain—saying, in effect, that person is experiencing the same agony and excruciating pain as you would if somebody were to poke you with a needle directly. That’s the basis of all empathy.”

That's what the mirror neurons are doing, allowing me to empathize with your pain. - V S Ramachandran Click To Tweet

He also regretted that he might have been the one responsible for the popular misconception that mirror neurons are responsible for everything we humans are today.n

“And I myself am partly responsible because I made this playful remark, not entirely serious, that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology and open up a whole new field of investigation. Turned out I was right, but it’s overdone—I mean, a lot of people, anything they can’t understand, they say it’s due to mirror neurons.”

2. Empathy Vs Sympathy: Brené Brown

How do sympathy and empathy differ?

sympathy-empathy-bunny

Brené Brown On Empathy

There is a delightful animation on YouTube laying out a section of Brené Brown’s lecture on the difference between an empathetic and a sympathetic response.

Empathy is the ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand it as best you can to how that person feels in the situation. The trait of being able to express this feeling and understanding it is the second tier of empathy.

Sympathy is the ability to express ‘culturally acceptable’ condolences to another’s plight. A lot of the time, this includes pointing out a silver lining in the situation but it’s not always a helpful thing to do.

Next time someone opens up to you about a problem, try to listen to what they are saying. They are reaching out for help, and full acknowledgement is the first step.

Sympathy includes pointing out a silver lining in the situation but it's not always a helpful thing to do. Click To Tweet

Here’s a Grammarly article on empathy vs. sympathy. We share two sentences from the article here:

  • Empathy is a term we use for the ability to understand other people’s feelings as if we were having them ourselves.
  • Sympathy refers to the ability to take part in someone else’s feelings, mostly by feeling sorrowful about their misfortune.

3. Empathy Endangered: Bruce Perry

Are we losing our ability for empathy?

“Empathy is what makes us human,” says brain scientist Dr. Bruce Perry, MD. “Human beings are biological creatures with genetic gifts… The only way we survived was by forming relationships, collaborative relationships… Human beings are neurobiologically meant to be connected to others: to live, work, hunt, play, invent, and die in groups.

“Our brain is a social organ; we are social animals. We don’t have any natural body armor, camouflage, stinging other things. We form groups. Human beings are ‘meat on feet’ to the natural world.

The only way we survive is by forming collaborative groups, by sharing what we hunted and what we gathered with everybody else in our group.”

Empathy is what makes us human. - Dr Bruce Perry Click To Tweet

“The typical American spends 11 hours a day interacting with digital devices, and not with fleshy objects! And I want to talk about the consequences of this for how we end up expressing our ability to be compassionate (or not).

“You see it all the time, complaints in the psychological literature about the disconnectedness of multi-tasking constantly with our phones… but we do it ourselves. It breaks the rhythm of social contact, of empathic engagement– and the truth is: those things are physiologically meaningful.”

4. Empathy And Bullying: Izabela Zych

Are the bully victims low on empathy?

Izabela Zych Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in Psychology in the University of Cordoba (Spain). Her main research interest focuses on bullying and cyberbullying (trolling). She holds empathy plays a significant role in bullying.

School bullying is a form of aggression that can harm both in the short-term as well as long-term. Bullying involves three parties — the perpetrator, the victim, and the bystander audience. Zych reminds us school bullying often has an element of the unwritten “law of silence.” The students who see or know about the act do not report to the authorities or their parents out of the fear that they could be the next victim.

Cyberbullying or trolling is aggressive behaviour towards others on the internet using electronic devices. Most often it happens over these two social media platforms: Twitter and Facebook.

In both cases, the face-to-face bullying, and the ‘faceless’ trolling, the bully chooses its victims as those who can’t defend themselves easily. Also, there is a strong correlation between the two. Real world bullies are often cyberbullies as well, though many trolls are people with normal social behavior.

Zych and her colleagues found school bullies scored low on total empathy, that is both cognitive empathy and affective empathy, as compared to non-bullies. Boys and girls showed no difference on this. The bullies also scored high on callous-unemotional traits (a childhood version of psychopathy marked by a disregard for others, a lack of empathy, low sense of guilt, and emotional “coldness”).

A little surprising finding was the victims were low on empathy when compared to non-involved students. The victims also scored high on callous-unemotional traits as compared non-victims. Read that again: the victims were found to be more emotionally “cold” than non-victims.

5. Empathy Advice: Stephen Hawking

Would You Not Follow Stephen Hawking’s Advice?

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking

When Adaeze Uyanwah, a 24-year-old student who had won a prize to go on a tour of London’s Science Museum accompanied by Prof Stephen Hawking – the celebrated and wildly popular author of A Brief History of Time  – asked which human trait the professor would most like to change, he answered:

The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression. It may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory or a partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all.

Mark it, he calls aggression a human failing. Aggression has outlived its survival value in the modern world. To get aggressive towards another is to fail miserably in our humanness. Hawking specifically mentioned that it’s this failing that could trigger a nuclear war and destroy the whole humanity.

Uyanwah remembered to ask Hawking which human traits he would like to see more often. He was clear in commenting that he would like to see more of kindness and understanding in this world. He advises us to boost empathy in ourselves. His words:

“The quality I would most like to magnify is empathy. It brings us together in a peaceful, loving state.”

The Theory of Everything is a 2006 book containing seven related lectures by Hawking originally published in 1996 under the title, The Cambridge Lectures: Life Works. The book is in a language that is intelligible to a high school student.

The quality I would most like to magnify is #Empathy. It brings us together in a peaceful, loving state. - Hawking Click To Tweet

Final Words

When we offer empathy, we play down our urge to give advice or explain our own feelings. As Marshall Rosenberg, author of The Surprising Purpose of Anger, gently advised:

Empathy… calls upon us to empty our mind and listen to others with our whole being.

The core concept of empathy lies in understanding of another’s struggles from their unique perspective. And we all are capable of it in varying degrees.


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