5 Ideas To Understand Empathy Better

Empathy 5 Best Ideas

Understanding Empathy

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

Theodor Lipps explained it beautifully with, “When I observe a circus performer on a hanging wire, I feel I am inside him.”

And Carl Rogers defined empathy as “to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it.”

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

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.

Edward Titchener, English psychologist, coined the word Empathy as we know today, in 1909, as a translation of the German word.

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, the American psychologist on whose works is based much of our modern understanding on empathy, in 1975 wrote Empathic – An Unappreciated Way of Being. In that, he proposed that empathy is a process, rather than a state.

We pull out the 5 most incredible ideas on empathy by 5 outstanding people from around the internet for you, with a rider that by no means it is comprehensive or representative. Enjoy the quick read spread over 5 sections.

  1. Empathy And Mirror Neurons – V S Ramachandran
  2. Empathy And Sympathy –  Brené Brown
  3. Empathy Becoming Endangered –  Bruce Perry
  4. Empathy Cards For Survivors – Emily McDowell
  5. Empathy Advice – Stephen Hawking

1. Empathy And Mirror Neurons:

Do Mirror Neurons Make Us Feel Empathy?


V S Ramachandran

This post was based on a interview with one of the world’s most influential neuroscientists, the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, V S Ramachandran.

The concept of mirror neurons first came to light in the 1990s. Some Italian researchers saw that 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 V S Ramachandran had 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 that “… 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 that we humans are.

“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 And Sympathy:

How Do Sympathy And Empathy Differ?


Brené Brown On Empathy

This post is based on a delightful animation laying out a section of Brené Brown’s lecture on the difference between an empathetic and a sympathetic response: Brené Brown on Empathy.

Empathy is the ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand it as best as 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 an excellent article on Grammarly on the difference between these two – 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 Becoming Endangered:

Why Empathy is Endangered – and Essential?

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 Cards For Survivors:

Why Does A Cancer Survivor Design These Cards?

Cancer cards

Empathy Cards by Emily McDowell

She calls them Empathy Cards. She designed them because she felt the cancer fighters expect and desire a special kind of understanding from their friends and kin, and the shops didn’t have cards to reflect those feelings.

Emily McDowell was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 24, enduring nine months of chemo and radiation before going into remission.

“The most difficult part of my illness wasn’t losing my hair, or being erroneously called ‘sir’ by Starbucks baristas, or sickness from chemo,” McDowell writes on her website.

“It was the loneliness and isolation I felt when many of my close friends and family members disappeared because they didn’t know what to say, or said the absolute wrong thing without realizing it.”

“Get well soon cards don’t make sense when someone might not,” says Emily McDowell.

After she fought her way free from cancer, Emily launched series of Empathy Cards based on her own experiences – emotionally direct greeting cards that say the things she wanted to hear when she was ill.

Slate and BoredPanda tells her story of resilience. You could follow Emily on Twitter.

Get well soon cards don't make sense when someone might not. - Emily McDowell, Cancer Survivor Click To Tweet

5. Empathy Advice:

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 brought out in India containing a collection of 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: Beyond Anger Management, 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.

In that sense, empathizing is something that is innate to us.

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