5 Scientists Tell Us Why Empathy Is Important For Humanity

what does empathy mean after all
What is empathy important, after all?

How many days did we long for talking to someone who would understand us, with no interruptions or suggestions?

And how many times did we feel connected to someone looking distraught and felt like hugging them, even when we did not know them at all?

We all have had our fair share of such experiences in real life and on social media. When we see a person in distress or pity, even across a screen, we enter an emotional state that makes us relate deeply to that person. That state is empathy—an ability to understand and feel what others are going through.

The beauty of empathy lies here — we yearn to receive it from others, as well as we need to give it out to others. Feeling heard and understood, and being able to do both, is a human need.

Why Is Empathy Important

Empathy is important because, without it, people would live unconcerned lives short of caring about how others feel or think. When we, as humans, lack this emotional process, we cannot fathom the feelings of our fellow beings and respond accordingly.

Having empathy is useful as it helps to understand others so we could help or thwart them.

Empathy makes it possible to reciprocate both the positive and negative feelings of others. Empathy allows us to feel vicariously happy as we share the joy of others. And feel the hurt of suffering when others are in pain.

As humans, we are a highly social species. A sense of empathy can bolster our prosocialaltruistic, and compassionate behavior. And a lack of empathy can disintegrate our social bonds and hinder our growth as humanity.

When we cannot empathize with others, especially when they are in distress, it puts them in greater danger of anxiety, depression, dying, and self-harm.

Without empathy, it is easy to pick up misconceptions and misbeliefs about others. It might lead us to think of good people as shady, or the fraud guys as saintly.

When we do not care to listen and understand others, our social values decrease, and people might see us as indifferent or disdainful to others. Soon we stand out of our relationships and social circles.

But when we spend efforts to listen to and consider what another person thinks or feels, without attempting to change them or solve their problems, they feel respected, appreciated, and validated.

When people feel appreciated, they feel secure. When we show empathy towards others, it leads them to function with greater freedom, called autonomy.

Daniel Pink tells us in his bestseller book Drive that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the 3 elements of intrinsic motivation. Autonomy helps people become more engaged and productive.

In a survey of 1300 workers from 13 countries by Dale Carnegie Training about what quality they desired the most in a boss, people reported they wanted their managers to appreciate and listen to them. 88% of employees said they value bosses who listen to them. 87% of workers said their bosses should show sincere appreciation.

BehaviorImportancePerformanceGap
Listening to employees88%60%28%
Sincere appreciation87%61%26%
Valuing employee contribution86%60%20%
Table: Boss Behavior vs Employee Expectation

The Negative Side of Empathy:

Empathy can have a negative fallout, too. For example, strong empathetic connections with our family members, or our social or racial group, may lead us to hate or act in aggression towards those we perceive as a threat.

Another example of dangerous empathy could be those good at reading other people’s emotions, such as manipulators. Such people may use their exceptional empathetic skills for deceiving others.

5 Scientists Tell Us Why Empathy Is Important For Humanity

Scientists-On-Emapthy

We bring you five incredible insights by five outstanding scientists on empathy that can help us understand why is empathy so important for humans to progress and thrive.

  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 the mirror neuron first came to light in the 1990s. A team of Italian researchers led by Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma, 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.

The mirror neurons in the monkey brain fire when they see or hear an action and when they carry out the same action on their own. Later studies found humans have mirror neurons that are much more intuitive, flexible, and evolved than those in the monkeys.

These neurons occur in several areas of the brain—the prefrontal cortex, the posterior parietal lobe, the superior temporal sulcus, and the insula.

A horde of studies on empathy for pain using fMRI revealed the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex were routinely activated, both while experiencing pain as well as when seeing another person in pain.

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 2+ million.

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.

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: Brené Brown

How do sympathy and empathy differ?

sympathy-empathy-bunny
Brené Brown On Empathy

Empathy is the ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand it as best you can 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. Often, this includes pointing out a silver lining in the situation, but it’s not always a helpful thing to do.

Feeling empathy is understanding the other person’s pain as they are feeling it. Feeling sympathy is expressing solace while offering to help the other person in pain.

Next time someone opens up to you about a problem, try to listen to what they are saying. They might be reaching out for help, and a full acknowledgment from you 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 here two sentences from the article:

  • 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.

Below is a delightful animation laying out a section of Brené Brown’s lecture on the difference between empathetic and sympathetic responses.

Brené Brown on Empathy

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.

Bruce Perry outlines the 4 qualities of empathy:

  1. to be able to see the world as others see it
  2. to be nonjudgmental
  3. to understand another’s feelings
  4. to communicate our understanding of that person’s feelings
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.

Dr. Bruce Perry - Born for Love: Why Empathy is Endangered — and Essential

4. Empathy And Bullying: Izabela Zych

Are the bully victims low on empathy?

Read that again — we said bully victims, not bully perpetrators.

Izabela Zych Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in Psychology in the University of Cordoba (Spain). Her major 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.

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 in 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, a 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: they found the victims to be more emotionally “cold” than non-victims.

Izabela Zych has co-authored the book Protecting Children Against Bullying and Its Consequences. The book clearly defines bullying as a public mental health issue and prevention as a deterrent for future antisocial and criminal behavior.

Izabella Zych
Dr. Izabela Zych with her book

Cyberbullying or trolling is aggressive behavior towards others on the internet using electronic devices. Learn how to handle the trolls most effectively, according to experts.

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 the Science Museum, London, accompanied by Prof Stephen Hawking — the late celebrated physicist 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, Hawking called aggression a human failing.

Hawking, who dedicated much of his life explaining the existence of black holes, died in 2018 without being honored by a Nobel. However, his friend and research colleague Roger Penrose received the 2020 Nobel Physics Prize for proving the formation of black holes in case of a gravitational collapse of a star.

Hawking said he felt aggression has outlived its survival value in the modern world, and to get aggressive towards another is to fail miserably in our humanness. Hawking specifically mentioned it is this failing that could trigger a nuclear war and destroy the whole of humanity.

Uyanwah remembered to ask the professor which human traits he would like to see more often. Hawking was clear that he would like to see more kindness and understanding in this world. He advised 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.

— Stephen Hawking

The Theory of Everything is a 2006 book containing seven related lectures by Hawking. The book is in a language that is intelligible to a high school student.

Final Words

We cannot flourish without having empathy. Beware of the empathy fatigue, though.

Authentic empathy means we are present to understand another person’s feelings. But we are not getting ourselves bogged down by taking responsibility for making them feel better. Empathy is about connecting and supporting, not about being responsible for their emotions.

Empathy does not mean taking up the responsibility of other’s emotions.

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 the understanding of another’s struggles from their unique perspective. And we all are capable of it in varying degrees.

• Did you know people with a positive mindset have these 6 traits: MOGRAH: 1. Mindfulness 2. Optimism 3. Gratitude 4. Resilience 5. Acceptance 6. Honesty? Learn what most of your friends wouldn’t know about building a positive attitude here.

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Author Bio: Sandip Roy is a psychology writer, happiness researcher, and medical doctor. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related topics.


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