the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
From the Greek words ’em’ meaning ‘in’ and ‘pathos’ meaning feeling.
Empathy literally means ‘in-feeling’. But what does it mean to be in a feeling?
In suggests an experience, which makes sense, we experience feelings all the time. What I find most interesting about empathy is the way it is felt in the body.
Think of empathy as embodied feeling, embodied emotion. I not only understand the feelings of others intellectually, I understand them in my body. Ie. I feel your pain.
I am interested to know what other people have to say about this phenomenon of human relationship.
“Empathy is a complex psychological response in which observation, memory,
knowledge, and reasoning are combined to yield insights into the
thoughts and feelings of others.” (Ickes, W. (1997). Empathic Accuracy. New York: Guilford)
According to Jean Decety from University of Washington and Sara D, Hodges from University of Oregon in their study The Social Neuroscience of Empathy
Empathy relies on shared neural representations to establish a connection between
the self and the target of empathy, but the shared network of representation must also have a regulatory mechanism to distinguish the self from the other.
Shared representations are exhibited in us whether we experience a stimulus first hand or if we see the stimulus response in another. Ie. We react with disgust by witnessing someone eat something rotten as we would if we were to eat the same thing. We simulate the experience of another and respond in a shared experience.
We have ‘mirror neuron, which means that imagining your reaction, the reaction of another, and witnessing a reaction can all conjure the same response.
The difficulty with then cognitive or reasoning aspect of empathy is that it is always biased toward the ego or the self. In other words, we are always judging information we receive based on our self-perspective.
One of the most interesting parts of Decety and Hodges study was that the most important component of empathy is being able to distinguish between the self and the other. For example, if you feel distress and you do not know whether it is yours or someone else’s you cannot determine who needs help in that situation. Empathy requires that you know the distress belongs to the other so that you can respond accordingly.
In other words: I feel your pain and I know it is yours.
Looking at empathy in this way means that one cannot be too empathetic, because traditionally too much empathy is associated with not being able to separate yourself from the feelings of others. The idea being, if you have a clear and distinct knowledge of what belongs to you and what belongs to the other it prevents being overloaded with the emotions of the other so that one can respond compassionately.
“…empathy might be thought of as an autonomic nervous system
state which tends to simulate that of another person”
Empathy: A Physiological Substrate
Robert W. Levenson and Anna M. Ruef University of California, Berkeley
Literally, I feel your pain.
Is this an example of the mirror neurons working overtime or is there another explanation? What does the body understand that the mind doesn’t?
Physiological correlations such as synchronized breath, heart rate increase our ability to physically connect with others. The electromagnetic relationships between people can also play a role in this connection.
In Levenson and Ruef’s study they found that the physiological responses were more accurate in relation to negative affect (unpleasant feelings) rather than positive. Further the subjects were more likely to re-experience those effects when situations came up later on.
The body stores its own information and can reproduce what we might call a physical memory.
What this means is that the body provides its own information and feeling when we experience empathy. Our autonomic nervous system, like the mirror neurons can reproduce an earlier feeling.
When we practice breathing and movement in groups we are building a collective shared physiological experience and producing a situation where we are physically receptive to the feelings of others.
Recognize that you cannot heal what you have not healed in yourself. Empathy is not a super-power it is a skill that takes training and comes with ethical responsibilities.
Spirituality really seems to hone in on the ‘responding compassionately’ aspect of empathy. The problem there is as always one of morality: the Empath is good when behaving compassionately and working for the “light”, dividing empathy into good and be cannot be helpful for anyone so we won’t do that here.
The purpose of Empathy is healing. It is a built in sensor that tells us when our fellow humans are suffering and need help. This innate wisdom is not without its difficulties for several reasons: one is that it is not culturally appropriate to acknowledge that someone else is suffering unless they bring it up first and two, not everyone has developed or trained their emphatic skills to properly identify and treat those needs.
The best way to develop as an Empath is to learn the cue and decipher the information you are receiving… go inward and discover the spiritual significance of the experience.
When I teach yoga I feel the energy in the room, I hold the space according to the needs of my students. Like channeling, this process is not conscious, my body and mind simply act in accordance with spirit or the energy of the collective to bring everyone into a space of healing.
At times I can tell that I am moving and teaching for my own body but in other times the movements are completely without “reason”. After class my students will come to me and tell me that they has some specific injury or pain that was alleviated by the practice and to me that is proof of the power of empathetic connection.
Just as an aside: when I was searching for images for this post I typed in HUMAN CONNECTION and everything that came up was a picture of a person with a piece of technology or two people with technology side-by-side.