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The Science Behind Empathy

To explain empathy, science is still in its infancy. If you research empathy, you will come across a lot of information related to spirituality, psychic abilities, or interdimensional communication. I am curious and passionate about all of this, but it is not enough when I want to understand my sensitivity and my overflowing empathy. I also need tangible evidence to explain my daily experiences, and those of millions of highly sensitive people and empaths like me. Even if I am not a science freak, I like when it provides us with explanations, solutions and helps us progress. Sadly, when something cannot (yet) be explained by science, it is likely to be labeled irrational, baseless, purely theoretical, supernatural or pseudo-something, and we all know how that is seen... with a sarcastic smile.


Although there is still a long way to go, science is close to explaining empathy, or at least part of it, as it is still in its infancy. So the intention of this post is to have a chance to understand empathy from this perspective.


However, I hope that there will soon be more progress in the field of research related to empathy, as I consider it to be one of the most interesting and important topics for a highly sensitive person or an empath, like me.

empathy

A quick reminder before we move forward with science and empathy… According to most clinical and counseling psychologists, a set of three distinct skills are necessary to define a truly empathetic person:

  • the ability to share one's experience,

  • the cognitive ability to intuit or mentalize (and perhaps understand) what another person is feeling, and

  • a “socially beneficial” intention to respond with compassion to that person’s distress.


That being said, here are 4 explanations of the elements/mechanisms of empathy…


Elements and mechanisms of empathy

Emotional contagion

The first discovery that improves our understanding of empaths is the phenomenon of emotional contagion. Scientists refer to the process of absorbing emotions as emotional contagion. According to social psychologist Carolina Herrando (article published in Frontiers in psychology in 2021), emotional contagion is more often positive than negative. Emotional contagion is the involuntary transfer of feelings to others, sometimes unconsciously. Examples of implicit emotional contagion might be the spontaneous smile of a stranger or the laughter of a child that brightens someone else's day, and improves their mood. Emotional contagion can also spread negative emotions, but they are not always bad. It can actually spark empathy, which improves almost any situation and is the foundation of morality.


Mirror neurons

Emotional contagion and empathy are mainly explained by the activity of our mirror neurons. Researchers have discovered a specialized group of brain cells responsible for compassion. These cells, called mirror neurons, participate in empathy, in understanding the actions of others, and in learning new skills through imitation. These neurons allow us to reflect emotions, to share the pain, fear or joy of another person. Because empaths and highly sensitive people have more active mirror neurons, this explains why they resonate deeply with the feelings of others.


So, mirror neuron theory helps explain some aspects of empathy, but it doesn't explain all of them. The most famous example of the mirror theory is that of a person who yawns in front of you, and who makes you yawn too. It can also explain why someone is instantly sad in the presence of someone who is crying. But, although these explanations are true for the process of emotional contagion, the mirror neuron theory does not explain certain other aspects of empathy. For example, how can someone feel the feelings of someone when that person is at a distance from them, and they have no knowledge of what is happening with the other person. If mirror neurons can easily explain empathy, and even better emotional contagion, when there is contact (whatever it may be) with a person, this theory fails to provide an explanation for a situation of non-contact. I think science still has a long way to go in understanding empathy, but this and subsequent theories can definitely give us a starting point to explain it from a scientific perspective.


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Electromagnetic fields

The third observation is close to my heart because it is almost tangible for me. It is based on the fact that both the brain and the heart generate electromagnetic fields. According to the HeartMath Institute, these fields transmit information about people's thoughts and emotions. Empaths, thanks to their highly developed sensitivity, would therefore be more receptive to this electromagnetic field, which would explain not only their connection/reception of “information” with a physically close person, but also that with a person at a distance, or even the collective. .


In my opinion, there is much more than a heart-brain connection; we also now know that our gut is also called the second brain. Although our enteric nervous system (the scientific name for our second brain) cannot do math or compose words, this vast network uses the same cells and chemicals as the brain, not only to help us digest, but also to alert the brain when something is wrong. I also believe that our entire body is made up of many energy centers that radiate to each other and to the external field, but this is outside the realm of Western science.


Indisputably, we are connected beings, and not just to our phones!


But here I digress and digress, so let's return to the theories that science has been able to put forward so far.


Increased sensitivity to dopamine

The fourth discovery concerns dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that increases the activity of neurons, and is associated with the pleasure response, which makes us want to perform certain activities.


Science has shown that the brain of a highly sensitive person has a different dopamine response than the typical brain. Simply put, HSPs are less likely to be affected by dopamine, and the lack of dopamine response is actually what helps them become more thoughtful and observant when working on information processing.


A very interesting finding is that research has shown that introverted empaths tend to have greater sensitivity to dopamine than extroverts. (Too bad, I'm an ambivert, so where should I stay? :)) ) This means that introverted empaths or sensitive people need less dopamine to feel happy. It’s quite a discovery! This could then explain why introverted people are more content to be alone, engage in quiet activities like reading, meditation and need less external stimulation.



Obviously, the science behind empathy shows that the brains of hypersensitive people and empaths are connected for other people

While for someone with a typical brain it may be easier to disconnect from others, for the highly sensitive it is not as easy. In fact, a highly sensitive person's brain is actually programmed for other people, the science behind empathy started to prove it. It is known that in social situations the brain becomes more active, so when a highly sensitive person is in a social environment, their brain becomes more attentive to their surroundings and other people nearby.


Final Thoughts

I guess I'm not extrapolating when I say that empathy can be particularly overwhelming given the overwhelmingly negative emotional input present in our modern world. This is especially true for empaths and highly sensitive people who have high empathy and low tolerance for negative emotions, especially if they can't do anything to help and turn the negative into a positive.


Yet scientists have discovered preliminary evidence that empathy isn't just about feelings, it's also about science. Somehow these discoveries help my sensitive and empathetic nature be validated, after many years of believing I had a problem. I sincerely hope that this will help others like me to present scientific explanations, whenever they are belittled or dismissed by people who are very skeptical of their traits.


As the mysteries of the brain continue to unfold their secrets, we must cherish this gift and be very grateful to have been born with it.

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If people started seeing emotions as an absolutely beautiful part of who we are as human beings, rather than fearing or suppressing them, they would learn more about their own emotions, and those of others. By having these keys in hand, empathy would come naturally to them.


Empathy plays an essential role in human nature that makes us social beings. Not only does it help us become more social and moral beings, but empathy is also important in helping us understand the intentions and actions of others. This helps us function as a unit in society.


Having the ability to share experiences with other beings while having insight into their thoughts is nothing short of magical. Empathy truly is a super power!


 

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