Have you ever shed a tear or two watching a movie or maybe a TV show? As we watch something upsetting or harmful happen to someone we wonder, well why am I crying? I’m not hurt, this doesn’t affect me or my life. It’s because we are empathetic that we often share in what others are feeling whether that be physically or psychologically.
What is empathy?
Feeling someone else’s pain can sound mysterious or fictional but is a very real and complicated emotional process. Empathy is typically defined as the ability to share and understand someone else’s feelings and incorporates the ability to understand how a person feels, what they might be thinking, and to share those feelings. When people think of empathy, they often think of shared experiences. For example, most people have fallen sometime during childhood and scraped their knee. As a result, we easily understand the pain a child is going through when they fall and scrape their knee because it is a shared experience. However, feeling empathy doesn’t require a shared experience, just an attempt to better understand what a person is going through by getting to know their perspective.
It’s all in your head
Neuroimaging research has revealed overlapping brain areas that are activated during empathy for another’s pain. The pregenual anterior cingulate cortex is responsible for processing physical and social pain which is activated in social situations. The activity of the affective brain regions correlates with the judgment of pain intensity and with self-rated empathic abilities. (Brüne & Flasbeck, 2019) This explains how you, for example, can see someone get hit in the head with a ball and think about how much it hurts, you may even feel physical symptoms. These are things that happen subconsciously and most of the time come naturally.
How is empathy beneficial?
While empathizing with others can be emotionally taxing, there are considerable benefits to sharpening this ability. Empathy strengthens the ability to form connections with others, improves communication abilities and makes for more effectual leaders. In a world where so many people desperately need and want others to consider their feelings and perspectives, empathy is an essential tool that can give you a leg up in both your personal and work lives.
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By: Sabrina Sutton, EKU psychology student
Flasbeck, V., & Brüne, M. (2019). Neural correlates empathy for physical and psychological pain. Journal of Psychophysiology, 33(1), 54–63. https://doi.org/10.1027/0269-8803/a000205