Empathy as Biology
We usually think of empathy as an abstract quality that certain people possess in varying amounts, and as something dependent upon personality or a person’s general goodness. We treasure empathetic people in our lives, those whom we perceive to be the people who really understand our problems and our passions. Yet our capacities for empathy may be more rooted in our biology that we realize, and by understanding the ways in which the human brain allows us to experience empathy, we can learn how to prevent the processes that disrupt our brains’ empathic circuitry.
In neuroscience, researchers define empathy as “as an affective response in one individual that is triggered by the observed or imagined feeling state of another individual” (Narvaez). In other words, empathy is what we feel when we put ourselves in another person’s shoes. What distinguishes empathy from similar emotions, such as sympathy and compassion, is its unique element of shared experience. When we feel empathy, we feel more than just upset when we see someone suffering. We advance to a higher level of relating with a person’s suffering by envisioning what it would be like to experience their pain in our own mental world. Due to this complexity in the layers of our emotional experience of empathy, it makes sense that our brains process it in a complex way by engaging multiple structures. Neurobiologists share the view that empathy is not a singular or isolated pathway in the brain, but rather the product of multiple networks in the brain and processed through several neural systems.
One such system is the theory-of-mind network, which is engaged when individuals reflect on other peoples’ mental states, perceptions, and ideologies; this network helps us identify and distinguish between beliefs held by others that differ from our own. The second system involved in experiencing empathy is the mirror neuron system, which generates neural representations of passively viewed events, thus producing a type of “mirroring” effect on the empathizer (Narvaez). Furthermore, there is a biological component of the brain called the supramarginal gyrus which ensures that we can separate our perceptions of ourselves from our perceptions of others (Singer).
Tania Singer from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences researched the supramarginal gyrus to determine what role our emotions and mental states play in our ability to empathize with one another. Singer discovered that the brain uses empathy to correct egocentricity, or overwhelming focus upon oneself. Empathy, therefore, is the mechanism by which the brain prevents self-obsession. Singer then examined which activities and mental states can disrupt the brain’s process of correcting egocentrism with empathy. Egocentricity is central to how we understand the world, for it is only by filtering the experiences of another through our own past experience that we are able to imagine what it would be like to exist as someone external to ourselves. For example, it would be impossible for me to imagine what it would be like to be you without trying to relate your experiences and emotions to my own, because all I currently know are my own experiences. I can only try to understand what you have experienced in the context of what I have experienced, because it is the only context that I have.
However, despite our dependence upon egocentrism for understanding the world around us, Singer’s research reveals that it is a form of hyper-egocentrism that leads us to project our own thoughts and feelings on other people in a way that inhibits our abilities to empathize. Instead of trying to understand how another person might feel through our own experience, hyper-egocentrism means that we try to force the feelings of another person into alignment with our own. We stop trying to understand and relate to another person, and begin trying to force their emotions and reactions to make sense in the boundaries of our own personal logic.
When disruptions in a brain’s ability to engage in empathy occur, the person whose brain is affected resorts to prioritizing their own experiences rather than trying to understand those of others. Empathy is dependent upon understanding that individuals feel in different ways and may perceive and process emotions through experiences that are unique to their identity. When a person’s neural empathic pathways have been derailed, it becomes difficult to imagine other ways of feeling, so a common coping process for this disengagement is to try and force the emotions of others into the lens and categories of one’s own personal experience. Rather than process another person’s emotions as unique and subtly different from our own, we force their emotions to make sense solely through the structure of our own perspectives. In doing so, we lose the ability to empathize by projecting ourselves on the emotions of others.
One of the processes that disrupts the ability of our brains’ structures to engage in empathy is the making of quick and imprudent decisions. Research subjects were unable to make accurate assessments of what another person was feeling when the experimenters engaged them in the process of making choices quicker than usual. The act of having to make a quick decision threw off their brains’ ability to visualize and simulate the experience of another person’s emotions. This possible way for our brains to be thrown off when we are trying to empathize reinforces the concept of empathy as a complex and deliberative process which requires a significant amount of our thought and care. To truly envision what another person might be experiencing, we cannot just make snap judgments, but we must really engage in what it might be like to exist in a way different than what we have known.
In terms of our own abilities to cultivate our capacities for empathy, the neural circuitry of our brains is highly malleable. We can build upon certain neural networks by engaging them frequently. Human brains possess a characteristic known as neural plasticity, meaning that our brains are greatly shaped by the ways that we use them. A commonly used phrase when speaking about neuroplasticity is “use it or lose it.” When we make frequent use of certain synaptic pathways, we strengthen and build upon those connections; however, if we do not make use of certain neural pathways, our brain undergoes a process of “pruning” them and making them less efficacious (Bergland). It’s easy to assume that our mental states are stagnant and fixed, and that the way in which we perceive the world is a fixed element of who we are. In actuality, we have a great ability to shape our brains through the ways in which we decide to use them, and we can produce significant changes in who we are and what type of lens we see the world through by concerted effort.
Bergland, Christopher. "The Neuroscience of Empathy." Psychology Today. Psychology Today, 10 Oct. 2013. Web. 05 Mar. 2017. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201310/the-neuroscience-empathy>.
Singer, Tania. "I'm Ok, You're Not Ok." Max Planck Society, 09 Oct. 2013. Web. 05 Mar. 2017. <https://www.mpg.de/research/supramarginal-gyrus-empathy>.
Narvaez, Darcia. "Neurobiological Basis of Empathy and Its Development in the Context of Our Evolutionary Heritage - Oxford Scholarship." Neurobiological Basis of Empathy and Its Development in the Context of Our Evolutionary Heritage - Oxford Scholarship. Oxford Scholarhsip, 04 Nov. 2014. Web. 05 Mar. 2017. <http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199755059.001.0001/acprof-9780199755059-chapter-10>.