What Is Empathy?

My last post about empathy resulted in a lot of questions and inquiries in my email box, so I thought it would be nice to followup with a brief overview on the topic.

Ever since I was young I have been labeled as an empath. It wasn’t until I reached my early 20s that I began to curiously research what this truly meant. Turns out, it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In a nutshell? Empaths are more than just sensitive people. They feel the moods and energy of others, they are more affected by sounds, smells and chatter, and they can become emotionally overwhelmed easily. At least that’s how it’s generally defined.

For those unfamiliar with the term, an empath can be explained different ways, depending on which discipline is doing the defining. New age, psychology and science fiction all have their own definitions.

Dr. Judith Orloff, a board-certified psychiatrist writes: “Empaths are highly sensitive, finely tuned instruments when it comes to emotions. They feel everything, sometimes to an extreme, and are less apt to intellectualize feelings. Intuition is the filter through which they experience the world. Empaths are naturally giving, spiritually attuned, and good listeners.”

In science fiction, empaths are defined as: “… a human being or other intelligent organism capable of reading the emotions of others by some form of extrasensory perception. This is distinct from a telepath, which can read thoughts.” Probably one of the most well-known examples is Deanna Troi, the empath on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Excuse the nerd just then.

The new age definition of an empath is similar to both of the above, but it doesn’t involve the supernatural and it’s less brain-based than the psychological definition: “Being an empath is much more than being highly sensitive and it’s not just limited to emotions. Empaths can perceive physical sensitivities and spiritual urges, as well as just knowing the motivations and intentions of other people. You either are an empath or you aren’t,” writes Christel Broeuderlow on The Mind Unleashed.

Think this may be you too? You can take additional tests to find out what type of empath you might be. There are also a lot of videos and blog posts on the Web detailing how empaths can better handle stressful situations. Be warned, there is a wide range of information available and not all of it is scientifically or psychologically sound.

Naturally, there are dissenters, people who claim that there is no such thing as an empath. They believe there are just more or less sensitive people.

There are a number of neuroscience studies that have isolated where in the brain empathy and compassion are rooted. A regularly cited 2013 journal article written by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human and Brain Sciences found that when tested, a particular area of subjects’ brains — the right supramarginal gyrus, part of the cerebral cortex, located near the junction of the parietal, temporal and frontal lobes — was linked to empathy.

This part of the brain makes the distinction between our own emotions and those of others. Researchers found that when this part of the brain is functioning or when it’s bypassed when we have to make very fast decisions, empathy is highly reduced. During a fast decision there is little time to dwell.

Taking that idea further, other research has delved deeper into the neurobiological roots of psychopathy, because psychopaths lack empathy. Researchers located some differences in the brains of psychopaths, seeing the opposite of what an empath might feel. While empaths are extra-sensitive to others’ emotional states, psychopaths are not. In fact, psychopaths often times find pleasure in experiencing others’ pain or being the direct cause of their pain.

My take? I have always been good at picking up on others’ emotional states, cues and energies. I am a devoted listener and one of the most compassionate people you’ll ever meet. Whether or not this is part of my character or my brain, is irrelevant. There is no neurobiological proof that empaths as defined above exist — yet. But considering neuroscience is still a fairly new field, and noticing how many people report similar phenomena, it’s not out of the question that there is some truth to this.

And if somewhere along this article you questioned why the ‘earthen lady’ is talking about psychology (ugh, she’s not talking about trees!) – it would be helpful to know that I took so many extra psychology courses in college, that I was 3 courses shy of a double major. :] What can I say? People fascinate me.

Food for thought!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s