Last month was a hectic and energetic month for me as I conducted educational camps in two of the major cities of Pakistan. Once again, I experienced that although people live in diverse cultural and linguistic environments, they still value certain things in their lives, which is common among us. Food and clothing are some of the things through which we can connect. Talking about connection, does it mean that feelings and emotions play an essential role in interacting with people? When students usually share something with me, they feel relaxed and secure. I experienced the same when I interacted with my students on these camps. It means even though I was utterly stranger to them moments ago, they still believe and trust me enough that they can share their issues, confusions and even fears with me. The term which I was searching for this phenomenon was ‘Empathy’.
Empathy is the ability to share and understand the emotions of others. It is a construct of multiple components, each of which is associated with its brain network. There are three ways of looking at empathy. First, there is affective empathy. This is the ability to share the emotions of others. For example, people who show a strong primitive reaction when watching a scary movie fall in the practical empathy stage. They feel scared or feel others’ pain firmly within themselves when seeing others scared or in pain. Another type is cognitive empathy. It is the ability to understand the emotions of others.
A good example is a psychologist who understands the client’s emotions rationally but does not necessarily share the client’s feelings in a visceral sense. Finally, there’s emotional regulation. This refers to the ability to regulate one’s emotions. For example, surgeons need to control their emotions when operating on a patient.
There are many ways to connect and understand other’s emotions and feelings; some are mentioned above. It is because empathy involves self-awareness, as well as the distinction between the self and the other. In that sense, it is different from mimicry or imitation. Animals show some signs of empathy for each other, but unlike humans, they mimic or emotional contagion to another animal who might be in pain without self-awareness. It is not empathy but their instinct that led them to such behaviour.
Empathy is also different from sympathy, which involves feeling concern for another person’s suffering and a desire to help. Many researchers claim that psychopaths don’t empathise. However, this is not always the case. Psychopathy is enabled by good cognitive empathic abilities where you need to understand what your victim is feeling when torturing them. What psychopaths typically lack is sympathy. They know the other person is suffering, but they just don’t care.
Why do we need Empathy in our lives?
Empathy is crucial because it helps us understand how others are feeling to respond appropriately to the situation. It is typically associated with social behaviour, and there is lots of research showing that greater empathy leads to more helping behaviour. However, this is not always the case. Compassion can also inhibit social action or even lead to amoral behaviour. For example, someone who sees a car accident and is overwhelmed by emotions witnessing the victim in severe pain might be less likely to help that person.
Similarly, strong empathetic feelings for members of our own family or our own social or racial group might lead to hate or aggression towards those we see as a threat. Think about a mother or father protecting their baby or a nationalist safeguarding their country.
People who are good at reading others’ emotions, such as manipulators, fortune-tellers or psychics, might also use their excellent, empathetic skills for their own benefit by deceiving others. Research suggests that we typically feel more empathy for members of our own group, such as those from our ethnic group. For example, one study scanned the brains of Chinese and Caucasian participants while they watched videos of members of their own ethnic group in pain. It’s observed that a brain area called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is often active when we see others in pain, was less active when participants saw members of ethnic groups different from their own in misery. Some studies suggest that the brain areas involved in rewarding others were more active when people rewarded members of their own group. Still, areas involved in harming others were equally functional for both groups.
Human’s empathetic brain has evolved to be highly adaptive to different types of situations. Having empathy is very useful as it often helps to understand others so we can help or deceive them, but sometimes we also need to switch off our empathetic feelings to protect our own lives and those of others.