I feel ya, I think? – the science of empathy

Mind the Gap - a Railway Photo. Image by Laura Beasley (CC BY 2.0)


Picture the scene: your best friend flies into their room and hastily starts up their laptop, donning a panicked look. Later, you find out that they forgot to submit an assignment. But, before we’re told this, we know that they’re stressed, upset, maybe angry. How do we know this? Well, that’s where empathy comes in.

Empathy is the process of understanding what another feels, and the process of how this works is really rather interesting. Simplistically, empathy can be split into two components: affective and cognitive.

Affective empathy is immediate – as soon as you see someone, you “catch” their emotions and feel as they feel. This is unconscious and is accompanied by a physiological matching of our bodies. For example, stressed people often have high levels of the hormone cortisol in their blood, which puts their body into ´stress mode´. Interestingly, a person observing this stressed individual can also show this increase in cortisol and feels, albeit diminished, second-hand stress.

Conversely, cognitive empathy comes later and involves more complex brain processes. This is where our brains analyse the person’s situation and coping abilities, as well how we think we’d react in the same situation and combine these to predict how the other may feel.

While the latter depends largely on our perception of the person and their situation, the processes underlying the former are more elusive. One prominent theory suggests that we constantly mimic the facial expressions of those around us[1]. Then, in a somewhat backward fashion, our brains analyse our facial expressions to indicate how we feel, activating the brain areas corresponding to the expressed emotion. This results in us effectively “catching” the emotions of those around us.

Additionally, there are several other cues used when judging another’s emotions. Namely, changes in body language and vocal prosody and tone arise with emotion-induced physiological changes e.g., cortisol release, and so provide us with information on that person’s physiological and thus emotional state.

However, although humans are highly empathic, we’re not perfect. In the words of Thomas Nagel, from his book What Is It Like to Be a Bat, as much as we can try to understand another’s point of view — in his example, a bat’s — it remains impossible “to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat”. That is to say that although we can make a fairly educated guess as to what another feels, one would be wise to ‘mind the gap’ between the biased projection of our own perception and the true emotional state of others.

[1] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02699931.2020.1815655


Copy-edited by Rachel Shannon



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1 Response

  1. Eleanor says:

    Really fascinating, well done!

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