The science behind how empathy works is fascinating. Empathy is when we can emotionally sense what others feel, and put ourselves in their place. However, the experience of being empathic can go much further. Empaths high on the empathic spectrum, can actually feel what is happening with others in others in their own bodies. As a result, empaths can be incredibly compassionate for others. However, they often become exhausted from feeling “too much”. Consequently, they must develop strategies to develop healthy boundaries and protect their sensitivity.
In the book, “The Empath’s Survival Guide” there are several interesting, scientific explanations of empathy, and empaths. This can help us more fully understand the power of empathy, so we can use it in our own lives.
Science of Empathy and the Mirror Neuron System
Research has discovered a special group of brain cells, responsible for compassion. These cells enable us to mirror emotions. In other words, to share another’s pain, fear, or joy. It’s theorized that empaths have very responsive mirror neurons. As a result, they deeply resonate with other people’s feelings.
How does this work? Mirror neurons are triggered by events outside ourselves. For example, our friend gets hurt, and we feel hurt too. A child is crying, and we feel sad too. Our significant other feel happy, and we feel happy too.
In contrast, sociopaths, psychopaths, and narcissists are thought to have what is called an “empathy deficient disorder.” Consequently, they lack the ability to feel empathy like other’s do. This may be caused by a deficient mirror neuron system. While we can have compassion for these people, we must be aware of the dangers of getting too involved. Becoming entangled with a sociopath or a psychopath is not only emotionally dangerous, but it can also become physically dangerous.
Both the heart and the brain generate electromagnetic fields. According to the HeartMath Institute, these electromagnetic fields can transmit information about thoughts and emotions. In fact, we can have a strong physical and emotional response to changes in the electromagnetic field of the earth and sun. Empaths could be very sensitive to these fields, and could tend to become overwhelmed.
A scientific finding concerning empaths is the phenomena of emotional contagion. For example, one crying baby can set off a wave of crying babies in a maternity ward. One person experiencing fear can spread it to others around them. It’s most common to catch other people’s feelings in a group. This ability to synchronize moods, is in fact, important for developing good relationships. What is the lesson for empaths? They must choose positive relationships, so they’re not brought down by negativity.
If, for example, your friend is having a hard time, an empath must take precautions to ground and center themselves. There are important strategies you must learn, to protect yourself from the unhappy and negative emotions of others.
Increased Dopamine Sensitivity
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that increases the activity of neurons; it’s associated with the pleasure response. Researchers found that introverted empaths often have a higher sensitivity to dopamine than extroverts. Essentially, they need less dopamine to be happy. This could explain why introverts are happier with alone time. They find pleasure in reading and meditation, and require less external stimulation from large social gatherings. In contrast, extroverts need the dopamine high they get from parties and live events. Often, they can’t get enough dopamine.
Synesthesia is a unique neurological condition, in which two different senses pair up in the brain. For example, you hear music, and see colors, or you can taste words. Famous people with synesthesia include violinist Itzhak Perlman, Sir Isaac Newton, and Billy Joel. However, those with mirror-touch synesthesia, can actually feel the emotions of others in their own bodies, as if it were theirs. This neurological condition can explain the empath’s experience.
The Dali Lama said, “Empathy is the most precious human quality.” Getting overwhelmed during these stressful times is easy. But even so, we must remember empathy is a quality that will get us through the hard times. Empathy will help us to respect one another, even when we disagree. Remember, empathy does not need to make you a softy, with no discernment. In fact, it can help open your heart, and foster understanding and tolerance.