Empaths and Empathy Explained

Are empaths simply normal people with empathetic ability and observation skills? Can we do intense empathy in a healthy way?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Do you like to watch science fiction movies? If you do, you probably would be familiar with empaths. Even in real life, some people claim that they are empaths. Just like what the word tells us, an empath is an empathic human being. Empaths are able to understand and feel the emotions of people around them. Empathy is when we put ourselves in others’ shoes, but being an empath goes even further. Empaths are people who are high on the empathic spectrum. To some extent, their bodies can actually feel what is happening in others’. The question is, are empaths real?

As it turns out, there is indirect scientific evidence of empaths. Intense empathy isn’t supernatural. It’s an evolved form of intuition that may relate to a neurobiological difference between an empath and other individuals. In the article published in Journal of Patient Experience, “The Science of Empathy,” Helen Riess, MD mentions a novel study that showed that the expression, “I feel your pain,” is not a mere figure of speech. In this study, sixteen female volunteers who received painful electric shocks to their hands had brain scans performed while they’re in pain. The brain scans showed that while they received the shock, a “pain matrix” was activated in their brains. After they were told that their spouses were receiving similar shocks, the brain scans showed that a similar “pain matrix” was activated in the females’ brains. This research shows that empathy is not a mere soft skill, but a neurobiologically based competency, a hardwired capacity.

Researchers have discovered mirror neurons, a specialized group of brain cells that are responsible for compassion. These cells enable everyone to mirror emotions, to share another person’s pain, fear, or joy. They are triggered by outside events. When our friend is happy, we feel happy; when they’re sad, we feel sad, et cetera. Now, because empathy is a hardwired capacity, it makes sense that if the hardwired system has even a slight difference, it can change the whole outcome. Because more neurons may lead to more intense empathy, empaths are thought to have hyper-responsive mirror neurons. In contrast, psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists may have an under-active mirror neuron system that causes them to lack the ability to offer empathy as other people do.

There are certainly huge benefits of having intense empathy, but there are many significant struggles that come with it. People with intense empathy often get exhausted from feeling “too much” unless they develop abilities to control their empathy and not the other way around. Therefore, the empathetic ability must be carefully managed in order to prevent burnout, and this is why we should check what factors actually build empathy. To feel what others feel obviously requires emotional intelligence, and too many emotions can lead to burnout. In addition to that, sometimes it becomes difficult to differentiate one’s own emotions and others’ emotions which one feels. But to know exactly what others feel down to the details of their emotions requires a meticulous observation skill, and most likely, mere observing won’t be overwhelming. Simply observing people’s facial expressions, body gestures, eyes movements, and word choices don’t put much burden on anyone’s mental health, especially when they are trained to do it or they have done it for a long time.

So if we remove the emotional part of empathy, we are left with the cognitive part of it, which makes a wonderful life skill without the possibly destructive emotions. This is certainly one excellent way to “control” empathy. However, the problem with most people with intense empathy is that they are not aware of the line between the emotional and the cognitive sides of empathy. Once they are aware of it, they still need to exercise the skill of switching on and off the emotional part of empathy, and it probably takes a long time before one can master it. But once they do, the gift of intense empathy won’t ever feel like such a curse anymore, because, without the ability to control the emotional aspect of empathy, it does feel like a curse instead of a blessing sometimes.

This life skill is important to know and apply because although empathy does not guarantee peace but it seems like one of the best chances humanity has. Like what the Dalai Lama says, “empathy is the most precious human quality.”