What Exactly is Empathy? (Part 1)

After writing my first article sharing on empathy (Learning Empathy: Why Do We Need It?)  , I received with interest and gratitude a few warm replies on the interest at understanding about empathy from the different perspectives. Therefore I would like to draw from my different learning experiences to give a summary on how I perceive the empathy concept.
Empathy, in general understanding, is the experience of one to understand another person from their perspective. When I was still a layman yet to enter the psychological academia, I thought empathy as simply “a feeling” I can control about. Yet such broad sense holds much blurriness – how to define one having empathy? How to determine more/less empathy? Can empathy be enhanced?

For deepening interpretation, different research perspectives attempt to rationalize empathy’s functional role in their own “languages”.
1. Empathy is an Innate Developing Cognitive Function.
“Cognition is the mental processing of a human being which involves the information processing – the working memory (conscious mind functioning), language comprehension and production, reasoning, problem solving and decision making, etc.”

The first time I learnt about “Empathy” was during my psychology education, when the developmental psychology lecturer introduced the theoretical concept of “Theory of Mind”, in which empathy is a cognitive function to enable children to understand that others may have beliefs, knowledge, and desires etc. as different from self’s own by the age of four; then social and other experiences help shape the ability. The child with no “theory of mind” might be likely to have autism – inability to perceive the others’ world.
In another psychological field of cognitive psychology, I was introduced to one notable theory of the empathy process series, the three-step simulation process (Gilbert et al., 2002), which consists “first, imagined future events (“mental proxies”); second, hedonic reactions to these imaginings; and third, “temporal corrections” that adjust for the target events’ temporal location.” (cited in Goldman and Shanton; p. 8)  As I type out such stepping process now, I cannot help but wonder whether such cited jargon is clear for the non-psychology learners. I decide to re-interpret the process as followed:
a) We imagine/predict the scenes of how the person we are thinking about experience the happenings.
b) We relate/simulate our reactions in our minds to those imagining scenes.
c) Our adjustment of putting ourselves in the person who see what we do, feel and believe.

Personal Note
As an “infant” psychology learner that time, I was puzzled and fascinated at same time to learn “professional” research direction on conceptualizing empathy as a pure mentalizing process determined in the logical and rational way.


2. The Root of Empathy is the Neural Activation.
Later as I advanced my psychology learning in the social neuroscience field, I learnt that the more recent scientific research development shifted from the pure intellectual function, to the multi-functional cognitive and affective facets with the basis of brain activities. Our brains actually consist of a specific neuron, known as mirror neuron, to serve the function of empathy (2). Across the scientific development, the academics have developed the arguably scientifically evidential methods of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to illustrate the human neural activities of empathic actions in terms of the computing data as the existence evidence of empathy (3).
Personal Note
With the accumulative theoretical research, the seemingly convincing knowledge, I try to picture on my mind the concept of empathy. I find myself unsatisfied with the understanding that empathy is merely the scientific postulation of neural activities.

I realize I am left with more questions –
How do we define the “innateness” and “learning” nature of empathy?
How do the perceptive experiences act as role of shaping our growing empathy ability – what levels, and what kind of systematic mental organization?
How does the mental system explain the unpredictable feelings, the empathic or un-empathic acts?

Another doubt remains on my mind, as I am also aware that much of what I have written on the theoretical empathy may not be easily digested by many. I imagine myself speaking to a layman about empathy,
“Empathy is an innate ability with biological evidence… There is this mirror neuron in your brain…so you do have empathy, and how you enhance empathy is based on your experience and perception…”
At this point it seems I may have spoken a great deal about empathy, yet at same time I feel there is not anything relevant I have given to the people. The experience of one’s empathy is closely embedded in their daily living and interactions. I realize that to share with others on empathy, the most natural way for me is to speak the “daily life language” on empathy.
In my further psychotherapy training, I found the therapeutic notion which adds subjectivity and personalization elements of empathy to help richen the whole understanding…



(1) The discovery of mirror neurons became a breakthrough research perspective on empathy, as scientists proposed from the neural studies with the Monkeys that there exists a specific neuron, as mirror neurons, which are activated during “perceiving others’ action performing” and the “active behavior conducting”, as well as the generation of the associated automatic and somatic responses, hence the assumption of mirror neuron’s specific role as in charge of empathy.


(2) It was assumed that when one perceives another person’s emotions, for instance, pain and disgust, then it would support the logical assumption of the mirror neuron’s coupling function, that the recorded perceiving fMRI data would match with the neural activities of one under the same emotions himself/herself.

However, it was the animal research which made such conclusive implication through the studies on monkeys, in which researchers discovered the certain neurons, known as mirror neurons, which have the specific functions of empathy via the “perception – Action coupling” mechanism. It was suggested that such neurons (mirror neurons) were activated at both times of monkeys watching another perform an action, and themselves performing it, together with the generation of the associated autonomic and somatic responses.


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