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Updated: Jun 29, 2021

Author: Sandhya Basu

Empathy is a broad concept that includes the cognitive and emotional reactions of individuals. For example, seeing an old lady carry heavy bags, Varun thought that the lady must be struggling with the bags and felt bad for her. He then decided to help the old lady. ‘Thought’ is the cognitive reaction and ‘felt’ is the emotional reaction. Both of these reactions are necessary for developing empathy.

Scientifically speaking, empathy is our ability to recognize and comprehend other people’s thoughts and feelings. It helps us interact with others and develop strong social bonds. All humans are social animals. We connect with people through various communication techniques, including non-verbal gestures. However, most of us also connect with others through empathy. It can be referred to as a superpower that humans use to know and feel what others are going through. Imagine a world without empathy; we would interact with each other but remain clueless about others’ feelings! Empathy is what makes us humans.

Some researchers state that empathy is a natural occurrence. While others say, that empathy is acquired through experiences. However, the recent findings show early signs of empathy in infants that steadily develop through childhood and adolescence phases. The development of these early signs can be explained from an evolutionary perspective.

Evolutionary researchers suggest that even though empathy helps us connect with other beings, it is developed to detect danger in our environment. People notice any sort of trouble by framing a mental model of other people’s intent. This could explain why sometimes we feel insecure or uncomfortable without any reason.

Developing empathy is an important aspect of building compassionate relations with others. Empathy is a concept that goes beyond an individual’s personal space. A mother empathizes with her child, naturally, and knows what the child feels. A best friend ‘gets the feeling’ that their friend is sad. Professionally also, empathy forms the building block for various therapeutic practices. Every mental health professional, particularly, needs to develop and exercise empathy regularly.

In technical terms, empathy can be categorized into two types:

1. Emotional empathy, that consists of three main components-

I. Feel the same emotion as another individual. For example, a mother felt the son’s pain when he could not study in his dream college.

II. Feeling one’s distress while perceiving another person’s situation. For example, Ms X felt extremely distressed when her best friend, Ms Y, lost her sister. This is a case of ‘I know her pain because I went through the same thing.’

III. Feeling compassion for another person. For instance, Raj felt terrible when his brother Rahul failed in his exams.

2. Cognitive empathy, which refers to the perception and understanding of other’s emotions. A person with high cognitive empathy will know what the other person is thinking, including emotions. This type of empathy is more like a skill than a human occurrence.

If empathy is a human occurrence, then why are some people more empathetic than others? Are they born with a brain that is configured to be more empathetic? Let’s find out!

A part of our brain called the right supramarginal gyrus helps us differentiate our emotions from other people--playing a strong role in empathy and compassion. Another biological explanation is the role of mirror neurons. These neurons start firing when we observe and experience emotions around us. Further, the medial prefrontal cortex (known for dealing with higher-level thoughts) gets activated when we think about ourselves and others.

Can we develop empathy over time? Of course! Our brains are malleable in nature. Our daily choices in terms of our behaviour and thinking can make considerable differences in the way our brains are wired. All we need is to practice putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Empathy has both environmental and genetic influences. Our social and cultural backgrounds additionally determine our empathy levels. However, experts suggest that we can improve our empathy levels if we follow the following activities:

Identifying your own feelings: this helps in developing emotional intelligence. Once you start identifying your feelings (I am frustrated today because I was not able to finish my daily work targets), you will be able to perceive other people’s feelings as well.

Come out of your usual environment: try to meet new people, or be part of a multicultural environment, to acknowledge and appreciate people’s differences.

Get feedback: ask for feedback regarding your relationships with your family, friends, and colleagues.

Read and try to relate to the stories: if you are a reader, you must try this exercise! Read stories exploring relationships and emotions. Try to identify with the characters and feel their emotions.

Test your personal biases: As humans, we all have certain biases that interfere with our ability to empathize. Identify these biases and work towards eliminating them.

Specific interventions like meditation and behavioural therapies increase empathy levels in individuals. Brighter Minds is also one such intervention program that improves observation levels, along with cognitive functions among people. A healthy and active mind configures our brains to perceive, understand, and reflect better on other people’s emotions and thoughts.

Thus, even though empathy is an innate condition, we can develop our empathetic feelings to make this world a much better place for us and future generations. As Carl Rogers once said, “We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.


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