Table of contents:

How empathy works scientifically
How empathy works scientifically

An excerpt from the book by primatologist and neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky “The Biology of Good and Evil. How Science Explains Our Actions”will help you understand the art of empathy.

How empathy works scientifically
How empathy works scientifically

Types of empathy

Empathy, sympathy, responsiveness, compassion, imitation, "infection" with an emotional state, "infection" with a sensorimotor state, understanding the point of view of other people, concern, pity … If you start with terminology, then immediately there will be squabbles over the definitions using which we describe, in what way do we resonate with the misfortunes of other people (this also includes the question of what the absence of such resonance means - joy from the misfortune of another or simply indifference).

So let's start, for lack of a better word, with a “primitive” version of responding to someone else's pain. This response represents a so-called "contamination" of a sensorimotor state: you see someone's hand being pricked with a needle, and a corresponding imaginary sensation arises in your sensory cortex, where signals from your own hand are coming. Perhaps this also activates the motor cortex, as a result of which your hand twitches involuntarily. Or you watch the performance of a tightrope walker, and at the same time your arms rise to the sides by themselves, maintaining balance. Or someone next comes in - and the muscles in your throat also begin to contract.

More explicitly, imitative motor skills can be observed with simple imitation. Or when "infected" with an emotional state - when a child begins to cry because another baby cried nearby, or when a person is completely captured by the riot of a raging crowd.

Types of compassion
Types of compassion

You can perceive someone else's inner state in different ways. You can feel sorry for the person who is in pain […]: such belittling pity means that you have classified this person in the category of high warmth / low competence. And everyone knows from everyday experience the meaning of the word "sympathy". ("Yes, I sympathize with your position, but …"). That is, in principle, you have some means to alleviate the suffering of the interlocutor, but you prefer to restrain them.

Further. We have words to indicate how much this resonance with someone else's state has to do with emotions, and how much it has to do with reason. In this sense, "empathy" means that you feel sorry for someone else's pain, but do not understand the pain. In contrast, "empathy" contains a cognitive component of understanding the reasons that caused someone's pain, puts us in the place of another person, we experience together.

There is also a difference in the way in which your own feelings are aligned with other people's sorrows. With an emotionally abstract form in the form of sympathy, we feel pity for the person, for the fact that he is in pain. But you can feel a more sore feeling, replacing, as if it is your own, your own pain. And there is, on the contrary, a more cognitively distant sensation - understanding how the sufferer perceives pain, but not you. The state "as if it is my personal pain" is fraught with such a sharpness of emotions that a person will first of all care how to cope with them, and only then he will remember the troubles of another, because of which he is so worried. […]

The emotional side of empathy

When you begin to delve into the essence of empathy, it turns out that all neurobiological pathways pass through the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). According to the results of experiments with neuroscanning, during which the subjects felt someone else's pain, this part of the frontal cortex turned out to be a prima donna of the neurobiology of empathy.

Given the well-known classical functions of the ACC in mammals, its association with empathy was unexpected. These functions are:

  • Processing information from internal organs … The brain receives sensory information not only from the outside, but also from the inside, from internal organs - muscles, a dry mouth, rebellious. If your heart is pounding and your emotions miraculously become sharper, thank the ACC. It literally turns the "gut feeling" into intuition, because this very "gut feeling" affects the work of the frontal cortex. And the main type of internal information that the ACC reacts to is pain.
  • Tracking conflicts … ACC responds to conflicting feelings when what is received does not coincide with what was expected. If, performing some action, you expect a certain result, but it is different, then the ACC is alarmed. In this case, the reaction of the PPK will be asymmetric: even if for a certain action you received three candies instead of the promised two, the PPK will cheer up in response. But if you get one, then the PPK will freak out like crazy. About PPK can be said in the words of Kevin Ochsner and his colleagues from Columbia University: "This is a wake-up call for all occasions when something goes wrong in the course of action." […]

Looking from this position, it seems that the PPK is mainly engaged in personal affairs, it is very interested in your own good. Therefore, the appearance of empathy in her kitchen is surprising. Nevertheless, according to the results of numerous studies, it turns out that no matter what pain you take (a prick of a finger, a sad face, the story of someone's misfortune is what causes empathy), the ACC is necessarily aroused. And even more - the more the PPC is aroused in the observer, the more suffering the person who causes empathy experiences. PPK plays a major role when you need to do something to alleviate the feelings of another. […]

"Oh, it hurts!" - this is the shortest way not to repeat mistakes, whatever they may be.

But it is even more useful, as is often the case, to notice the misfortunes of others: "He was in terrible pain, I better be careful not to do the same." PPK is among the most important tools when and how to avoid danger is taught through simple observation. The transition from "everything does not work out for him" to "I probably will not do this" requires a certain auxiliary step, something like an induced representation of "I": "I, like him, will not be delighted with such a situation." …

The emotional side of empathy
The emotional side of empathy

The rational side of empathy

[…] It becomes necessary to add causality and intentionality to the situation, and then additional cognitive circuits are connected: “Yeah, he has a terrible headache, and this is because he works on a farm where everything is pesticides … Or maybe they are with Did you have a good friend yesterday?”,“This man has AIDS, is he a drug addict? Or has he received an infected blood transfusion? " (in the latter case, the ACC is activated more strongly in humans).

This is roughly the line of thought of a chimpanzee going to console an innocent victim of aggression, not an aggressor. […] In children, a more pronounced cognitive activation profile appears at the age when they begin to distinguish between self-inflicted pain and pain caused by another person. According to Jean Deseti, who studied the issue, this suggests that "the activation of empathy in the early stages of information processing is moderated with another person." In other words, cognitive processes serve as a gatekeeper, deciding whether a particular misfortune is worthy of empathy.

Of course, the cognitive task will be the sensation of someone else's emotional pain - as less obvious than physical; there is a noticeably more active participation of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (PFC). Exactly the same happens when someone else's pain is observed not live, but abstractly - a dot lights up on the display when a person is pricked with a needle.

Resonance with someone else's pain also becomes a cognitive task when it comes to an experience that the person has never experienced.

“I guess I think I understand how upset this military leader is - he missed the chance to command the ethnic cleansing of the village; I had something similar when in kindergarten I blew the presidential elections for the “good deeds” club. " This requires a mental effort: "I think I understand …".

Thus, in one study, subjects discussed patients with neurological problems, while the participants in the discussion were not familiar with the type of neurological pain of these patients. In this case, the awakening of a sense of empathy required a stronger work of the frontal cortex than when discussing the pains he knew.

The rational side of empathy
The rational side of empathy

When we are asked to a person whom we do not love or morally condemn, then a real battle is played out in our head - after all, the pain of the hated not only does not activate the ACC, it also causes excitement in the mesolimbic reward system. Therefore, the task of putting yourself in their place and feeling their suffering (not in order to gloat) becomes a real cognitive test, not even remotely reminiscent of innate automatism.

And, probably, these neural pathways are most strongly activated when it is required to move from the state of "how I felt in his place" to the state of "how he now feels in his place." Therefore, if a person is asked to concentrate on the point of view of an outsider, then not only the temporo-parietal node (VTU) is activated, but also the frontal cortex, it brings down the command: "Stop thinking about yourself!"

[…] When it comes to empathy, there is absolutely no need to separate "reason" and "feelings", this is a contrived division. Both are necessary, "reason" and "feelings" balance each other, forming an unbroken continuum, and the hard work is done at the "intelligent" end when the differences between the sufferer and the observer initially obscure the similarities. […]

What does all this mean in practice

There is no guarantee that a state of empathy will lead to participation. The writer Leslie Jamison has captured one of the reasons quite brilliantly: “[Empathy] also carries a dangerous sense of fulfillment - if you feel something, then you do something. It is tempting to think that compassion for someone's pain is moral in itself. And the trouble with empathy is not at all that it makes you feel ugly, but that, on the contrary, you feel good and virtuous, and this, in turn, makes us see empathy as something self-sufficient, while it is only part of the process, its catalyst”.

In such a situation, the words "I feel your pain" become the modern equivalent of useless formal bureaucratic expressions like "I sympathize with your situation, but …". Moreover, they are so far from action that they do not even require the preposition "but", which in principle implies: "I cannot / will not do anything." If someone's suffering is recognized as reliable, then this only aggravates it; better try to ease it. […]

Everything is clear with the biological base. Here we have become witnesses of how a certain person suffers from pain. Suppose that before that we were asked to imagine ourselves in his place (an inside view). As a result, the amygdala, the ACC, and the islet zone are activated in us; and we also report increased levels and stress. And if you are asked to imagine not yourself in someone else's place, but the sensations of another person (a look from the outside), then the activation of these parts of the brain and the strength of experiences are reduced.

And the stronger the first attitude, the more likely that a person will try to reduce his own stress, will, so to speak, avert his eyes.

And this dichotomy of action / inaction is amazingly easy to predict. Let us put the observer in front of the one suffering from pain. If his, the observer's, heart rate accelerates - which is an indicator of anxiety, excitement of the amygdala - then he is unlikely to act in favor of the sufferer and is unlikely to commit a pro-social act. And for those who do such an act, the heart rate at the sight of the suffering of another will slow down; they can hear the needs of others, not just the pounding fever in their chests.

It turns out that if I begin to suffer myself at the sight of other people's suffering, then my first concern will be me, and not a real sufferer. And it will be so with any person. We've seen this before when we discussed what happens when cognitive load is increased - people behave less favorably towards outsiders. Likewise, if a person is hungry, then he is less inclined to generosity - why would I think about someone else's stomach, if my own stomach growls. And if a person is made to feel like an outcast, then he will become less compassionate and magnanimous. […]

In other words, empathy is more likely to lead to action if you distance yourself from the sufferer, increase the distance.

[…] Yes, we do not begin to act because we feel the pain of the suffering of another - in this scenario, the person would rather run away than help. Helpful detachment may seem like a good way - would it be nice and careful to make a balanced altruistic decision? But here an alarming circumstance awaits us: reflections will easily lead to the most simple and convenient conclusion - these are not my problems. Therefore, in committing a magnanimous act, neither a hot (limbic-regulated) heart nor cold reasoning of the frontal cortex will help. This requires internal skills brought to automatism: to write in a pot, ride a bicycle, tell the truth, help those in trouble.

Read more about empathy, as well as other features of our brain and behavior, in the book by Robert Sapolsky "The Biology of Good and Evil."

Empathy: The Biology of Good and Evil by Robert Sapolsky
Empathy: The Biology of Good and Evil by Robert Sapolsky