Mind-Body Health

5 Scientific Explanations of Empathy and Empaths

5 Scientific Explanations of Empathy and Empaths
Empathy is the medicine the world needs now. Empathy is when you reach your heart out to others and put yourself in their shoes. Being an empath, however, goes even farther. Empaths are people who are high on the empathic spectrum and actually feel what is happening in others in their own bodies. As a result, empaths can have incredible compassion for people, but they often get exhausted from feeling “too much”—unless they develop strategies to safeguard their sensitivities and develop healthy boundaries.

There are some intriguing scientific explanations of empathy and empaths. They will help you more deeply understand the power of empathy so you can use and honor it in your life.

1. The Mirror Neuron System

Researchers have discovered 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. Because empaths are thought to have hyper-responsive mirror neurons, they deeply resonate with other people’s feelings. How does this occur? Mirror neurons are triggered by outside events. For example:

  • Your spouse gets hurt, you feel hurt, too.
  • Your child is crying; you feel sad, too.
  • Your friend is happy; you feel happy, too.
In contrast, psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists are thought to be empathy deficient. This means they lack the ability to feel empathy like other people do. Beware of these people because they are incapable of unconditional love.

2. Electromagnetic Fields

The second finding is based on the fact that both the brain and the heart generate electromagnetic fields. According to the HeartMath Institute, these fields transmit information about people’s thoughts and emotions. Empaths may be particularly sensitive to this input and tend to become overwhelmed by it. Similarly, empaths often have stronger physical and emotional responses to changes in the electromagnetic fields of the earth and sun. Empaths know well that what happens to the earth and sun affects your state of mind and energy.

3. Emotional Contagion

The third finding that enhances the understanding of empaths is the phenomena of emotional contagion. Research has shown that many people pick up the emotions of those around them. For instance:

  • One crying infant will set off a wave of crying in a hospital ward.
  • One person loudly expressing anxiety in the workplace can spread it to other workers.
People commonly catch other people’s feelings in groups. A New York Times article described this ability to synchronize moods with others as crucial for good relationships. What is the lesson for empaths? Choose positive people in your life so you’re not brought down by negativity. Or, if, say a friend is going through a hard time, take special precautions to ground and center yourself.

4. Increased Dopamine Sensitivity

The fourth finding involves dopamine, a neurotransmitter that increases the activity of neurons and is associated with the pleasure response. Research has shown that introverted empaths tend to have a higher sensitivity to dopamine than extroverts. Basically, you need less dopamine to feel happy.

That could explain why empaths are more content with alone time, reading, and meditation, and need less external stimulation from parties and other large social gatherings. In contrast, extroverts crave the dopamine rush from lively events. In fact, they can’t get enough of it.

5. Synesthesia

The fifth finding is the extraordinary state called mirror-touch synesthesia. Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which two different senses are paired in the brain. For instance, you see colors when you hear a piece of music or you taste words. Famous synesthetics include scientist Isaac Newton, musician Billy Joel, and violinist Itzhak Perlman. However, with mirror-touch synesthesia, people can actually feel the emotions and sensations of others in their own bodies as if they are experiencing these things themselves. This is a wonderful neurological explanation of an empath’s experience.

The Dalai Lama says, “Empathy is the most precious human quality.” During stressful times, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Even so, empathy is the quality that will get you through. It enables you to respect others, even if you disagree. Empathy doesn’t make you a sentimental softy without discernment. It allows you to keep your heart open to foster tolerance and understanding. It might not always be effective in getting through to people and creating peace, but it’s the best chance there is.

*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.